Early in 2002 Dr. Mattie Thomas, Chair of the English Department at my school, Alabama A&M University, walked into my office with a letter in her hand and asked me if she could close the door behind her. “Am I in trouble?” I asked her, half jokingly, and her smile assured me I was not. But I knew she had come to talk to me about some weighty matter.
Dr. Thomas explained that our site was eligible to apply for a reorganization grant “to support the transition in leadership.” I didn’t need to read further to guess what Dr. Thomas had come to talk to me about: she wanted me to be the new site director. After she had explained what the new responsibility would entail and told me she would give me one course release time, I accepted, but not without some trepidation. All I knew about the National Writing Project was from the invitational summer institute, which I had attended the previous summer. I had learned much from my peers at the institute; however, the experience had not prepared me for the new leadership role I would assume.
Fortunately, so I thought, I would rely on the experience of the co-director, whom I hoped would continue in her role. That was not to be. When I asked her if she would kindly continue serving as co-director, she declined, citing personal reasons. Luckily, Kathy Barclift, who like me had attended the 2001 summer institute as an advanced fellow, consented to fill the vacated position of co-director.
Together, we would figure out how to do things differently in order for our site to be eligible for full funding the following year and to be on its feet again. But what things would we have to do differently, and how would we have the assurance that we were doing them right? Beyond what we had observed and experienced in the summer institute, we did not have the vaguest idea about the NWP model of professional development and its philosophy of site leadership. That was to change a year later when I attended the NWP Directors Retreat.
The Directors Retreat to the Rescue
In June of 2003, in the third week of our first summer institute, I left Kathy and the fifteen participants—by far the highest number of participants we had ever had since 1995 when our site was founded—to go to the Directors Retreat, which was held in upstate New York. To my relief, I found at the retreat many colleagues who were in their first year as site directors and who also knew little about the NWP model of professional development.
To be sure, they, unlike me, had not inherited a site in reorganization, but they had questions similar to mine—questions about writing the annual report, recruiting participants for the summer institute, budgeting, and a host of other topics. Evidently, the Directors Retreat had been designed to address these questions.
In an ambiance that I have since recognized to be an essential aspect of the culture of the National Writing Project—the kind of atmosphere where colleagues get to know each other and feel comfortable around each other fast—the Directors Retreat Leadership Team methodically engaged us, both in general meetings and in small interest groups, in writing about and sharing our experiences with regard to the major components of a site’s work: the invitational summer institute, continuity, and inservice.
Two small interest groups had been particularly planned for site leaders like me: the new site leaders group, facilitated by Joye Alberts, NWP associate director for site development, and the site directors’ business meeting, facilitated by Mike Mathis, NWP director for grants and contracts. In the first meeting, not only did we share experiences as the new site leaders that we all were, we were also relieved to learn of the support networks in place, both at the regional level and at the national level. In the second meeting, not only did we learn how to budget grant monies to effectively support the work of our sites, we also discussed the regulations that govern how federal monies are to be spent.
But, in spite of all that I had learned, a question still lingered in my mind: How would I, with only one-fourth release time from my teaching responsibilities, effectively do the work of a site director? NWP founder Jim Gray’s concept of putting teachers at the center—a concept that was later explained thoroughly, both in theory and in practice—provided the answer.
Had Alabama A&M University Writing Project not been putting teachers at the center of the site’s work? I then knew what Kathy and I had to do differently. Upon completion of the summer institute, our new teacher-consultants would be put to work. My responsibility and Kathy’s, it became clear, would be to plan with them the work of the site and to provide them with the means to do the work.
Teachers at the Center in Action
As soon I got back to Huntsville, I suspended the schedule of the summer institute for one day and used the time to share with the fellows my experience at the Directors Retreat in general and Jim Gray’s concept of putting teachers at the center in particular. After I had explained to the fellows the major components of the work of a site, Kathy, Amanda Lowe (our technology liaison), and I engaged them in planning the work ahead.
Each of them identified their interests and strengths, and some made commitments to coordinate or facilitate some continuity programs and to be part of the 2004 summer institute leadership team. In the midst of a summer institute, fellows suddenly turned into teacher-leaders. Those who made commitments to facilitating continuity programs and to being part of the 2004 summer institute leadership team—Janet Stephens, Kimberly Stewart, Symmetris Gohanna, Sandra Shattuck, and Lela Carbin—joined me, Kathy, and Amanda to constitute the first-ever leadership team at the site.
When the summer institute ended, Janet began a study/writing group for teacher-consultants, and later, together with Kimberly and Lela, became part of the 2004 summer institute leadership team. In spring of 2004, Sandra coordinated an advanced institute, which featured Bonnie Roberts, a teacher and an award-winning poet. Symmetris, in addition to marketing and running the youth writing program in the summer of 2004, began editing our newsletter, Writing Matters, which she continues to do. And in August 2004, Sandra, who had just returned from an NWP professional writing retreat in Santa Fe, New Mexico, planned and facilitated our site’s first ever writing retreat, which has now become a sort of tradition.
Ever since that Directors Retreat in 2003, teacher-consultants have been involved in almost all aspects of the work of our site. To give leadership opportunities to as many teacher-consultants as possible, we decided last year to set up rotations on the leadership team. Today our leadership team has a mix of new teacher-leaders and veteran teacher-leaders, the former being mentored by the latter.