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Perspective | Starfish group seeks to create teacher leadership model

At the Watson College of Education’s (WCE) second annual Innovation Conference in May, participants worked in teams to identify challenges, design solutions, and pitch ideas that could lead to enhanced innovation in North Carolina schools. A group called “Team Starfish” delivered the winning pitch with a focus on the challenge of teacher leadership and ways to engage and empower teachers.

Team members re-convened after the conference to discuss ways to make their vision a reality. The result is a new “Starfish Group” comprised of education leaders that meet monthly.

Courtesy of the Watson College of Education

“The Starfish Group is using design thinking to develop a comprehensive model of teacher leadership,” said WCE Professor Robert Smith. “By developing a model of teacher leadership, the group seeks to address combined challenges of teacher recruitment and retention. They also hope to leverage the talent of teachers to support innovation in schools.”

The group’s name is derived from a leadership analogy that Seth Brown, director of educator support and leadership development at Pitt County Schools, shared with the team. He explained that if a starfish loses a limb, the remaining parts can survive and regenerate, creating more starfish. He compared this to leaders who build a culture that grows and nurtures more leaders; if the original leader leaves, the organization will still thrive because it has empowered and built capacity in others.

The first stage of the design thinking process focuses on gaining an empathetic understanding of the problem, typically through user research. The Starfish Group is currently working to define the scope of their challenge, with input from New Hanover County and Brunswick County teachers and district leaders. They are also hosting guest speakers to learn about existing models of teacher leadership from across the state.

Christy Howe, NC’s 2018 Southeast Regional Teacher of the Year, and Claire Harrington, 2018 Brunswick County Teacher of the Year, are co-coordinators of the Starfish Group. Founding members include Whitney Coonradt, Elizabeth Felts, and Kylee Maarschalk, teacher leaders in New Hanover County; Seth Brown; Brenda Berg, president and CEO of BEST NC; and Charlie Lyons, president of DRIVE Educational System.  

Robert Smith and Kayce Smith, a teacher and doctoral student at the Watson College, are supporting the work of the Starfish Group. Laura Brogdon-Primavera, manager of UNCW’s Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, facilitates the group’s monthly meetings.

Courtesy of the Watson College of Education

The Starfish Group invited Human Resources representatives from New Hanover and Brunswick Counties and WCE Master Teachers to attend their September meeting. North Carolina’s 2018 Teacher of the Year Freebird McKinney and 2018 Western Regional Teacher of the Year Julie Pittman were featured presenters at the event.

To follow the work of the Starfish Group, visit the Education Innovation Network NC on Twitter at @InnovateEduNC. The network, formed after WCE’s inaugural innovation conference in 2018, is comprised of individuals with a shared vision to create an educational culture in North Carolina public schools that prioritizes innovation.

Editor’s note: This perspective was first published by the Watson Chronicle. It has been posted with the author’s permission.

UNC Wilmington Watson School of Education

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