The One-Two Punch of Teacher Leadership

May 20, 2020

The One-Two Punch of Teacher Leadership

By: NIET CEO Dr. Candice McQueen

"I wasn't sure what I was taking on, but I knew that if I had not taken the role, I might not have stayed in education."

Almost twenty years ago, one of my peers in my doctoral program recounted her journey from classroom teacher to master teacher. She spoke with such authority about how her advancement into a teacher leader role was the difference-maker for why she stayed in the profession and why she would eventually move into a principalship and then to a district leadership role. I vividly remember her passion for creating these formal pathways that support retention and advancement of top teachers. In fact, she called it the "one-two punch" for education – meaning, it is an especially effective force in solving for two issues at the heart of our challenge in K-12 education: 1) ensuring great teaching is happening in every classroom, for every student, and 2) building a leadership pipeline for individuals with instructional expertise to have the opportunity, competence, and confidence to take on other educational leadership positions.

To improve education, we need more education decision-makers and leaders to have classroom experience. Creating more formal pathways to leadership means that greater numbers of classroom teachers begin to serve in leadership roles and experience the influence of their work. Unfortunately, too few teachers today aspire or likely even understand how they could be in the role of a state leader or policymaker – for example, Chiefs for Change found that only 5% of teachers expressed an interest in being a chief state school officer. Right now, building a leadership pipeline is more essential than ever, not just for students' success but for our entire educational system. If we do not create more of these opportunities and encourage educators to step into them, we will lose out on ensuring decisions that affect the classroom are made by those who understand classroom practice.

So, how does that journey begin? The first step is by taking on a leadership role in your own school.

In the two decades that followed that doctoral conversation, after serving as a dean, state education commissioner, and now CEO of the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching, I am undoubtedly an advocate for teacher leaders and have seen firsthand how these roles develop educators' abilities and strengthen the pipeline. Without question, formal teacher leadership opportunities that are well-defined and supported produce growth – teacher growth, student growth, and personal growth. In fact, for a fairly small investment, teacher leaders have shown impact far beyond a modest increase in salary or an annual bonus. 

NIET's work with schools to create instructionally focused teacher leadership roles demonstrates significant increases in learning growth for students in schools with teacher leaders. Teacher retention rates in these schools, representing over 12,000 teachers across 10 states, were 14% higher than in similar schools. Research released by the New Teacher Center (NTC) found similar results, reporting that students in schools with the highest levels of reported instructional and teacher leadership performed up to 10 percentage points higher in math and English language arts, compared to schools with the lowest levels. NTC's study also found that when teachers are involved in decision-making processes related to school improvement and student conduct policies, students learn more.

Giving teachers a leadership role in supporting their peers' professional learning, as well as student growth, and then providing them with the authority, time, and training to be successful, enables them to proactively engage in decision-making for their school. This can support greater buy-in from other teachers and create critical communication loops between administration and teachers. Additionally, in our experiences at NIET in supporting well-defined master and mentor teacher roles, we have found that selecting and supporting a cadre of teacher leaders can have even greater impact. Cohorts of teacher leaders facilitate powerful adult learning experiences and lay the foundation for teachers to learn from each other and support systems change.

The benefits for administration, peers, and students seem obvious, but there are immense benefits for the teacher leader and, possibly, for the profession as a whole – especially in growing our pipeline to the state and federal levels. In most schools and districts across the country, teachers only see the principalship as the pathway to educational leadership. This is often not immediately attractive to many teachers who have not had the opportunity to lead. However, success in one leadership role empowers teachers with the confidence and knowledge to seek additional leadership opportunities. Moreover, when a pipeline exists that formally advances teachers as they demonstrate effectiveness and the propensity to lead, teachers will be more willing to see, understand, and then take that next step. Increasingly, that could mean more leaders in administration have roots in the classroom.

An example of this impact is in Gadsden Elementary School District, located in Arizona near the Mexican border. Gadsden is a high-need, historically low-performing district, with nearly all students qualifying as economically disadvantaged and with more than half identified as English learners. Gadsden partnered with NIET nearly a decade ago to build instructional leadership capacity. One of the primary levers came in the form of creating formal, instructionally focused master teachers in every building. Master teachers were empowered with the responsibility, authority, and accountability for leading professional learning teams and providing individual classroom coaching to teachers. Gadsden's master teachers embraced the concept of leaders "going first" and trying out a new idea, and as a result, their expertise and confidence grew.

This shift in mindset made an enormous difference in their outlook and ability to create positive change. It also built the district's collaboration skills and ability to work collectively to achieve common goals. Gadsden's long-term partnership with NIET has empowered a local, sustainable, and successful instructional leadership pipeline. In fact, six of the district's current eight principals started as master teachers. Students are thriving, too. In 2019, five of the district's eight schools earned an "A" from the state – many for the first time. None had earned an "A" prior to this partnership.

Gadsden exemplifies the "one-two punch" of teacher leadership: students are excelling, and this district is growing its own leaders. Gadsden shows that no matter a district's location, resources, or unique context, teacher leadership structures provide a system that equips adults and students to be successful.

Instead of wondering why teachers don't put themselves forward for the next policy role or step up to become the next education leader, we should step back and ask how we have equipped and empowered them to take that step? Teachers need opportunities to grow as a teacher leader in a pathway that supports educator and student growth, which will benefit kids and strengthen their confidence to move into other roles. When I look back on the last twenty years of my career, I can see the influence of teacher leaders because they have directly helped me to teach more effectively and informed my role as a policymaker. But, maybe more importantly, I have hired, promoted, elevated, and sought the advice of teacher leaders to ensure our profession learns and grows from those who know it best. I am confident that if we create more teacher leadership pathways, every part of our education system – from classrooms to Capitols – will be better off.

In schools that partner with NIET, teacher leadership is central to strengthening instruction and improving student achievement. Our Unleashing Teacher Leadership and Investing in Teacher Leadership papers share more about how to make this is a priority in states, districts, and schools across the country. Teacher leadership is supported directly as part of NIET's TAP System and Teacher Leadership Series.

Learn more about NIET at The National Institute for Excellence in Teaching (NIET) also just celebrated their 20th anniversary. Read more about their impact here.