The Why of Teacher Leadership

By Barnett Berry and Vicki Phillips

Robin “MeMe” Ratliff has taught Health and PE for almost two decades, and like many teachers she has been active in her discipline, joining the Kentucky Association for Health, Physical Education, Recreation, and Dance and leading workshops for her colleagues. But as MeMe recently told us, “I was expected to be a giver of information, not a taker of it — and I was not expected to learn.” She had little knowledge of or experience in how she and her teaching colleagues could take joint responsibility for their learning. And this is what seemed to tamp down MeMe’s leadership potential and capacity to spur ambitious instructional improvements among her colleagues.

But that all changed quickly, beginning in early January 2014, at Kentucky’s first Elevating and Celebrating Effective Teaching and Teachers (ECET2) conference. With support from the Gates Foundation, MeMe and 49 other teachers from across the state engaged in a variety of activities where they were expected to construct their own learning — and not just subscribe to someone’s PD agenda for them. No doubt a blizzard, which dumped eight inches of snow in Louisville overnight, limited the number of teachers who were able to attend. But the enthusiasm among those 49 teachers who made it was palpable, as MeMe noted in a blog. MeMe not only found her “tribe” at ECET2 — she developed new confidence, agency, and leadership skills.

“It was not until that day when I learned I could grow my network — and learn from anyone, anytime, even beyond my content area of health and P.E. — that I saw myself as a teacher leader,” MeMe told us. She later noted, “We had a chance to engage, which led to a sense of empowerment, and then we had these organizations (e.g. CTQ and Hope Street Group) that helped us advance our own ideas.”

Most recently, MeMe has been tapped by her district — Jefferson County Public Schools (Louisville, KY) — to bring together disparate professional learning efforts for teachers and empower them to lead their own professional development. The goal is to open “solid lines of communication extending beyond the walls of (individual) schools,” MeMe said. She helped launch JCPSForward. This initiative brings together JCPSVoice (a cohort of virtual community organizers trained by CTQ), #JCPSchat (which recently became the nation’s most expansive district-level Twitter conversation on professional learning), and EdCampJCPS (which creates space for teacher-led PD).

MeMe and her colleagues realize that in order to achieve their district’s goal of personalizing learning for every one of its 100,000 students, the district’s 6,700 teachers must take charge of their own professional learning. So far, she has helped engage over 25 percent of the district’s teachers, first by ensuring they are connected to each other and then by engaging them in a variety of pedagogical and policy reforms; this includes developing formative assessments for deeper learning and cultivating cultural competencies in teaching, as well as mentoring new teachers in order to stem the tide of attrition.

While teacher leaders like MeMe are beginning to build their influence, albeit in more organic, grassroots ways, mounting evidence demonstrates the importance of teacher leadership for student learning. Here are five recent and powerful examples:

  1. In a study conducted in Tennessee, John Papay and colleagues found that students achieved higher reading and math scores when both higher and lower performing teachers were “encouraged to scrutinize each other’s evaluation results, observe each other teaching in the classroom, (informally) discuss strategies for improvement, and follow up with each other’s commitments throughout the school year.”
  2. Using social networking analysis tools, Kenneth A. Frank and colleagues found that teachers are more likely to make instructional shifts when they have indirect exposure to new ideas through collegial interactions, coupled with formal professional development.
  3. Alan J. Daly and colleagues, employing similar research methods, found a strong relationship between teachers “reaching out” each other sharing knowledge of teaching strategies and higher student scores on formative assessments.
  4. Carrie Leana and Frits K. Pil showed that when teachers report high levels of social capital — when relationships among them facilitate positive action — student performance in math and reading improves dramatically.
  5. Recent research sponsored by the Wallace Foundation found that collective leadership has a stronger influence on student achievement than individual leadership — and administrators do not lose influence when teachers gain it.

The evidence is compelling — and so are the prospects for more teachers like MeMe to amplify their leadership to the benefit of their colleagues.

  • In California alone, researchers documented over 60 teacher networks;
  • A recent national survey revealed that nearly six in ten teachers are now using technology to work with teaching colleagues they would not otherwise know, while another poll by Digital Promise indicated that 18 percent of America’s classroom practitioners engage in an online network;
  • Across the nation, one in three teachers participates in some type of external network,[*] and according to the Digital Promise poll 72 percent are involved in informal learning outside of their school and district.

While the debates over school reform remain contentious and most teachers remain isolated from each other — with too few chances to contribute to public education, much less to lead its transformation — MeMe’s story is a growing one. Increasingly, teachers are stepping up to lead, and the multiplier effect that can have on improving teaching and learning is becoming clearer. In the next blog, we will explore examples of the collective impact of teacher leaders who are working to ensure our young people get the education they deserve.

[*] The 1/3 estimate was recently derived recently from Gates Foundation program officers, supporting growing numbers teacher practice networks across the nation.

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