College & Workforce Readiness Opinion

Why Teacher Leaders Are Critical to Advancing Global Education

By Noah Zeichner — August 27, 2015 9 min read
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Some education systems around the world have developed structured opportunities for teachers to move into leadership positions. In places like Ontario, Canada and Singapore where teacher retention rates are over 90%, teachers have clear career ladders and opportunities to be leaders. Noah Zeichner, a National Board-certified social studies teacher at Chief Sealth International School in Seattle, Washington, shares a model of teacher leadership in his district and shares strategies to consider in yours.

During the recent EdCamp Global, a 24-hour virtual convening of global educators from around the world, I participated in a Twitter chat that focused on advocating for global education. I was excited to hear from other educators about how they have worked to advance global education in their communities. Participating in the chat pushed me to reflect on a few key experiences that have helped me become a strong advocate for global education in my own school, district, and state.

A professional learning journey
In the summer of 2012, I traveled to Brazil as part of the yearlong Teachers for Global Classrooms (TGC) fellowship. (See my travel blog for details.) In the months leading up to the trip, I took an online course on best practices in global education.

When I started the fellowship, I already considered myself a global educator. I taught in an international school. I had coordinated a large school-wide global project. I was an avid world traveler and brought my international experiences back to my classroom. But after a few weeks in the program, I realized that I had a lot to learn.

The most important lesson was how to define and explain what global education really means. I started to see past the content (global education is more than just teaching about the world). Globally competent students (and teachers) must develop critical 21st century competencies that allow us to empathize and collaborate with people who have very different worldviews than our own.

At the end of the fellowship, we were charged with returning to our school districts and states and finding ways to advocate for this more nuanced definition of global education. I returned to Seattle ready for action.

A brief history of international education in Seattle Public Schools
I feel very fortunate to teach in one of Seattle Public Schools’ ten international schools. Seattle opened John Stanford International School (JSIS), its first international school, in 2000. Since then, the district has continuously worked on with business leaders, educators, parents, universities, and community organizations to designate nine more international schools as part of three K-12 pathways. My school, Chief Sealth International School, became an international school in 2010-11.

Transforming a school into an international school is no easy feat. It is critical that the school administration and staff share a vision for what the designation means to their school community. International schools in Seattle go through a year of intensive planning before international is added to their name. And when the ribbon cutting is complete, the schools have only just begun a multi-year journey of revising curriculum, designing interdisciplinary projects, establishing sister school partnerships, and providing professional learning opportunities for teachers and staff.

Building a structure of teacher leadership
In 2011, a team of teacher leaders from all of Seattle’s international schools was formed. For the next two years, I worked with colleagues from the other international schools to develop model unit plans, share resources, and organize an annual international schools symposium. During the symposia, teachers came out of isolation to learn what was going on in other buildings. We shared curriculum, project ideas, and studied common texts about teaching globally. We began to feel like a network of international schools, not just individual schools trying to reinvent themselves.

In 2013-14, we renamed our group the International Schools Leadership Team (ISLT). That year, through a partnership between the Center for Teaching Quality and Seattle Public Schools, I served in a hybrid role, dividing my time between the classroom and leading international education work in my school and district. Other ISLT members received a stipend for their participation in the group. That year we developed a common template for unit planning, wrote additional sample unit plans, created a PD session for international school principals, planned workshops for our colleagues, and began a much-needed calibration of immersion and world language instruction in our schools.

Moving toward system-wide impact
In the 2014-15 school year, the district provided a full time position to support international schools. Rather than hiring an individual, they divided the position among four teacher leaders, creating release time for us to serve on a core leadership team. Several other teacher leaders received stipends and a third tier of teachers who were more limited in their time but wanted to stay involved, were paid extra for attending meetings and serving on committees. The International School Leadership Team has representatives from all ten international schools and from all grade levels. The bulk of our work over the past year was to develop a robust series of professional learning modules to help educators teach and assess key global competencies and 21st century skills.

We have piloted several of the modules as 1-2 hour workshops and we are working with our schools’ leadership teams to embed pieces into our schools’ professional development plans. We also plan to share our work with district leadership so that some of the content can be incorporated into district-wide professional development. This is professional learning designed by and for teachers with the goal of advancing and sustaining global education not just in our international schools, but system-wide.

Why is teacher leadership so critical?
During the past twelve years, five superintendents have served in Seattle Public Schools. Our district surpasses the average urban school superintendent tenure, which is now just 3.2 years. In this same span of twelve years, my school has had four different principals. Each time there is a transition of leadership at the school or district level, momentum is lost, a story that is unfortunately true across the country.

Our international schools, serving thousands of students, have developed immersion language programs and have built capacity in teachers to teach globally, but it is the teacher leaders that have kept the work moving forward. Several members of our International Schools Leadership Team have been teaching in our schools for ten to fifteen years. We are able to support our principals and teaching colleagues by providing much-needed continuity through our leadership.

Strategies to advance global education
Teacher leaders in Seattle’s international schools have learned how to utilize a few central skills and strategies to advance global education. They include:

  • Speaking the language: Global education. International education. 21st century skills. Global competencies. Career and college ready.
    The list goes on. Effective global education advocates must be able to adjust their jargon for different audiences. Global education is in many ways just really good 21st century education. As teacher leaders, we need to be able to articulate to students, parents, administrators, and policy makers why educating for global competence is critical for all students. Whether we talk about developing the competencies required for success beyond high school in an interconnected world or the need to work collaboratively with people from different nations to solve complex global problems, using the right language is important.
  • Creating shared learning experiences: “We are an international school now. Please start teaching globally.” It is unlikely that even the most experienced teacher can instantly flip a switch and transform herself into a global educator. Teacher leaders can design and facilitate professional learning opportunities for colleagues who are new to global education. Teachers are not the only ones who might hesitate to buy in to a new international school vision. One of the best ways to develop a shared vision for global education in a school among teachers, administration, students, and parents, is to create school-wide global experiences. Teacher leaders in several of the international schools in Seattle have coordinated festivals, conferences, assemblies, and evening programs to give the school community an idea of what global education looks and feels like. These shared experiences often result in people getting excited about new projects and asking how they can help.
  • Navigating competing priorities: Common Core State Standards. Standardized tests. New teacher evaluation systems. School discipline programs. There is no shortage of administrative and instructional issues that principals and teachers deal with on a daily basis. Teacher leaders can help principals and their colleagues see global education not as one more initiative to add to the plate but rather, as the plate itself. Even in schools and districts with low principal and superintendent turnover, teacher leaders must help make the critical intersections between global education and other initiatives visible. In the classroom, we are often in the best position to evaluate the direct impact of various initiatives on student learning and engagement and to find ways to place them in the context of global education.

Schools do not need the word international in their name to offer a global education to their students. Seattle’s international schools, Asia Society’s International Studies Network (ISSN) schools, and numerous other schools around the world that have a global approach can serve as incubators for global teaching and learning. Teacher leaders across the country can then play a central role in taking it to scale so that ultimately, all schools provide students with a truly global, 21st century education. These system-wide changes will happen more rapidly when districts create the structures that allow teacher leadership to thrive.

Follow Noah, Seattle Public Schools, Heather, and Asia Society on Twitter.

Noah coordinated a student-led, school-wide festival called World Water Week from 2011-2014 and in 2015, he and his students organized the inaugural Washington State Global Issues Network Conference. For the past two years he has co-facilitated the weeklong Global Leadership Summer Institute. Noah was honored with the 2013-14 World Affairs Council World Educator Award and was among 50 finalists for the 2015 Global Teacher Prize. Read more about Noah’s work on his blog, Minding the Globe.

Image courtesy of Seattle Public Schools.

The opinions expressed in Global Learning 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.


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