Teacher Leadership and Its Role In School Reform Efforts
As defined most practically, teacher leaders are educators trained to lead not only their colleagues and students, but also their profession toward stronger student, teacher, school, and district outcomes. A focus on the skills teachers need to lead high-functioning teams can get lost as educators, non-profit advocacy organizations and teacher unions apply the term “teacher leadership” to a variety of objectives including teacher-run schools, teacher policy advocacy, and labor leadership. We can identify these key skills by looking at the work great teacher leaders need to do every day — giving colleagues feedback, setting a culture of growth, and managing up to their principal.
By focusing on the skills teachers need to best lead their colleagues every day, teacher leadership enhances a school’s instructional leadership capacity, strengthens adult and student culture, and increases the capacity of teams across a school. These outcomes all lead to higher levels of student achievement, give our best teachers a reason to stay in the work, and create a bench of emerging leaders.
A rationale for focusing on teacher leadership as a school/district improvement strategy can be simply stated by three sad but true facts:
- Principals don’t grow on trees
- Our best people are leaving too often
- Student achievement gaps, particularly between students from low-income and higher-income areas, persist
Principals Don’t Grow On Trees ... But They Can Be Grown
It is estimated that in this next decade 40 percent of today’s principals will retire. School leaders who are retiring are not being replaced by enough qualified candidates. Attempting to find replacements, many districts and charter school networks are investing in outside recruiters to scour the country for top talent to import. Unless, however, there is some magical land of excellent-principal cloning, this obviously isn’t a scalable solution.
In other cases, districts and networks are partnering with non-profit principal training programs to varying degrees of success and cost. Again, from a numerical standpoint, this approach isn’t working — not to mention the issues of return on investment and quality of outcomes.
How Should Districts Use Teacher Leadership to Help?
Too few system leaders invest in the people they have. Like so many other industries such as professional baseball, the military, or the corporate sector, our schools must invest in middle management. Identify the talent early. Strip away the empty titles and replace them with meaningful roles and responsibilities to nurture, grow, and build the skills that allow teacher leaders to develop the capacity of the teachers around them.
While not everyone will become a principal, teacher leadership roles are essential preparation for those who will. System leaders must identify those skills that are critical for success in both middle leadership — for those who choose to stay in that work — and at the executive leadership level. The Harvard Business Review noted that rookie managers, regardless of sector, struggle with skills we almost never develop in teachers:
- Managing up — or getting help from above
- Recognizing the big picture
- Projecting confidence
- Giving constructive feedback
Developing these skills in teacher leaders not only deepens the bench of potential principals but also provides existing and new principals with better support. Any successful principal will tell you that they cannot shape and manage a strong adult culture or an entire instructional program alone. The best principals rely on front line support to teachers, sometimes assistant principals and deans, and, in some cases, teacher leaders.
Our Best People Are Leaving ... But We Can Create Conditions to Keep Them
TNTP’s “Irreplaceables” report notes that the nation’s 50 largest districts lose approximately 10,000 high-performing teachers each year, a disproportionate number compared to attrition for all teachers. Many teachers who have left the profession report that they felt stifled by a flat career trajectory that prevented them from making a difference beyond their classrooms. We know that across professions the top reasons people stay in their jobs are feelings of success and meaningful professional development — compensation is lower down the list.
It is no wonder that teachers in years three through five leave as often as they do. In most urban and very rural communities, promising teachers are thrust into roles that require them to lead or even formally manage other adults in addition to their classroom instructional responsibilities. As a third year teacher who was tasked with chairing the fourth grade team, I can tell you that I was starting to find success teaching my students but had no idea how to lead my colleagues. I needed further experience to address the former and targeted professional development for the latter. The lack of such development opportunity led me down a different path. As the saying goes, we need stepping stones or else we fall in the river. We created Leading Educators as a national non-profit aiming at the mission of building a movement where teachers have the leadership opportunities and skills to ensure great teachers for all kids. Even with our work, however, there are few if any of these stepping stone resources that train teachers in leadership and management.
How Should Districts Use Teacher Leadership to Help?
We have found that system leaders who provide middle management training to teacher leaders ensure that they are equipped to provide front line support to new teachers, progress within their career track, and expand their impact beyond the classroom. Great schools inspire and engage new teachers to remain in the profession by showing them the examples of the satisfied, successful teacher leaders that lead them on a daily basis. Strong systems support teacher leaders by hiring principals who have been successful teacher leaders and know first-hand what environment is needed to be successful in these roles.
Student Achievement Gaps Persist ...But Great Teachers Make an Impact
Readers of SEEN know full well that our education system is, over all, falling behind the rest of the world. Even more disturbing are our results regarding students of color from low-income families. On average these students already trail their peers by two grade levels upon entering the fourth grade. High performing schools and individual classroom teachers are reversing this trend by providing quality learning opportunities to all of their students. Data show that the top 20 percent of teachers generate five to six more months of student learning each year than their poor-performing peers. So how do we develop more teachers to become outstanding educators, and how do we retain successful teachers in high needs schools?
How should districts use teacher leadership to help? Districts dedicated to heading toward strong teacher leadership development are wise to first ensure that they have strong teacher effectiveness measurement systems to measure the impact of team leads. Emerging data from such districts shows that students on teams of teacher leaders who participate in strategic, practice-based approaches to leadership development demonstrate growth at statistically significant higher rates than other students. Knowing that drop-in, drop-out professional development doesn’t work, we must commit to providing teachers leadership development that includes feedback informed practice, coaching, and peer collaboration. An example of results of such professional development: at the start of the 2011-12 school year students of teachers on teams led by Leading Educators Fellows were below the average proficiency of other students in the district; in both Kansas City and in New Orleans, these students grew significantly more than their counterparts across their districts.
What Can We Expect to Learn From the Emergence of Teacher Leadership?
Given the benefits of further investment in the development of a district’s teacher leaders, it is a safe bet that superintendents will make teacher leadership a priority. The more they do, the more we’ll learn more about the best training programs from those doing it well. As a start, Leading Educators will be releasing three papers in partnership with the Aspen Institute that show how Denver Public Schools, the Tennessee Department of Education, Noble Street and TEAM Schools are making the choices necessary for each to analyze needs around teacher leadership, align resources, implement effectively and monitor progress. We hope that these will be valuable examples that point the way forward as systems travel the path from teacher leadership to student achievement.