Teacher Created Change in Schools

Teachers are change makers. This post tells the story of one teacher and how she changed her school to make it better for her students.

Research to Practice: Teacher Created Change

Ms. Holmes's Story

While all of these research to practice posts are fun for me because I am an uber nerd, this one is probably the most fun because I get to mostly talk about my own research! As a veteran teacher, I firmly believe that teachers rock. Teachers do amazing things in their classrooms every day– and one of my goals in research is to tell the stories of the amazing things that they do. 


A few years ago, I had the opportunity to observe and talk to a true change making teacher– and was able to turn what I learned from her into a research paper. The teacher, who I call Ms. Holmes (woohoo to IRB confidentiality!) was faced with a problem at her school. The high school was incredibly diverse, both in terms of race and in terms of class. The problem was that the classes were not. Like so many other high schools out there, the diversity at LHS (also a fake name) stopped at the school entrance. Once you got inside its walls white kids and rich kids went to the advanced classes and poor and Black and brown students went to the low level courses. It was so bad back in 2012 that other teachers I spoke to told me that they couldn’t remember a single white face in their low level classes or a single brown one in their high level courses.


The district had, in theory, tried stuff to address the problem– but their efforts were half-hearted at best. Ms. Holmes, however, was pissed and wanted to make the school more fair. What she really wanted to do was to “kill” tracking and have all students at each grade in all classes in the same level of courses. Ms. Holmes, however, is also a realist so she tried to figure out how to get closer to that goal. The first thing she did, in her words, was to pester the principal until, in addition to her leveled English classes, he gave her both the highest and lowest level of English classes for ninth grade, which she taught “exactly the same way.” Then the next year, he gave her unlevelled public speaking classes to teach– which she crushed. Finally, and I mean this was after YEARS of pestering the principal, he agreed to let her teach a mixed level English class. He told her that, if she could “sell it, if you can fill the classes, you can start [Honors Option].”


So she started to sell it. She asked parents of students she had taught to help spread the word, went to meetings at the junior high school, and recruited students to help her advertise. That fall she taught two sections of an English course called Honors Option. Students could take the course either for honors or regular course credit. Students taking it for honors had to do slightly more work, read slightly more advanced work, and do projects that asked for a bit more– but they were in the same room. The class was a success and Ms. Holmes started to focus on spreading her Honors Option model throughout the school.  She presented at  professional development sessions and faculty meetings, where she spoke “about what we’re doing and how well it’s working” and got teachers excited about teaching it. The second year of Honors Option a second ninth grade teacher took on an honors option section. The third year, tenth grade English teachers did and the foreign language department. The fourth year, it spread to 11th grade English and some math courses. Within a year or two more, the English department had stopped offering traditional honors courses and teachers across the school were trying it out.


Not only did honors option grow, but it made a change in who took courses for honors credit. The school’s honors classes slowly, ever sooooo slowly, started to get less white. Students in the classes attributed it to honors option, saying that being in the room with the students taking the course for honors credit made them realize that they could do that work too.

How she created change

So the question is what worked? Besides the fact that Ms. Holmes is an amazing teacher, salesperson, and all around human, what worked for her? For all of us who have wanted to create change in our own schools, the big question is what can we take away from what she did?


First, Ms. Holmes framed the changes as win win. She sold the changes aggressively to the families of high-achieving students as well as lower-achieving students. She framed the whiteness of the existing courses as a problem, something that was harming the high achieving students, with phrases like, “We have the opportunity to give kids this vibrant, real world, diverse experience, and yet we haven’t been…We’ve been doing your kids a disservice because we have not been giving them the opportunity to experience the diversity that they can at this high school that they couldn’t at surrounding high schools.” Change often fails if someone feels like they are losing– and she convinced parents and students that, with her model, everyone won and no one lost. I think about it a lot in the context of inclusion and supporting students with disabilities. To create change, we need narratives that make everyone feel like they can win and not like someone has to lose for our students to get the support and placements they need. 


Second, she kept pushing. It took years to wear down the principal and to build the program, but she persisted.  She didn’t quit when he told her no. Instead, she kept finding things he would say yes to, whether it was teaching multiple levels of the course or an unlevelled public speaking class. She kept pushing at the margins until she finally, eventually, got what she wanted. “Nevertheless she persisted,” became a buzz phrase a few years ago for Elizabeth Warren– but I have always thought that the motto is exactly right for dedicated teachers, the ones who keep coming back to an issue over and over and over again until, bit by bit, they start to make some headway. 


Third, she used her soft power. She is a kick ass teacher and also really nice. The other teachers liked her– she sold the reform to her peers and got them excited about it. The new courses weren’t forced on them. They got to choose whether they taught the courses– and they wanted to teach them because she made it sound fun. She also used her connection with the school board, including the leaders of it whose children she had taught, and leverage her power as one of their child’s favorite teachers of all time to get them on board. She even used her former students to help her sell the program– she didn’t have formal power in the school to create change. She wasn’t teaching at some utopian school where teachers get to pick what they teach and how. What she did have was some parents who respected her, colleagues who thought she was cool and was selling something fun, and students who were willing to go to bat for her. That’s the ultimate in soft power– the power that we teachers so often have and forget about! Just because we don’t write the laws or run the schools doesn’t mean we don’t have power– we have the power of our relationships and of the lives we have touched– power that can be used to transform the system. 


Ms. Holmes, and the lessons we can learn from teachers like her, are why I think research matters. Also, for anyone in a masters program right now– this is research. Like it doesn’t have to be dry numbers– it can be listening and learning stories! To be official, the reference to the article is below!


  • Sebastian, R. (2021). How One School District’s Inequitable “Yale or Jail” Tracking System Began to Change. The High School Journal, 105(1), 60-79.