Doing the Work Together

By Danny Flannery • Sep 26, 2019

Mission Hill School, a Boston Public Pilot School, is entering an exciting new chapter as a Teacher-Powered School. After thirteen years with Ayla Gavins as principal, the school community has transitioned to a new leadership model with two Co-Teacher Leaders. After a thorough hiring process, the Governance Board selected Geralyn Bywater McLaughlin and Jenerra Williams as the Co-Teacher Leaders. Geralyn and Jenerra have both taught at Mission Hill for 18 years, and combined they have the 22 years of Mission Hill’s existence covered. Both are accomplished educators who have contributed their voices and efforts to educational issues across the country.

How has it felt so far to be in this new role within Mission Hill School?

Jenerra: Pretty good so far. I think I’ve definitely put on the leader “hat”, the leader mindset, and I’ve been listening differently… Just trying to be thoughtful about listening to everyone in a different way. In the district meetings I’ve felt comfortable; I didn’t have any “little fish in a big pond” feelings. I thought I would be feeling that way, but it’s just felt really comfortable.

Geralyn: Supported—supported by our school community, supported by the staff at the school, and then supported really by Central Office. I think that as a team, Jenerra and I are already starting to figure out how to help each other in the problem solving moments. I’ve really felt the benefit of having someone to talk things through with and strategize. I’m already like, “Whoo! This is good to have someone else to figure things out with.”

How did each of you come to the decision to apply for the Co-Teacher Leader position?

Jenerra: When Ayla said that she was thinking about leaving a few years ago, I started thinking about replacements… Then I just kind of put it out of my mind, thinking it would be [someone with a principal license], because I didn’t have that license. I never would’ve done it by myself, because it wasn’t something I ever aspired to or wanted to do. But when the idea came up that we could be co-teacher leaders, and not in that traditional Boston Public Schools principal role, it became more appealing. And, no one was really jumping at it when we had a meeting and Ayla asked, “Who’s interested?” It was like crickets. I was like, “Okay, now I really need to be interested because it can’t be a person from the outside; that’s not what’s best for the school.”

Geralyn: For me it started back when Deborah Meier was our principal. She really impressed that as many of us as possible should get our principal license. She said, “Even if you don’t think you’re going to be a principal, just go through this program, get your license; it’s going to make you a better teacher leader.” Fast forward, and Ayla came to me with this idea of co-teacher leaders, and it was super appealing because I liked the idea of staying within the Boston Teachers Union; that felt really right to me. When I started thinking about the co-teacher leader model, Jenerra popped into my head really quickly as someone who I could make a really good team with. We’ve worked on projects together before, and just thinking about her strengths and mine—Jenerra just came to my head really quickly.

Walk me through what the hiring process was like for the position?

Jenerra: We applied through BPS for the position, and then we had first-round interviews. Then the Governance Board asked us to submit a portfolio of lots of things: outside of Mission Hill things we had done, resumés, leadership stuff within Mission Hill we had done, a cover letter. Just a portfolio of who we are up to this point that included leadership work. After the Board interviewed us, then they gave an official recommendation for us to be the co-leaders. That was sent to the Superintendent, and then we had an interview with the Superintendent, who gave the final stamp.

Geralyn: One thing that I’ll add is that we were really doing the whole process together. Even over December break we were looking at each other’s resumés and critiquing those, and writing our cover letter together. We wrote one cover letter that we both signed and submitted. We asked Deborah Meier and Brian Straughter, who were both principals of Mission Hill, for [letters of recommendation] of us as a team as well as individuals. There was a long waiting period for the position to get posted, so when it was posted we sat side by side and did the application. We literally pushed the button on the two jobs at the same time so that our applications would go in one after the other. Part of our thinking all the way through was that our vision was to be doing the work together.

What are your thoughts about how outside testing pressures have affected Mission Hill—and how we should respond going forward?

In addition to her work at Mission Hill, Geralyn is also a co-director of Defending the Early Years, which works to push back against the push-down of academics into the early childhood years.

Geralyn: The outside pressures of the testing are real, and they aren’t going away—that much is true. What is clear to me more than ever is that in order to be able to stay in this game and fight for progressive education that we know is best for children, then we have to be able to play that game of doing well with the standardized tests. We can’t ignore them, so we’re working to get better at having those tests show what our kids really can do and know. When the tests aren’t showing what our kids can do and know, then we risk not being around to stay in the fight. But even as we’re working with students and teachers to do better on these standardized tests, we will also acknowledge that it’s a part of a systemically racist system of education. We’re not going to stop saying that, even as we’re trying to get better at this system.

Where do you think Mission Hill is in regard to racial equity—and what are your thoughts about the work we still have to do?

In addition to her work at Mission Hill, Jenerra is also a board member for IDEA (Institute for Democratic Education in America), which advocates for issues of race and equity within education.

Jenerra: I know that racial equity is at the top of our lists for children and families. [We began] this work many years ago, and we’ve always had someone on staff continue to bring it forward or hold it at the top of our priorities list. We’ve also always had families that are willing to engage in this conversation around race and equity for students and families. So in that regard, we are miles ahead of other schools, who are just now beginning to seriously think about that work, or think about it at all. As we move forward, I think we as a staff must continue to have a strong focus around it. It’s been a part of our instructional focus about math and in the past with our focus around boys of color, which is great. I’m excited about the district resources that we found out are available connected to this. I feel hopeful, actually, about the work. One of the things about the co-leadership is that Geralyn is so committed to this work, especially around White families and staff; that’s just exciting. She’ll be able to push this conversation from her end and I’ll be able to push it from my end and we’ll come together as a co-leadership to push it together in the middle. It is so exciting.

Kind of a sappy question, but what are you going to miss about being a full-time classroom teacher?

Jenerra: This is the hardest part about making the transition for me. I was talking to my son and I said, “This was my last day of teaching, it’s kind of sad,” and he said, “But you’ll still be at the school.” But it’s kind of like being a professional basketball player your whole career, and then you decide to be a coach. Yeah, you’re still going to be with the team, but the way you interact with players and the job itself is so different. So that’s kind of how it feels for me, and it’s bittersweet. I think the thing that I’ll miss the most is the “lightbulb” moments that you have with students, whether it’s an academic lightbulb or a social or emotional lightbulb—those moments when both of you realize, “Oh my God! It just happened! You just got it!” That’s a big one.

Geralyn: I agree about the small moments that represent the big breakthroughs, not being there to witness them. I think it’s connected to that close relationship and that classroom community. It’s such a special relationship that I won’t be a part of anymore—creating that tight knit classroom community. I think it’s a different relationship that you have with families and students than you’d have as a school leader.
Final question: What do you think is the importance of autonomous schools—like Mission Hill—within the larger educational landscape?

Jenerra: I think autonomous schools can be proof that teachers are competent to make decisions about the children that they teach and the schools that we teach in. We don’t need government, and the district, and the state to be dictating everything that we do. I think it’s also good to help teachers who haven’t yet come to that understanding to get there. When you are trusted with the responsibility to make decisions for your kids, then you become more confident in your ability to do that.

Geralyn: We’ve been talking a lot about our collective responsibility within our autonomous school: how to work as a team with the children at the center. We’re the ones who work closest with the children, so being an autonomous school helps us make decisions that impact the students that we’re with. Having that ability to make decisions when we know the children the best and having that collective responsibility to make sure that everyone is getting what they need makes teaching worthwhile, exciting, and rewarding.

Danny Flannery is a 1st/2nd grade teacher at Mission Hill School. He also works as a teacher-powered ambassador. Find Danny Flannery on Twitter at @teacherdanny216.