Special Report
School & District Management

Teacher Leadership Makes Inroads, But Strives for Permanency

By Ross Brenneman — February 19, 2015 9 min read
Teaching Ambassador Fellow Emily Davis, center, helps out a group attending the Teach to Lead summit in Boston. Other summits occurred in Louisville, Ky., and Denver.
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While the concept of teacher leadership isn’t necessarily new, it has undeniably gained currency in recent months, with even the U.S. Department of Education launching a major initiative to support teachers’ role as influencers within schools.

That teacher leadership remains a stubbornly amorphous idea might make its permanence more difficult to establish. But those championing the movement see it as a necessary structural change to school systems, one that is capable of being more than a fleeting trend.

Advocates say the current interest in teacher leadership speaks to a need many teachers feel to influence education outside of the classroom, without leaving it.

Or, to put it another way, teachers have grown tired of seeing education policy driven by people who aren’t educators, and watching those policies fizzle.

“The eternal optimist in me thinks that, I hope we’re at a tipping point where we’re realizing that we cannot have those outside education, with no education background, with no education experience, leading the path for our public education students,” said Megan M. Allen, the director for programs in teacher leadership at Mount Holyoke College, in Massachusetts, as well as the 2010 Florida state teacher of the year. “We’ve got to be smarter than that, and let our teachers, our experts lead the charge.”

In late December, Allen, along with researchers John M. Holland and Jon Eckert, published a paper examining the roots of teacher leadership, and whether it can be cultivated in preservice teaching. That paper argues that the nation experienced several waves of teacher-leadership over the past few decades, often in reaction to policy changes, but Allen said that the newest wave is more proactive.

“I think teachers are so hungry to have a voice,” said Andrea Shunk, a coordinator for the Cadre of Distinguished Educators, a Portland, Ore., initiative that works to support teacher leadership. “Teachers are tired of going to the table that someone else set for them. ... And I think more people are hearing that now.”

Hard Years for Teachers

The lack of a seat at the table, educators say, shows in policy mandates designed without significant teacher involvement, or implemented without first gaining teacher buy-in: in districts struggling to transition to the Common Core State Standards; in teacher evaluations that rely heavily on measures teachers think are unreliable; in the stress and loss of learning time stemming from frequent, standardized testing. And, noticeably, they say, many of those reform efforts have not yet offered much proof of effectiveness.

"[Policy] implementation has been most effective in the places where it has been teacher-driven and teacher-led, collaborative change,” said Ruthanne Buck, senior advisor to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. “And in some places the structure just hasn’t existed to allow that collaborative environment.”

Ruthanne Buck, right, senior advisor to Arne Duncan, listens during a speech at the Teach to Lead summit in Boston. "Now that teach to Lead actually exists, and is something, we've seen more ideas than we ever could have imagined," she said.

Buck came to the Education Department after doing policy work for the American Federation of Teachers, and understands the anger and disappointment many teachers feel toward the current administration.

“This has been the hardest few years in education certainly since [No Child Left Behind] was passed,” Buck said. “I would argue one of the toughest set of years in education history.”

In the past year, Duncan himself has expressed a similar awareness of the challenges placed on teachers by recent policy developments.

In a speech last March at the Teaching & Learning Conference in Washington, organized by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, he acknowledged the “frustration” felt by teachers. He also announced the Teach to Lead program, a then-vague partnership with the National Board meant to promote teacher leadership.

The Teach to Lead initiative emerged in part because of an understanding inside the Education Department that ambitious plans had outpaced implementation, and that implementation appeared to be smoothest where teachers had a strong voice in decisionmaking.

“There definitely has been a push to get a lot of things out, a lot of things changed, a lot of things: get the ball rolling,” said Emily Davis, a Teaching Ambassador Fellow in the Education Department. “And what I’ve seen a lot of the past year is taking a step back, taking a look at what’s working, [and] listening to the field.”

Developing Ideas

Execution of the Teach to Lead initiative ultimately fell to the National Board and the Teaching Ambassador Fellows, a federal program which brings practicing teachers into the department for a year in an effort to improve communication between the department and the teaching profession.

Seeking Greater Influence, Teachers Gain Policy Foothold in Education Department

The Teaching Ambassador Fellows at the U.S. Department Education have sought to bring teacher leadership to federal policy. They occupy a unique position, acting on behalf of a profession which is frequently critical of education policy while also being a key part of the organization in which those policies are often developed. Read more.

There was no shortage of pre-existing programs devoted to teacher leadership at the time of Duncan’s announcement. The nation’s largest unions, as well as groups like ASCD, Teach Plus, and the Center for Teaching Quality, have been advocating for teacher leadership in various forms for years.

But those groups also aren’t in control of education policy.

“What separates [Teach to Lead] is, if you have the backing of the U.S. Department of Education, which has connections and ties to different districts and states, that gives it some authority,” said Geneviève DeBose, who helped develop Teach to Lead from the National Board side before returning to the classroom in New York City this year.

With few instructions and even less financing, Teach to Lead started slowly. The team launched Commit to Lead, a gimmicky website where participants could vote on the quality of teacher-leadership ideas submitted by users. But mostly, the organizers focused on outreach, looking to those in the field for ideas on what the initiative should be. Many people wanted clarity on the concept of teacher leadership itself.

“There definitely was an ask even from educators to please define it: ‘Who is a teacher leader?’” Davis said. Duncan, for his part, has refused to define it, and the department has followed his lead. Doing more than that would risk jeopardizing the teacher-led nature, Teach to Lead organizers said.

“We really have been trying to think through how to label it but not label it,” Davis said. “Everyone can define their own path. You can define what works for you, where you can fit in.”

Teacher Geneviève DeBose listens to a group team member speak during the Teach to Lead summit in Boston. She says that the education community must work to build structures that support teacher leadership. "I think creating this space has been really powerful," she said.

In December, Teach to Lead rolled out in earnest, primarily through a set of three summits across the country, starting with Louisville, Ky., followed by Denver and Boston. Each summit required educators to apply for attendance by submitting an idea that would cultivate teacher leadership in their school or district. The summits were designed to help teachers develop those ideas, through networking and activities that offered chances for constructive criticism.

At the Denver summit, held in January, the ideas spanned all levels of development—some were just hatched while others already had dedicated grant funding. But the ideas themselves played only a small part in the meeting. The larger goal was to develop leadership skills in the teachers that they could bring back to their district and spread, thereby creating structures to support teacher leadership over the country.

Where most conferences involve sitting and listening to lectures, the summit hinged on group work, with a lot of moving around. Teachers practiced elevator pitches for their ideas, learning that they have, on average, seven seconds to gain someone’s interest. And they received feedback from “critical friends,” experienced educators brought in from the 70 organizations who have pledged support to Teach to Lead.

“It’s amazing to see this many teacher leaders together, and hear all their ideas, and to know that we are not all so different from each other,” said Shunk, from the Cadre of Distinguished Educators, who attended the Denver summit with two colleagues, seeking to further develop their recently launched program.

Thirty days after each summit, participants go through a check-in with the Education Department to see how they’re progressing and what help they still need. Additional check-ins have happened or are slated to happen at the 60- and 90-day marks.

From each summit, in addition, the Teacher Ambassador Fellows will select three ideas to treat as “leadership labs,” meaning they will get extra investment from the Education Department to support their implementation and possible scaling-up.

Structural Changes

Duncan told the Teaching & Learning Conference attendees to hold him accountable when he returns for the next conference. That anniversary comes in March.

An early appraisal would be that Teach to Lead has shown promise so far as fledgling initiatives go—many educators who attended the summits spoke highly of the program—but that teacher-leadership advocates see it as only a piece of a larger project. The federal government’s apparent interest in teacher leadership is no guarantee that state or district policymakers exhibit the same interest. Teacher leadership may be formally established in some schools, but if teachers expect broader change and influence, advocates say, they still need to pursue additional structural supports.

“Teacher leadership is not just a policy, it’s a systematic change,” Allen said.

Megan M. Allen, director for programs in teacher leadership at Mount Holyoke College, in Mass., arrived at the Boston Teach to Lead summit as both a participant and a keynote speaker. "Speak the truth. Even if your voice shakes," she told them.

The structure, experts say, starts with providing genuine professional opportunities to teachers, some of whom are wary of empty promises. Experts say that some administrators, in their haste to promote the concept of teacher leadership, fail to offer any kind of meaningful leadership roles, equate added tasks to leadership, or merely try to put teachers on an administrative track.

“If you don’t offer leadership opportunities for teachers to excel in their profession, to grow—to be frank, to make more money—and to have elevated roles, if you don’t make those opportunities, and still allow them to stay in the classroom, you are asking for your best and brightest teachers to leave the classroom in order to excel,” Buck said.

At the same time, teacher-leadership proponents say, administrators need to make space in school cultures to accommodate teacher voice, ensuring that teachers don’t have to worry about reprisals for offering their ideas or feedback.

“I’ve gotten knocked down a lot,” said Maddie Fennell, a part-time Teaching Ambassador Fellow and one of the organizers behind the Teach to Lead summits. But she adds that weathering a storm makes you stronger. “I can’t lay my head on a pillow at night if I don’t think that I did everything possible that I could to make a difference in the lives not only of my colleagues but children.”

Finally, advocates say one of the best things school leaders can do to help is give teachers space to collaborate on projects and learn from each other.

“If you want me to be in a position where I can actually support my colleagues in terms of their curriculum planning or their lesson delivery or classroom culture, I need time to do that,” DeBose said.

Fennell says that principals, who can be in the unfortunate position of “taking orders from above but grief from below,” can turn to teachers as a lifeline, a process that starts with communication.

“A principal has to take the time to talk to their teachers, find out what skills they’re bringing to the table, and match that with a need in the building,” Fennell said.

Such efforts don’t have to break the budget, said Allen, adding that teacher leadership is about a school, district, or state having a vision and knowing that it’s going to take some skill and “different thinking” in order to build teacher leadership.

“Sometimes the best thing we can do for teacher leadership is just step back and get out of the way,” Allen said. “I think you put a bunch of really great, hardworking, dedicated teacher leaders together and they can do great things.”


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