Special Report
School & District Management Opinion

What It’s Like to Teach in a Teacher-Led School

By Carrie Bakken — February 19, 2015 7 min read
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As a teacher at Avalon Charter School in St. Paul, Minn., for the last 14 years, I’m often asked what it’s like to work at a teacher-led school. Do you work long hours? Is it more challenging than traditional schools? Since teachers already work long hours in difficult jobs, these are important questions.

On a recent “balmy” January day in Minneapolis, a metaphor for what my work is like hit me. In Minnesota, it is not unusual to have winter days where the wind chill pushes the temperature to 20 degrees below zero. On those especially cold days, I drag myself downstairs to the basement and run on my treadmill.

Running inside has its physical benefits, but it bores me to my core. I take steps to alleviate the excruciating boredom with music, but the experience is only tolerable. When I run inside, my control is limited to the options on my machine. The machine hounds me with constant data about my speed, calories burned, and distance—so I can never fully get lost in the joy of running. When I run outside, I am happy. My thoughts wander, and I am free to develop new ideas. I don’t spend the entire time waiting for the next mile to end.

When I run outside, I am engaged in the world around me. I experience different weather, meet familiar neighbors and dog walkers, and, most importantly, I have control over the direction and route. Even on the most challenging running days, when I have to wear multiple layers and a face mask, I actually perform better outdoors than indoors because the experience is so markedly different.

For me, running outside is like teaching at a teacher-led school: challenging, stimulating, and full of possibilities. By the same token, running on the treadmill is similar to teaching in a traditional school model. Many teachers in traditional settings work with little control over their practice, including the pace of the curriculum, direction, or setting. If I spent my career teaching under those conditions, just like running in my basement, I would have stopped years ago.

Although teachers in both models share many of the same challenges and the work can be equally challenging, the benefits of being a part of a teacher-led school (also sometimes called teacher-powered schools) can be like a perfect long run on a beautiful spring day: The highs are higher, and the lows are few and far between.

That metaphor of freedom—of teachers having the autonomy to make decisions that matter for kids—speaks powerfully to the benefits of teachers owning their work. It’s ironic that we know students will succeed if given the opportunity and the right conditions and yet we don’t believe the same for their teachers.

Cultivating Leadership

Every teacher-led school is different, but the model brings many measurable benefits to teachers. At Avalon, teachers accept greater accountability for school success—by controlling the curriculum, budget, professional development, and personnel decisions. Meeting our academic and school goals is in our hands. I am especially lucky to collaborate with interesting, bright colleagues and contribute to a powerful learning community of teachers and students.

There are also exciting leadership opportunities for teachers at Avalon in the form of administrative duties and committees. Avalon is unique in that all staff members are empowered as decisionmakers. Three teachers take on the responsibilities of program coordinators, which includes time to complete some administrative work, such as enrollment, testing coordination, and state reporting. However, all teachers at Avalon have the opportunity to participate in a variety of committees and take on new projects.

Teachers sit on the Avalon school board, the finance committee, and the personnel committee. They serve as peer coaches, create marketing materials, and write grant proposals. In addition, they all develop strong partnerships with community organizations and resources in order to bring new learning opportunities to students.

The opportunity to learn new things and find new paths to explore is particularly gratifying for me. For example, in my roles at Avalon, I work with experts in school finance, human resources, commercial real estate, charter school management, public policy, and the changing world of school law. While I have the opportunity to learn new skills professionally, I still remain connected to the classroom. I love that I continue to learn from my students every day as they explore new topics with their independent projects.

With this kind of autonomy for teachers, Avalon School easily retains 95-100 percent of its teachers annually. This high rate of retention allows us to build ongoing relationships with one another, our students, and their families. It allows us to implement a strategic plan and continuously improve our learning program because we know the staff will be there to do the work.

This rate of teacher retention is also incredibly cost effective because we are not consistently hiring and mentoring new staff. Avalon School has earned several finance awards from the Minnesota Department of Education and from our charter authorizer because so much of our money goes directly to the classroom.

Best of all, this framework for governance seems to benefit students. Avalon has a higher percentage of students who are proficient on math and reading state tests than the average for St. Paul Public Schools, and each year 75-80 percent of our students go on to attend a post-secondary institution. Some other teacher-led schools around the country have experienced similar success.

Knowing Students Best

The most rewarding piece of teaching at Avalon is getting to personalize learning for my students. Many educators acknowledge that students should graduate with highly developed noncogntive skills like perseverance, self-direction, planning, self-discipline, adaptability, and initiative.

However, in many schools, students are not empowered to practice these skills. Too often school is something done to students, not with them. When working with students who feel powerless, empowering them is the only path forward.

An everyday teacher’s job at Avalon is to empower our students. Students are trusted to learn valuable life lessons and learn that with power comes responsibility. With support from their teachers, they determine their curriculum and decide how they will meet their graduation standards through seminars or independent projects. Students also learn skills to mediate conflict, solve problems, and create new rules for Avalon through our Student Congress.

Recently, one of our students was struggling with self-direction, initiative, discipline, and perseverance. The teachers were concerned, but despite our best attempts, we had trouble finding a way to consistently engage him in learning.

Serendipitously, an alum happened to visit Avalon, and she told me about her new job working for a nonprofit, PCs for People. At this organization, employees and volunteers refurbish computers and sell them at a low cost to people who cannot afford new ones.

Because my struggling student had always enjoyed his computer projects, I encouraged him to seek an internship at PCs for People. After only a few months of his internship, we all noticed a significant change. He began to see his future. He became more engaged in his classes, made plans, and saw himself as a future professional working with computers. Before his internship, he would have been lucky to graduate high school in five years. Now we are all confident he’ll walk across the stage on time in June.

Traditional power structures in districts and charters rely on principals and superintendents to call the shots. But teachers must be trusted to own their work—which includes making important decisions that affect student learning.

Trusting in Teachers

It might surprise you to know that there are already more than 70 teacher-led schools across the country—in traditional districts and the charter sector. These schools are part of a vibrant and growing community nationwide—not just in Minnesota—that capitalizes on teachers’ strengths to influence student learning.

This community is continuing to grow online thanks to the Teacher-Powered Schools Initiative and the Teacher-Powered Schools Lab, projects organized by the nonprofits Education Evolving and the Center for Teaching Quality. With these resources, educators can find a comprehensive guide to creating a teacher-led school, view an inventory of existing teacher-powered schools, and join a virtual community to ask questions, share resources, and get assistance in creating and maintaining a teacher-powered school.

A recent survey conducted by Education Evolving found that 9 in 10 Americans agree that teachers should have more authority in decisionmaking in schools. And more than half of teachers are very interested in working in a teacher-led school.

Not all schools need to operate as teacher-led schools. However, by creating at least one teacher-powered school in every large district and more independent teacher-powered charters, we are opening the door to retaining excellent teachers for the profession and improving learning outcomes for students in the 21st century.

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