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Rick Hess Straight Up

Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

The Force of Teacher Leadership

By Guest Blogger — May 04, 2015 4 min read
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Note: Rick is taking a hiatus while he’s off talking about his new book, The Cage-Busting Teacher. Meanwhile, this week’s guest posts will be written by Jonas Chartock and Chong-Hao Fu. Chartock (@jonaschartock) is the CEO and Fu is the Chief Program Officer of Leading Educators, a national non-profit organization that works with schools, districts, and states to advance teachers’ leadership skills and opportunities to ensure all students have the opportunity to succeed in school and life.

Happy Teacher Appreciation Week and happy May Fourth! I’m super excited to join my colleague Chong-Hao Fu in sitting in for Rick this Teacher Appreciation Week, and starting out on one of my favorite sci-fi holidays, no less!

There is a great deal to celebrate and appreciate about teaching these days, and particularly in the area of teacher leadership. States and districts around the country are starting to invest in the skills and opportunities it takes for great teachers to support and develop their colleagues. From there now being a number of national and local initiatives helping districts develop some form of teacher leadership (including DC Public Schools, Denver Public Schools, and others we’ll reference this week), to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan launching the federal Teach To Lead initiative (the cover model in that photo is Leading Educators Fellow Kalpana Kumar-Sharma, by the way), to most recently Rick releasing his great book The Cage-Busting Teacher, to Iowa Governor Terry Branstad tying new public education dollars to teacher leadership development, it is indeed the age of the teacher leader.

And why not? Today’s district and charter leaders need to do something as they watch many of their best teachers leave, feeling stifled by a flat career trajectory that prevents them from making a difference beyond their classrooms. Some are also running out of qualified school leaders, while most see achievement gaps in student outcomes persist. To address these challenges, schools, districts, and states are investing in teacher leadership.

This week, we will be sharing some of the impressive results of teacher leaders from across the country. We’ll also share some of the challenges facing them and the resources we have developed to help them succeed.

Jennifer York-Barr defines teacher leadership as “the process by which teachers, individually or collectively, influence their colleagues, principals, and other members of the school community to improve teaching and learning practices with the aim of increased student learning and achievement.”

It’s a broad definition. As Rick describes in his new book, teacher leaders do everything: they organize other teachers, write policy briefs, speak at school board meetings, and serve as model and mentor teachers to their peers. In general, we tend to think of teacher leadership in four categories:

  1. Teacher leaders as master teachers
  2. Teacher leaders as principal successors
  3. Teacher leaders as policy advocates
  4. Teacher leaders as instructional leaders.

While all of these are important, at Leading Educators, we focus heavily on the fourth (pun intended) because it is so directly tied to student learning and teacher practice. By developing the skills and opportunities for our best educators to lead on instruction, we (a) increase the prospect of every child having a great teacher, (b) sustain teaching careers by creating satisfying career pathways, and (c) create a sustainable model of school leadership where accountability is shared by teachers and the principal.

Throughout the week, we will share how teacher leaders, when given the opportunity and training, can lead instruction without leaving the classroom. We have found that teacher leader moves can indeed be taught and developed.

According to the Harvard Business Review, all new leaders struggle with skills like communicating with confidence and managing up. The same applies to new teacher leaders. Leading Educators has developed the skills of over 850 teacher leaders, helping them learn to set strong team cultures, foster adult learning, and give instructional feedback, all for the sake of increasing student learning.

In our white paper “Leading From the Front of the Classroom,” published with our partners at the Aspen Institute’s Education and Society Program, we have shown that system leaders who provide leadership development 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.

Tomorrow, we’ll discuss three types of instructional teacher leader roles. Teacher leadership, much like the Force, must be practiced, honed, and channeled. Again, we’re excited to spend the week with you all talking about this practice. Until then, May the Fourth be with you!

--Jonas Chartock and Chong-Hao Fu

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.