Feature stories

Taking the lead

Shaping a school through a teacher’s voice

Leslie Lehrman, a master teacher at Fordham Leadership Academy, works with studeMiller PhotographyLeslie Lehrman, a master teacher at Fordham Leadership Academy, works with students to revise their final essays. “Sometimes it’s about helping them overcome their own lack of confidence and letting go of their hands,” she says.

Kelly Evans (left) and Xiomara Pescador (second from right), both English as a NMiller PhotographyKelly Evans (left) and Xiomara Pescador (second from right), both English as a New Language teachers, join Lehrman in a meeting with Steve Vasquez, a DOE teacher leader coach. When English teacher Leslie Lehrman stepped into the role of master teacher in 2014, she did so out of a desire to take on a more formal leadership role in her school, Lehman HS in the Bronx.

Two years later, she was offered the chance to take on a greater challenge: Join a collaborative effort to transform Fordham Leadership Academy for Business and Technology, a Renewal School.

Lehrman rose to the occasion. “I have the opportunity to bring the voice of a teacher to the administration and work with others to make decisions that shape the school,” she says.

The master teacher role, along with the roles of model teacher and peer collaborative teacher, was created in the 2014 UFT-DOE contract to offer opportunities for highly skilled educators to expand their reach beyond the classroom.

At Fordham Leadership, Lehrman works with a model teacher and a peer collaborative teacher to share best practices with the staff. Her team is part of a broader Department of Education initiative, introduced in 2015, to bring teacher leaders to struggling schools in the Renewal School Program.

“I emphasize that I’m in a supportive, non-evaluative role to give constructive feedback,” she says. “It’s really a mutual conversation driven by the teacher, a really collegial, positive experience.”

Lehrman works to help newer teachers unpack curriculum and plan lessons. She also observes their teaching and invites others into her own classroom so she can model lessons.

“It’s an open relationship and a no-pressure situation — a mutual conversation driven by a teacher who’s reaching out when they want support,” she says.

Lehrman works with a student.Miller PhotographyLehrman works with a student.

Lehrman leads inquiry meetings for her fellow English teachers. She also takes the lead on the school’s Professional Learning Committee, which develops professional learning sessions for staff, and sits on the school’s inquiry and instructional cabinets with administrators.

“Working with teachers and having an impact on their practice also has an impact on students, so I’m able to reach even more of them,” she says.

One of the strategies Lehrman has brought to the school is a writing structure for organizing paragraphs that she’s abbreviated TIEPD (topic, introduction, evidence, paraphrase, discussion). In working with the school’s two other teacher leaders, Lehrman has been able to help other teachers implement it in their own classes so students receive the same guidance throughout the school day.

“She’s brought new strategies to the school that have helped create an engaging environment,” says Xiomara Pescador, an English as a New Language teacher and a peer collaborative teacher who has been at Fordham for six years.

Along with strategies and best practices, Lehrman has brought a down-to-earth attitude to Fordham Leadership that endears her to students. As she moves through the hallway, she gazes piercingly up at students who tower over her and doles out warm smiles alongside firm reminders to attend makeup sessions for her class.

“She understands me,” says Nichelle, a junior. “I can come to her about something that’s not related to class. She’s not all about the work.”

As her students labor over their final essays, she gently ribs students whose essays aren’t specific enough (“Who’s ‘she’? Lady Macbeth? So say Lady Macbeth!”) and expertly crafts “compliment sandwiches” to deliver constructive criticism.

Each of her classes has a wide range of student abilities. Rather than creating different assignments, Lehrman has worked to create a system of scaffolds and extensions to support students with different needs. Students might begin by using a sentence starter to help them answer a question, for example, and then learn how to annotate the question themselves so they no longer need the prompt.

Emily Hauptman, a teaching apprentice whom Lehrman has mentored this year through the Americorps nonprofit Blue Engine, says that observing Lehrman has been “a huge lesson in how to scaffold and differentiate.”

“I’ve learned ways to ask questions to guide students who need help and how to push students who might need an extension,” she says.

It’s all part of Lehrman’s efforts to support her colleagues and support students in finding the tools they need to succeed.

“If students feel overwhelmed, giving them an entry opens up a world of opportunity,” she says. “My role is to help teachers find a way to do that.”

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