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Developing Urban Teacher Leaders Together: The Mort Teacher Leader Academy

The views expressed in this post do not necessarily reflect the views of AACTE.

Teacher education is entering an exciting era. Scholars and practitioners alike are calling for teachers to be educated differently (AACTE, 2010; CCSSO, 2015; NCATE, 2010), which means that the way we prepare teachers and the way we support teachers’ ongoing professional development must change. In lieu of one-size-fits-all, “sit and get” training sessions, teachers’ professional development must be ongoing, differentiated, sustained, and rooted in issues that they face on a daily basis. Such is the experience for the teachers of Mort Elementary School in Hillsborough County Public Schools (the 8th largest school district in the United States) who participate in the Mort Teacher Leader Academy (MTLA).

Mort Elementary School is a large urban school located within five miles of the University of South Florida. The school is a Title 1, Renaissance School, indicating that over 90% of the 900+ students are eligible for free and reduced-price lunch. The Florida Department of Education labels Mort as an “F” school, which brings with it many challenges. Teachers face tremendous stress as they work under the conditions of high-stakes accountability.

MTLA is a clinically centered model of teacher leader preparation, meaning the school community is the center for teacher learning. In this model, the PK-12 classroom actually becomes the university classroom. The issues and tensions of teaching and leading in a “failing” urban school become the curriculum for understanding conceptual underpinnings of teacher leadership and a meaningful curriculum for a graduate certificate. MTLA’s purpose is to develop a cadre of teacher leaders who are able to systematically study their own practice, effectively coach in-service and preservice teachers, and facilitate meaningful job-embedded professional learning as they become a facilitator of change for the improvement of student learning. For their professional development, the teachers enroll in a 2-year, four-course sequence of teacher leadership courses that are aligned to the National Teacher Leadership Standards. Following the completion of the certificate, they can choose to continue in the program by enrolling in a Master’s in Elementary Education at the University of South Florida.

MTLA is not a “typical” graduate program. All courses are taught on site at Mort Elementary School and are tailored to meet aspects of Mort’s School Improvement Plan. Course syllabi, course times and dates, and weekly classes are all collaborative efforts among the professor-in-residence, Mort’s Teacher Leader, and the principal. These elements provide a rich learning experience for mentoring (and being mentored) regarding the contextual intricacies that exist when teaching in a clinically centered program, and they help ensure that the teachers gain not only the knowledge they need but also the skills to enact teacher leadership.

By marrying the desires of a principal’s wishes to better meet the needs of his staff with a university professor’s expertise in differentiated professional development, MTLA has become an exemplar of meaningful, job-embedded professional development. Together, we are raising the next generation of urban teacher leaders who have the knowledge, skills, and dispositions to become catalysts for change.

For more information, contact Professor-in-Residence Rebecca West Burns at rebeccaburns@usf.edu or www.rebeccawestburns.com or Principal Woodland Johnson at woodland.johnson@sdhc.k12.fl.us. MTLA is made possible through the support of the David C. Anchin Center and through the collaboration, partnership, and vision of the University of South Florida College of Education and Hillsborough County Public Schools.


Rebecca West Burns is assistant professor of elementary education at the University of South Florida. Woodland Johnson is principal of Mort Elementary School in Hillsborough County Public Schools. Debbie Mills is an elementary supervisor/generalist for Hillsborough County Public Schools. Diane Yendol-Hoppey is associate dean for educator preparation and partnerships at the University of South Florida.


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Debbie Mills

Hillsborough County Public Schools

Diane Yendol-Hoppey

University of South Florida

Rebecca West Burns

University of South Florida

Woodland Johnson

Mort Elementary School

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