School superintendent Robert Avossa is on a quest to visit all 100 Fulton County schools within a year. He’s already been to 60, traversing a 75 mile swath of metro Atlanta, Georgia. His Staying Connected visits, held before or after school, are voluntary, but teachers flock to them. After all, it’s not a typical scenario to have the front line engaging with the top administrator. But it’s all part of Fulton’s multi-pronged approach to support and encourage teachers, and increase teacher morale along the way, which according to the 2012 MetLife Survey of the American Teacher, is at its lowest level in 25 years.

Fulton’s efforts emanate from the core belief that teachers are the most important, and the only way to ‘move the needle’ to improve student learning. Teachers are part of school governance councils, teacher advisory councils, the superintendent’s school visits, a teacher leadership forum, and awards programs, and are offered powerful technology tools, customized professional learning, and evaluations that focus on conversation and feedback. Fulton has also scored points with teachers with recent end of year bonuses, then a one-time 3% end of year payment when recent tight budget years precluded raises.

Dr. Avossa’s school visits start with a 20 to 30 minute State of the Schools talk, then segue into achievements of the district, and an opportunity to thank the teachers and show early returns on the strategic plan. Then time for a frank Q&A. This is direct access to the chief officer, with a chance to leave a sticky note on the wall, or email concerns to the superintendent’s personal email address. Feedback is shared with the Cabinet, which helps top administrators stay in tune with the teachers.

“I have never known a superintendent to take as much time and interest with teachers as he has,” says Jennie Scott, a fourth grade teacher and Fulton’s Teacher of the Year. “That, more than anything else, is raising morale.  My co-workers and I know that we have a voice.  We know that the expectations are very high, but our concerns and needs will be considered.”

“We will start the visits all over again when we’re done,” says Avossa. “We will constantly be striving to connect, maybe in a different form or venue, but it will continue to be a priority to have conversations with employees. Many teachers don’t understand how we go from a strategic vision to the classroom. These visits make them better able to connect the dots and lessen the stress. That’s what keeps teachers going.”

The district offers numerous leadership opportunities for teachers, as well. The superintendent’s Teacher Advisory Council is made up of a teacher representative from each school, meeting several times a year. This is a forum not only to interact with teachers, but also get a pulse on a large organization. “At these meetings we get true face-to-face emotion that we don’t get from a suggestion box or online comment,” says Avossa.

Each school in Fulton’s charter system has a Governance Council which includes up to three teachers. As part of the council teachers have a voice in running the school, creating the strategic plan, and planning the budget. “Being a charter school system has brought a shift from top-down to grass roots leadership,” says Scott Muri, deputy superintendent, academics, giving teachers new power to request curriculum flexibility and waivers that affect their classrooms. “For example, a STEM-focused elementary school applied for a waiver from traditional art classes to offer computer graphics art. This request came from educators at the school and traveled to the central office.  We have all been supportive, and now it’s on its way towards approval.”

Teachers also have a variety of mobile technology and digital tools available in the classroom so they can search and find great digital content and resources, not limited to those resources purchased centrally. And they can access the web faster and quicker than ever before, thanks to a huge upgrade in infrastructure. “It is empowering to tell your teachers that they can bring their own device and access our digital resources,” says Muri.

Fulton wants to connect with teachers as part of their evaluations and compensation reform, too. “We’ve reshaped performance evaluation into growth opportunities, and managing talent,” says Ron Wade, Fulton’s chief talent officer. “It used to be all about timelines and observations and checking boxes. Now performance management is helping us understand where the most effective people are and aren’t, and where growth support is needed. To be effective we must ask a teacher, ‘what do you need?’ then suggest professional development that fits. We want conversations to be ongoing, with suggestions and feedback part of the fabric.”

As a charter system, Fulton has a waiver allowing it to create its own compensation system, and wants teachers to be part of the development process. “We’ve learned some lessons watching other school systems attempt compensation reform,” says Ken Zeff, chief strategy and innovation officer. “Teachers from every school in the District are meeting as part of a leadership forum to review various plans from the country, develop guiding principles for Fulton County’s plan, share those ideas at their schools, and bring back teacher reactions.  Teachers at Fulton County are critical members of the design team.  Our reform model is to pay the best teachers to do more, where they can affect more kids, such as lead professional development, write curriculum, work in our harder to serve environments, or teach summer school.  We hope that will carry the message to teachers that it’s not all about testing results, it’s about what you contribute.”

Fulton County offers numerous opportunities for professional development for anyone who is willing to participate.  “I  completed a 2-year math and science program through a collaboration with Fulton County and Georgia Tech that likely resulted in my nomination for teacher of the year,” says teacher Jennie Scott. “The program completely prepared me to teach Common Core math and developed my teaching skills so I could be a leader in math and science at my school.  Even more impressive is that I was paid to participate in that program.  Last year when we implemented Common Core, the County invited teacher leaders at each building to receive training and then return to our school to redeliver the training.  The opportunities to learn, grow and lead truly are endless.”

Last year, the district implemented Face of Fulton, which is a monthly nomination and award. Once a month each school nominates a teacher who demonstrates leadership qualities, and the county chooses one teacher to win the overall award.  Ms. Scott won the Face of Fulton last September and as a result won $50 and was able to take her family to an Atlanta Hawk’s basketball game.  “I really enjoyed being able to take my husband and kids out for a special night, especially knowing that it was a result of my hard work. In the midst of constant public criticism, it is really refreshing to focus on the talent that our school and district has.”

Reflecting on her Teacher of the Year award, Ms. Scott expresses the message Fulton County hopes reverberates with all 6,800 of its teachers, “The Teacher of the Year application process left me with the impression that I am truly a professional in a very important field. The very high standards that Fulton County sets make me feel more valued as well as more valuable. I constantly get the impression that only the best can work for Fulton County and I truly believe I am part of an elite school system.”

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