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So You Want to Create a Teacher-Powered School? Five Things to Know

By Wendi Pillars — February 08, 2017 4 min read

How would you complete these sentences about your current school’s working conditions?

We have freedom to…

We get to be a part of…

We get to decide…

We love…

Imagine entire schools where teachers and students speak about their days in these terms.

Maybe you’ve dreamed of what it would be like to create a school where you have the autonomy to work with those who share your values, goals, and expectations for students and their learning. But then you returned to your lesson plans and pushed those niggling thoughts of transformation back to your brain’s “Can’t-Happen-To-Me” section.

After cycling through these thoughts on my own for quite some time, I finally took my first tangible steps toward exploring teacher autonomy by applying for an Ignition Grant to attend the Teacher-Powered Schools National Conference in Los Angeles in late January. The grant is for teacher groups who are interested in learning more about the teacher-powered model, which is defined as schools or programs in which teachers have the autonomy to make design and implementation decisions.

Long story short: We received the grant and found ourselves immersed in a small sea of like-minded educators—educators who not only envision an educational approach more effective for their students, but have the courage, the heart, and the wisdom to make it a reality.

Here are my top five takeaways from the conference.

1. There is no single model. Each teacher-powered school is different. Each has different funding sources, students, obstacles to overcome, support systems, and physical spaces. Some are directly supported by their districts, while others are public charter schools. Some start out with small numbers of students, and others are far larger. But despite these differences, the heart and soul of every school is consistent: Decisions are made by invested teachers with students at the core. This is empowering moral high ground for teachers and students alike.

2. Teacher-powered schools keep heart and soul at their center. Above all else, teachers must be prepared to do the work needed to turn vision into reality. Jose Navarro, the principal of the Social Justice Humanitas Academy in Los Angeles, asked conference attendees so succinctly, “Would you rather be tired from fighting the system or tired from creating a new system?” Yes, it is a great deal of work, but oh, how trust develops when staff members and students hash out school structures, policies, and visions with both groups’ best interest at heart. When everyone buys in, the vision of growing great people and great students at the same time becomes a reality.

3. Teachers must design and propose their own solutions. Whether we are frustrated by disagreements within our schools or by the education system more generally, this does not give us carte blanche to go our own way. It’s vital to encapsulate our reasons for change, to be able to define what it is we can and will do differently with this opportunity. At its core, the teacher-powered model demands that teachers be proactive, choosing a strengths-based approach to learning over a deficits-based approach. Rather than working from what schools and current educational paradigms can’t do, educators at teacher-powered schools research and expand upon what works best.

4. Involve all facets of students’ learning. Yes, the academics matter, but what I took away from students’ testimonials at the conference was how much they felt like their schools were a second home. They said their learning was fun, and that they were deeply involved in (and thus responsible for) their own learning plans and outcomes. Learning is a very active process in teacher-powered schools. Even the social aspects and discipline become part of learning and understanding, with students gaining empathy through mentoring each other, monitoring each other, and becoming increasingly reflective and responsible. Communities benefit because much of the project-based learning is service-oriented. Students’ learning relates directly to the world around them, with kids of all ages defining challenges and crafting solutions.

5. Teachers and students should define their shared values and vision. At the conference, educators who have years of experience at teacher-powered schools constantly reminded us newcomers to start small and get the culture right first, despite the cravings we might have for big and immediate change. Defining values together becomes the cornerstone of collaborative leadership for the whole school. Collaborative leadership also manifests itself in a lack of siloed instruction; cross-disciplinary and interdisciplinary teaching become normal with this level of collaboration among teachers. Constant deepening of content connections limits isolation and instructional segregation, benefiting both students and teachers.

There are many opportunities for frustrated educators to think, “I wish I could have the freedom to…" or, “I wish I could decide…" When you make a shift from those thoughts to “We can…,” you’re ready to take the next steps on your path to collaborative leadership.

Take the time to define your vision with a team, aligning it with your values and your solution-oriented purpose. Do your research, and consider reaching out to teachers at schools that have successfully implemented the teacher-powered model (like Chrysalis Charter School in Palo Cedro, Calif., Wildlands School in Augusta, Wis., Impact Academy in Lakeville, Minn., etc.) to refine your vision and develop questions. Regardless of your development stage—storming, norming, forming, or transforming—you have support from those who have already embarked on the teacher-powered schools journey.

As teacher leaders from Mission Hill School in Boston told conference attendees, “No matter how far you’ve come, or how far you have to go, we still have so much work to do.” I’d rather spend my energy transforming the system than fighting it. Wouldn’t you?

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