Want to Improve Schools? Look to Teacher Leaders
In the first half of 20th century, schools served to prepare students for a hierarchical, industrial workforce that help build and manufacture America into a global superpower. Students saw in schools a relative reflection of what they would see in the workforce: a multi-layered, top to bottom strata from boss at the top to worker at the bottom. Within the walls of the school, there was a clear line from principal to teacher. Since the turn of the century, the content we teach and the instructional strategies we use have undergone a gigantic shift. No longer are we preparing students to work their way from line worker to upper management. In response, we value problem solving, collaboration, and higher-order thinking.
Despite our changing curricular approach, schools are still slow to make the same cultural shifts and institutional changes within the schoolhouses themselves.
One such shift is a move toward teacher leadership. Sharing leadership with teachers allows a school to capitalize on the ideas, skills, and expertise of all the adults in the building, not just those in administrative positions. Today's teachers are more than content deliverers. They are dreamers and thinkers who are envisioning students' futures, not just their final semester grade. Veteran teachers possess a breadth of classroom knowledge with insight into changing student cultures and a pedagogical repertoire far more extensive than any teacher prep course could include in a syllabus. Novice teachers work from a cultural perspective closer to that of students and can offer insight into the learning profiles and preferences of technology natives. To not include these voices when making decisions about children's education is tantamount to malpractice.
Engaging teachers in teacher leadership roles builds teacher's professional esteem and develops their skill along the way. In serving in various teacher leader roles, I have honed my own teaching skills. My work as a state level standards coach has served as a driving force behind changes in my approach to instruction, my work with my PLC, and my work as a provider of district, state-level, and national professional development. District PLC meetings allow me to work with colleagues to ensure that there are high expectations for all students in our school and district. My ability to support professional development in my district by sharing professional learning has led to greater collaboration among schools and the development of a clear focus on high-quality curriculum and instruction across the district. I have developed my own personal learning network of colleagues from across the state and country. I maintain dialogue about instructional practices with teachers and educational stakeholders across the country through social media, a teacher blog, and via email. I do this by sharing my own insights and building on the thoughts and ideas of others to strengthen my practice and the profession.
Though some teacher leaders emerge naturally, the best models of teacher leadership are those where leaders are strategically developed. Tennessee has answered the call to develop teacher leaders in many ways. Our state views teacher leadership as a powerful tool in increasing educator effectiveness and student growth. To that end, the Tennessee Department of Education has developed its own Teacher Leadership Network and has partnered with non-profits to access teacher voice. The state department has an expansive program that allows district to network for a year in order to develop a plan for systematic teacher leadership that meets the district's needs. District teams consider needs analysis, funding, and personnel in developing a plan before implementation. Once district plans are in place, Tennessee teachers can grow as leaders in many ways from district level leaders to state wide fellowships centered on various topics including policy and assessment. Teachers leverage their own specialty be it instructional strategies, data analysis, or technology use in the classroom. Many are given an extra period or extended contracts to provide coaching to their peers in these areas.
For too long, the only option for teachers to "move up" in their career was to move into an administrative position which was often removed from curriculum and instruction. Those with a heart for instruction were not being fulfilled in administrative roles. Also, we were robbing our classrooms of our best instructors. But as the landscape of life inside and outside the school walls change, our ideas about what "moving up" changes as well. It is possible to harness the expertise of our best teachers, leave them in the classroom where they are most fulfilled, and leverage them to help make school a better place.
I want the best for all my students, which means I want them to experience the best education from the best teachers they can possibly have before, during, and after the time they are with me. The most important thing I can do to strengthen and improve their chances of success is to think beyond the doors of my classroom and be an active participant in the current move toward teacher leadership. As a trainer and facilitator of professional development and learning, I have experienced first-hand the phenomena of teachers coming together to share ideas, practices, and problems. This kind of synergy among teachers will directly impact student success.
Derek Voiles is the 2017 Tennessee Teacher of the Year and a member of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year (NNSTOY).