When Teachers Take the Lead

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Teachers have a wealth of knowledge, not only of students' academic needs, but also their social-emotional needs. Teachers know when to push their learners and when to pull back. Above all, we see our students as people. We know how to motivate them so they become engaged. But when top-down policies govern education, we rarely have the opportunity to put our knowledge to work, and the constraints only seem to be intensifying. My teaching colleagues and I often wonder: Are there any ways to better leverage our expertise for students' benefits?

It was with this in mind that we traveled to Minneapolis recently to attend the first Teacher-Powered Schools National Conference. The conference was held in November 2015 and organized by the Teacher-Powered Schools Initiative, of which the Center for Teaching Quality is a partner organization. It was well-attended by teachers from across the country who believe in the ability of teachers to take the lead in creating schools and education systems that honor the needs of learners. Some attendees were from schools completely governed by teachers. They provided information and evidence of what happens when teachers secure the opportunity to lead. Others, like me, represented schools where teachers have varying degrees of autonomy.

I can’t stop thinking about what we learned at this conference. The concept of opening the door for teachers to design and run schools is something that resonated with my colleagues and me. It is something that we have been fighting for since we first met and started teaching together four years ago. We believe in the ability of teachers to gather together around a shared vision to harness the brilliance of all learners—teachers and students—in their schools and across whole systems of education.

The fact that teacher-powered schools exist, and are doing well, means it is possible to turn the top-down approach on its head. Here are three reasons why we need to take advantage of this opportunity for educators and students:

1.) Leveraging Teacher Knowledge

How can policymakers truly understand the implications of a system or a policy they have created if they are not living in the reality of that system? Each day, our government asks teachers and their students to live under policies they had little to no voice in creating. This method of operation is crippling the very people who are most connected to the education of the young people in this country—teachers.

Teachers work tirelessly to provide students the pathways for success, allowing them to individualize their learning experiences. We have a deep understanding of the needs of our students. We hear their voices. We are connected to their struggles. However, we are seldom asked for input on larger policies of the systems in which we teach and students learn. What would happen if policymakers provided opportunities to leverage the collective brilliance and knowledge of all teachers? Some teams of teachers are already free to make all curricular decisions, take charge of school culture, and even rethink guiding principles of their schools. There is evidence that these teams create schools responsive to the unique needs of the student populations they serve.

2.) Increasing Teacher Accountability

Many outsiders point to teacher resistance to restrictive accountability measures as proof that teachers do not want to be held accountable. But teachers aren't resisting the very idea of accountability. Put simply, teachers want to be accountable for doing what is best for the students.

In order for teachers to be able to make the decisions that can harness the talents of each individual student, policymakers must provide teachers with the flexibility to make adjustments to the systems in which we teach. Like most professionals, my colleagues and I will accept accountability for the results of decisions we make ourselves.

3.) Creating Responsive Systems

What would happen to a business that failed to respond to the needs of the consumer? Each day, teachers are asked to teach in institutions not designed for what our students—our "customers"—really need. We face challenges in applying our educational expertise to create spaces where the needs of all learners are met.

At the conference, I learned some specific examples of how teacher-infused leadership structures allow teachers to design ways to hear students' voices, see the areas of need, and work productively as teams to figure out the best ways to respond. I was inspired when I heard presenters from Social Justice Humanitas Academy describe how teachers carry out their mission "to achieve social justice through the development of the complete individual." Clearly, teacher-led schools are one means of putting the needs of students first.

My colleagues and I have begun to pursue teacher-powered policies and practices in our own work, starting with the development of a shared vision for educating the whole child. This vision is aligned with both our own personal truths and the truths of our students. We are more motivated than ever to create a space for student learners to become empowered and have a part in their own education. We are now proactively working with our administrators to create space for us, the teachers, to make school level decisions necessary to make our vision a reality.

But we are just one team, seeking change in one school. Many more teams of teachers have the capacity to do this work. The time has come for policymakers to start creating opportunities for teachers—those on the front lines of education—to design and run institutions and systems in a way that honors the needs of the learners. With these opportunities, we can create spaces where student voices are heard, and all students are given opportunities to shine.

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