How can we produce more teacher leaders?

In order to build the professional capacity of teachers and to retain and attract great teachers to the profession, we need to identify, compensate, and produce teacher leaders.

For the first time in the history of public education, there are more teachers with one year of experience than any other level. The impact of this on the teaching profession can be profound. Applying Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000 hour principle,” it would take at least 5 years for a teacher to gain the expertise necessary to be great at what he/she does. Teachers learn over time, and the role of teacher collaboration to ameliorate new-to-the profession teachers is key. Teacher leaders can play a key role in mentoring and assisting teachers and in establishing a culture of capacity building that can ensure all teachers grow.

Research shows that one of the major reasons teachers leave the profession is due to the relatively flat career advancement structure that exists. There are few opportunities for teachers to access higher earning and status positions that are found in other professions. The main opportunity for teachers to “advance” their careers has been leaving the classroom to become a school administrator. The establishment of career opportunities through teacher leader positions can help retain teachers.

More and more teacher advocacy organizations have emerged in the last decade. Organizations like Teach Plus, the Center for Teaching Quality, and the Hope Street Group recognize that elevating the teacher voice in education is key to improving education and transforming the teaching profession. Teacher leadership is one way to build the capacity and provide teachers with the leverage points necessary to transform public education. International comparisons to our education system reveal that the status of the teaching profession in our country lacks the necessary trust that other countries place in their teachers.

Teacher leader positions can take many shapes, some of which may or may not exist in some form today. But in general they heed these roles:

Mentor Teachers: Mentor teachers are responsible for the evaluation and mentoring of new-to-the-profession and struggling teachers. These teachers would be released from their teaching responsibilities full or part-time. Peer Assistance and Review (PAR) has been found to be an effective and well received approach to ensuring teachers receive the support they need, as well as ensuring teachers and administrators make the right decision when it comes to employment options. The traditional role of the administrator evaluating and mentoring teachers is a difficult, if not impossible, role to fulfill today, especially with new teacher evaluation policies, which require much more oversight and time. Imagine what would happen if both administrators and teachers took joint ownership in teacher performance in the best interest of student achievement.

Lead Teachers: These teachers are identified as effective teachers and trained to facilitate professional capacity building with their colleagues. Today’s teacher does not teach in isolation. Teachers are encouraged to work collaboratively with their peers in writing curriculum and assessments, as well as analyzing and adjusting their practice. Lead teachers facilitate these conversations. Building collaboration needs to be nurtured and identified if we are to build the professional capacity of all teachers.

Model Teachers: Teachers identified as master teachers assume the role of a Model Teacher. These teachers open up their classrooms for observation or video recording. By identifying Model Teachers, we can build a district and statewide bank of resources, as well as give other teachers the opportunity to observe and collaborate with teachers. This capacity building benefits all students.

Teacher Advocate Leaders: Teacher voice in policy decisions and implementation is sorely lacking, if it exists at all. Most policy decisions lack the input of those closest to the student: the teacher. In the book Everyone at the Table: Engaging Teachers in Evaluation Reform, the authors cite research that finds:
• 70 percent of teachers believe they are left out of the loop in the district decision-making process;
• 80 percent feel they are rarely consulted about what happens in their schools;
• 70 percent believe that district leaders only talk to them to win their support; and
• Only 23 percent believe that district leaders speak to them to gain a stronger sense of teachers’ concerns.

Opportunities for teachers to be involved in policy making would help propel teachers from continually being seen as merely reacting to policy decisions to being proactive in creating policy. Establishing a standing team of teacher advocates—as opposed to ad hoc or last-minute teams of teachers to react to policy recommendations—would improve the design, implementation, and sustainability of policy. Implementation of these policies would move teachers from compliance to commitment, since teachers would bes involved from the beginning.

All of these positions take new resources. We need to redesign the current compensation structures found in most master agreements. Our current system relies on the idea that each individual has the same basic responsibilities—it relies on a structure that reflects a flat teaching career. (See the “Tiered Pay-and-Career Structure” for a way to structure pay for master teachers that avoids the major pitfalls of the current pay-for-performance and bonus approach being used by some districts.)

We also need to rewrite state policy to allow for these teacher leader positions to emerge—state policy that recognizes and compensates leadership. One state to look to for guidance is Iowa. In 2013, Iowa passed a comprehensive series of policies called Building World-Class Schools for Iowa. Iowa took a comprehensive look at ways to systematically elevate and support the teaching profession.

This type of work is not cheap. It takes commitment and trust from state policy makers to make teacher leadership a reality. And state policy makers won’t budge unless they see support from their constituents. At the same time, we need teacher associations to make teacher leadership part of their mission and help change antiquated structures. It is also up to teachers to recognize their commitment to their profession and proactively work for change. These changes can benefit students and the teaching profession.

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