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Teachers, Make 2015 Your Leadership Year

“Teacher leadership” is a term educators heard quite a bit in 2014. From full-on initiatives, including the Department of Education’s Teach to Lead campaign—supported both by ASCD and the NEA—to reports examining teacher leadership and making recommendations to empower teacher leaders, such as this one from the Aspen Institute, the topic has been constantly in mind and in the news.

But, why is teacher leadership—and especially a clear definition of it—important? The reasons are many, but I’d like to look at the three that, in my mind, rise above the rest. Each of these arguments in favor of empowered teacher leaders leads us to one important conclusion: 2015 needs to be a leadership year for teachers across the United States.

1. Teachers want more responsibility, and they want to be in the classroom.

This is the ideal time to examine the benefits of developing teacher leaders. More than half of the teachers surveyed in the 2012 MetLife Survey of the American Teacher said that they were interested in combining teaching with another responsibility in their school, but only 16 percent were interested in becoming a principal. This suggests that we must find ways to develop pathways for teacher growth that do not assume that the only way to grow is to leave the classroom. If leaving the classroom remains the only way to advance professionally, we will continue to lose our best, most talented teachers. We must change this paradigm.

Giving teachers the power to lead is crucial to improving teaching and learning. We know that students who have consecutive years of skilled teachers are more likely to make academic progress than students whose opportunity to learn from master teachers isn’t present for multiple years in a row.

If there is no system to develop and support teacher leaders, then those with leadership aspirations will either leave the classroom or, many times, abandon the profession entirely. To keep great teachers teaching, we need to get their voices heard in schools. They need to receive support from administration and the development and encouragement to support their peers as well.

2. Today’s principals and administrators have so much on their plates; they need a teacher leadership structure in their schools to achieve success.

A principal is asked to be an administrator, instructional leader, community leader, teacher evaluator, and more. How can one person do it all? In the same 2012 MetLife survey referenced above, 75 percent of principals said the role was too complex for them to feel successful.

Schools need to re-assess both the expectations for principals and the contributions of teacher leaders—not to shift administrative work from principals to teachers but to re-examine how decision making and change happen at schools. Teachers can coach colleagues; veteran teachers can mentor new teachers; teachers can lead curriculum redesign. Leadership at a school site can be distributed with positive results.

What’s the most compelling reason to make this work? Everyone benefits. Principals have some of their many burdens lifted; great teachers receive the tools and platforms to transform their school environment, not just their classroom; and, most important, students benefit from a more effective learning environment and a thriving school culture.

3. We all need teachers’ voices to be better heard in debates and discussions about what’s best for all kids.

Teachers enjoy high levels of trust from families and students and can tell compelling stories about the effects of policy decisions on their students and their practice. Unfortunately, teachers’ voices and stories are often missing from important discussions—through no fault of their own—and thus the debate lacks an anchor in reality that only those in the classroom can lend.

ASCD hosted a Whole Child Symposium in December to explore just what teacher leadership is, why it’s important, and how to grow teacher leaders. Panelists from diverse roles across the education spectrum, from current and former teachers and principals to national leaders, and included

  • Peter DeWitt—former elementary teacher and principal; ASCD author; and popular Education Week blogger
  • Maddie Fennell—2013 U.S. Department of Education Classroom Fellow
  • Robyn Jackson—former teacher and principal; education consultant; and ASCD author
  • Jennifer Orr—kindergarten teacher and ASCD Emerging Leader
  • Becky Pringle—vice president, National Education Association
  • Tanya Tucker—vice president of alliance engagement, America’s Promise Alliance

The panelists agreed that we need a framework for developing teacher leaders but cautioned against overformalizing and regulating that framework lest it devolve into a checklist. Formal or informal, teachers need time and room to grow into teacher leaders.

Teacher leadership can be as much about school climate and culture as it is about instruction. Schools should recognize the varied skills and talents of the entire school staff and provide differentiated opportunities for teachers, just as they do for students.

The panelists also recognized that principals need professional development to help them see teachers’ leadership potential, and teachers need support and training to be successful in their leadership role.

What Do We Want to See in 2015?

Let’s recognize that developing teacher leaders is much more than “nice to have”—it’s critical.

Worldwide, we need nearly 4,000,000 new teachers to achieve universal primary education, according to this report. According to the U.S. Department of Education, enrollment in teacher preparation programs in the United States dropped 10 percent from 2004 to 2012. We need to attract and retain quality teachers in our classrooms to ensure each child is taught by a skilled teacher.

Teachers interested in exploring teacher leadership options should seek guidance, advice, encouragement, and professional development from current teacher leaders and administrators. They should not hesitate to make their desire to lead known.

When support isn’t available inside the school walls, aspiring teacher leaders can connect online to form learning and support networks. Social media platforms such as Twitter and personal blogs enable teachers to learn from each other, gain leadership insight, and improve their overall practice—even when nobody in their school is prepared to offer training.

Developing the leadership potential of teachers empowers them to better support student learning, encourages them to stay in the profession, and makes it possible for principals to be more effective. Schools and districts throughout the country need to encourage and empower teacher leaders at their respective sites and teachers need to actively seek out leadership roles. Let’s get started and make 2015 a year of successful teacher leadership!

Bio: Judy Seltz is Executive Director of ASCD, a global community dedicated to excellence in learning, teaching, and leading. Comprising 125,000 members—superintendents, principals, teachers, and advocates from more than 138 countries—the ASCD community also includes 56 affiliate organizations. ASCD's innovative solutions promote the success of each child and ASCD’s host of professional development programs, products, and services are designed to benefit your career.