It is increasingly implausible that we could improve the performance of schools…
without promoting leadership in teaching by teachers.
—Judith Warren Little (1988)
Almost 30 years ago, Judith Warren Little, one of our nation’s most prominent scholars, offered a clarion call for teachers to lead school reform, not just be the targets of it. Since then teachers, slowly but surely, are beginning to serve in more expansive roles without leaving the classroom. Teachers, for some time, have served in a variety of formal leadership roles — such chairing a department grade level, mentoring a colleague informally, or facilitating a professional learning community. Now more opportunities are available. Teachers — by participating in external networks like the National Blogging Collaborative, NNSTOY, EdCamp, and the Literacy Design Collaborative as well as CTQ — are engaging in leading their own professional learning and finding ways for their voices to be heard by policymakers, administrators, and the public alike. Wendy Sauer, a close colleague of ours from the Gates Foundation, has estimated that at least 1 in 3 teachers are already in an external network of some sorts. And a MetLife Foundation poll a few years ago found that 1 in 4 teachers would like to serve in a hybrid role — and lead without leaving the classroom. It is definitely time for more teachers to lead in bold ways, and not need to leave the classroom in order to do so.
For most teachers, leadership continues to be defined by administrators through the prism of in-classroom support and coaching as well as an array of professional development activities. We want to suggest now is the time to rethink teacher leadership — just as more school districts, charter management organizations, and state education agencies, take the concept seriously. Now is time to begin creating ways for growing numbers of classroom experts to incubate and execute their own ideas as teacherpreneuers. As Katherine Prince poignantly pointed out in her recent blog, “the way we work, teach, live, and learn is changing at an exponential rate” and schooling will become “more fluid” and rely more “on network- and relationship-based structures that reflect learners’ needs, interests, and goals. Research from the private sector shows that “company performance increases when more time is spent on ‘noncore job roles’—for example, when leaders focus on roles such as innovator or team member.” School organizations would benefit from such thinking and action. Imagine if a significant proportion of teachers had time and space outside of direct classroom teaching to serve in new roles that could exponentially increase deeper learning for their students and them. [For over a decade Singapore has been offering “white space” or “free time” for teachers to create school-based curriculum innovations.]
Emerging Future Roles
We have thought about the needs of schools and how teachers’ pedagogical expertise can be leveraged for innovation. With the press for personalized learning for every student, every graduate being college or career ready, and the often poor quality of professional development, consider teacher leaders as:
- Co-designers of edugames and consultants to the exploding tech industry, and the need for classroom experts to offer insights into the what and how of personalized learning tools (As Vicki told everyone at the January 2015, BETT conference in London: “First, teachers improve technology, then technology improves teaching. When teachers get a chance to help design the technology it makes their teaching better.”).
- Content Curators to support teaching colleagues make good decisions about vast array of curriculum products and platforms for sharing resources.
- Assessment Designers who will create appropriate methods for evaluating deeper learning by students and other innovative forms of instruction;
- Community organizers who establish and sustain relationship with health and social service providers as schools need to serve high needs students with wrap-around programs; and
- Virtual Community Organizers who facilitate online communities so more practitioners can participate in the growing global trade in pedagogy and professional learning. (See Teaching 2030)
When we asked about dozen teachers of Teaching Partners community, who are very active in host of other networks, we learned a lot. As Christopher Bronke of the National Blogging Collaborative, told us, “I have been lucky enough to have experience in all of these roles, and simply put, each and every one of them made me a better teacher, better colleague, and better person.” For example, Joanna Schimizzi, who worked with the Institute for Knowledge Management in Education (ISKME) to curate content for literacy, has served as an assessment expert. Joanna told us, “I have found it so valuable to truly dig deeply into what a question is asking, what incorrect answers tell you and how to eliminate bias while creating a test worth taking.” Jessica Cuthbertson, a middle school teacher in Aurora, CO (and a CTQ blogger and recent teacherpreneur), told us that there is a “growing need for mental health expertise and teachers to be equipped to meet a wide range of social emotional and developmental needs of students.” And she sees the need for teacher leaders to help their colleagues learn the skills and processes of restorative justice antidote to traditional discipline practices that often cause more harm than good. And as part of CTQ’s training and micro-credentialing for virtual communities, teachers, such as Ernie Rambo, a Las Vegas teacher (and a virtual community organizer with CTQ and the Clark County Education Association) have been able to develop unique skills in online networking and assisting their colleagues documenting their collective impact as teachers. As Ernie told us the greatest value of the CTQ approach to virtual community is “sustainability” — leveraging all the digital platforms available. As Kriscia Cabral, a blogger with Scholastic, noted, “teachers are becoming leaders from the inside out because of the many platforms and opportunities that are now available.”
Katherine Everett, who has worked extensively with Digital Promise and the National Board Resource Center, explained the important link between teacher-led learning, that is now taking place online, and student engagement and achievement. She said:
One of my greatest pleasures was working with a team of highly motivated educators to design curriculum and assessments for an integrated PE/Math 1 course. All curriculum was placed online in an effort to increase engagement and promote technology use with our incoming 9th grade students. We became so excited about the curriculum it quickly developed into a passion. The most exciting moments were watching the students engage in our work. Much of our support was done through virtual coaching and mentoring. The level of student engagement blew us away.
To be sure our teaching colleagues were quick to point a number of barriers that need to be overcome for them to lead. Of course, the four-letter word — time — came up. As Kriscia pointed out:
Time is an issue however the opportunity to open up available time for teachers to lead. In many instances, becoming a leader means one more thing added to an overflowing plate of responsibility. The time that is needed to plan and more importantly collaborate with colleagues is not available and they are a crucial part to leading the way in empowering teacher leaders.
Angela Schoon, a teacher from Merritt Island, FL, who works closely with the Literacy Design Collaborative, noted that teachers are not accustomed to leading, or believe they are expected to do so. She said, “We need to break down the “walls” and encouraging teachers to reach out to one another.” And Katherine added, “This is where current administrators need to step up — and get to know teacher strengths and where to pair them to generate momentum and ways for teachers to empower themselves.” Joanna also noted, “If administrators and district personnel have never seen how teachers can be teacherpreneurs and engage in new and innovative roles, it can be hard for them to imagine how to allow a teacher release time to lead.” Joanna continued, “The big barrier is creativity and vision.”
Opportunities and Moving Forward
Our teaching colleagues told us that more teachers are getting engaged with external networks, as the Gates Foundation recently pointed out. And these networks are, in many cases, leadership developers for teachers. As Beth Maloney, the 2014 Arizona State Teacher of the Year (and NNSTOY leader) told us, “My networks have grown me as a teacher leader and reinforced my commitment as a professional.” In fact, a host of research points to the power of external networks in helping teachers find the skill, agency, and efficacy to lead.
But teachers should not wait on administrators or others to prompt their leadership. As Joanna said:
I think that teachers can lead from the classroom by communicating with their administration about
their interests. Often administrators need support, but they may not be aware that a teacher has an
interest in mentoring new teachers, writing curriculum, being involved in literacy initiatives, etc.
It does require honesty and creativity from both sides. I’ve experienced this in really wonderful ways
when administrators truly leveraged my potential and interests.
More school districts offer full-time coaching roles for teachers to play. But our colleagues told us of the importance of hybrid roles. As Beth said, “I think it is important for instructional coaches to keep at least one ‘leg’ in the classroom at all times.” (Dylan Wiliam has pointed out that teachers learn to take instructional risks when they are supported by a colleague who has credibility as a coach.) And as Joanna added, “As a teacher who has crafted her own medley of part-time opportunities, I know the value of getting to add variety to my roles while still reaching students.”
And while there are a number of Teacher Voice organizations that recruit teachers to their cause, we heard that classroom experts want even more opportunities to lead, and independently, when it comes to policy development. (See Celine Coggins’ new book, How to Be Heard: Ten Lessons Teachers Need to Advocate for their Students and Profession.) As Beth noted, “I would like to see more teacher leadership roles in education policy since we are the ones who implement policy each day in our classrooms and see the impact on our students, schools, and communities.” As Kriscia added, ““As a collective group, teachers value teachers and want to hear from those that are in the trenches, experiencing it all and making connection to real world happenings.”
But Beth probably said it best:
Now, more and more teachers seem to see the benefit in “leading from the middle” and more teachers may be retained in our field if given more opportunities to lead from inside the classroom. Momentum could be an opportunity! We need to spread the word about what it means to lead from the middle. Writing, blogging, and vlogging are huge opportunities here, as more and more teachers build their Virtual Learning Communities and we can learn from each other.
We have a few recommendations for:
- Teachers: Work with your colleagues to make the case for leading from the classroom. Tell your story (See recent CTQ Roundtable on storytelling and Justin Minkel’s podcast on writing for policymakers.)
- Administrators: Teachers are your greatest asset. They know what works in the classroom. Create ways for them to design and lead improvements in your districts and schools.
- Education Technology Entrepreneurs: If technology is going to work in schools then designers need to understand the problems teacher are trying to solve. Spend more time listening to and co-designing with teachers. Greater collaboration will make a striking difference in the value of education technology for improving student learning.
- Policymakers: Teachers can help you solve policy problems and design impactful solutions. Put them at the table when policy changes that effect the classroom are being considered.
As Angela put an exclamation point on it: “You are right on target here —teachers are busy and often need to network from the comfort of their own home after the school day ends.” And she continued, “We also know what works and our expertise often goes unnoticed.”
 Warren-Little, J. (1988). Assessing the prospects for teacher leadership. In A. Lieberman (Ed.), Building a professional culture in schools. New York: Teachers College Press, 78-106.