Opinion
Professional Development Teacher Leaders Network

Why We Need Teacher Leadership

By Doyle Nicholson — January 26, 2011 4 min read

Traditionally, teacher effectiveness was confined to a single classroom and the 20 to 30 students within those walls. Teacher success was determined based on two or three classroom observations and, of course, student results on end-of-the-year assessments. Effective teachers had minimal impact outside their own classrooms and virtually no voice in forming educational policy.

But in order to maximize the abilities of these successful teachers, schools must change the traditional view of a classroom educator. Teachers who want to share their knowledge and leadership skills usually have to leave the classroom and take a position at the district office or as an administrator. But many of us have a desire to lead change but also keep one foot firmly in the classroom door. School systems need to find ways to create hybrid leadership roles in which teachers can be in the classroom part of the time, but also engage in instructional coaching or shared leadership the rest of the day or week.

Fortunately, attitudes are changing, and accomplished teachers are finding (and making) more opportunities to expand their expertise beyond the square footage allotted them in a school. My first exposure to this expanded idea of teachers’ professional work came in 2004, shortly after achieving National Board certification. After receiving my certification I began facilitating National Board-candidate support sessions at the excellent North Carolina Center for the Advancement of Teaching.

Then, in 2007, the Center for Teaching Quality teamed with the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction to survey almost 1,400 teachers with National Board certification in math and science about their outlook on teacher leadership. A majority─including myself─indicated a desire to improve teaching and learning through actions taken outside the classroom. Like other expert teachers ready for leadership roles, we were no longer content with doing a good job in the classroom. We wanted to share our expertise with adult learners in ways that can improve learning opportunities for all students.

Virtual Leadership

There were a number of spinoffs from that initial survey. One of the most significant for me was an invitation to participate in CTQ’s Return on Investment initiative in North Carolina as a “virtual coach.” The two-year project capitalized on the power of the Internet to connect National Board-certified teachers in rural and high-needs schools.

I’ll admit to some initial skepticism about how effectively I could help other teachers without face-to-face interactions. As a teacher, so much of what I do revolves around the relationship and trust that I build with my students. I wondered how I might cultivate that same rapport with teachers who lived and worked miles away. While the relationships took a little longer to create, I found I was able to get to know these colleagues, their personalities, and their teaching needs in detail through our interactions on webinars and in our online community space. They appreciated our support and the opportunity to interact online─often in the comfort of their own homes when it was convenient for them.

After that experience, I was sold on the power and potential of a virtual learning community. And my work as a virtual coach has convinced me that my ultimate goal is to find a job that allows me to split my professional life evenly between regular work with students and other leadership roles in and out of my school.

Empowering Effective Teachers

My energy and excitement for collaboration with my peers grew even more in May 2010 when CTQ hosted a North Carolina NBCT Summit. That’s a significant undertaking in my state, where nearly 18,000 teachers have earned national certification over the past 15 years. Two things impressed me from the summit: (1) the number of teachers in attendance who voiced the same desire to share their educational know-how in collaborative ways; and (2) the sheer brainpower in the room. Working in small and large groups, in a single day we were able to draw on our collective experience and expertise to craft promising solutions to some of education’s biggest hindrances.

You can download our conference report, “Teacher and Teaching Effectiveness,” and weigh our conclusions for yourself. They address issues of teaching quality, student achievement, and school success common across America, including measuring teacher effectiveness; supporting new teachers; and creating the kind of job-embedded professional development that makes it possible for teachers to model and observe high-quality instruction.

I left the NBCT Summit feeling empowered and convinced that teachers have the ability to make great changes to the status-quo educational system. I also left a little disappointed that decisions about educational policy are so often left to career politicians and others outside the classroom. But I have hope that teacher-led enterprises like our virtual mentoring, the subsequent summit, and the many proactive initiatives now being started by teachers at the national, state and local levels signal the beginning of a new era when teacher voices will be routinely sought out─and heard─as policymakers, citizens and educators work together to strengthen our public schools.

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