Unleashing Teacher Leadership Series: Retain Your Teachers

September 7, 2022

Unleashing Teacher Leadership Series: Retain Your Teachers

Unleashing Teacher Leadership Series
Our newest blog series explores how districts and schools are using teacher leadership roles to improve teaching and learning while, at the same time, creating a career path for advancement that retains effective teachers in the profession. NIET and our partners will share how teacher leadership roles are structured and funded, tips for selecting and supporting teachers to move into leadership roles, and the training and resources required for teacher leaders to be successful. 
This is the first in a multi-part series on teacher leadership that draws on NIET’s more than 20 years of experience training and supporting over 35,000 teacher leaders, along with school and district leaders who support them. We invite you to follow along with this series over the course of the year using the Twitter hashtag: #teacherleadership. 

Retain Your Teachers: How Establishing Multiple Teacher Leadership Positions Creates a School Teachers Want to Be In

By Dr. Joshua H. Barnett, CEO, NIET

In conversations with school system leaders from across the nation, we know many districts are starting the school year with staffing concerns. One large district we are supporting had over 300 open positions as the school year began. Short term strategies such as emergency credentials or a shorter school week are not proving effective in filling the vacancies and are not beneficial for students in the long term. As districts, policymakers, and communities, look to get ahead of this challenge, we propose that teacher leadership roles are the promising long-term solution. Here is why.

Today’s teachers look for leadership opportunities

Today’s teachers increasingly look for opportunities to take on non-administrative leadership roles that enable them to have a broader impact beyond their own classrooms. This increased interest in leadership roles coincides with efforts by educators across the nation to accelerate student learning out of the pandemic. 

In our over 20 years of helping school districts create formal, instructionally-focused teacher leader positions, we have pinpointed a few lessons learned that can lead to success. Yet many current models of teacher leadership are inadequately designed to truly accelerate learning, lacking a focus on instructional improvement. Often, even when teacher leader roles do place a  focus on instructional improvement, the teachers who take them on lack the formal authority, support, training and tools to be successful. Structuring these roles for success is critical in meeting the needs of our students today and providing a pathway to attract and retain the educators for tomorrow. 

Establish multiple, interconnected leadership positions to increase opportunity, reach, and impact 

Our partner districts have found that when it comes to formal instructional teacher leadership positions, there are numerous advantages to creating multiple, interconnected roles. These  positions should be connected to one another in an advancement structure that enables teachers to grow from one role to the next in a sequenced way. 

For example, we support a number of school systems where master teachers are released to provide instructional leadership for their colleagues. Master teachers lead collaborative teams of teachers during weekly professional learning communities, observe and provide feedback on classroom lessons, provide teachers with individual coaching, model instruction and co-teach as needed, as well as serve on the school leadership team led by the principal. The master teacher role is squarely focused on implementing proven strategies for instructional improvement identified by research. To do this, master teachers adapt learning strategies to the needs of teachers and students in their school. This support structure contributes to a professional environment in which all teachers are better able to succeed and, as a result, less likely to leave. 

Incorporating classroom-embedded “mentor teacher” positions into a schoolwide leadership structure alongside full-time “master teacher” positions confers the following advantages. First, adding mentor roles provides more teachers with opportunities to take on formal instructional teacher leadership roles in their schools. Mentors generally support eight to ten of their colleagues. Second, the mentor role offers an important opportunity for expert teachers who are not ready to engage in instructional leadership full time and would like to continue teaching their own classes. Mentor teachers can also co-teach, model lessons, and co-lead instructional leadership team meetings alongside master teachers, preparing them to take on that role. 

Having multiple roles extends the reach of formal instructional teacher leadership in significant ways. Incorporating both master and mentor teacher positions into a school’s teaching staff greatly expands instructional leadership capacity, enabling all teachers to benefit from more frequent observations, providing higher doses of in-class coaching, and increasing support from expert teachers in planning and facilitating collaborative team meetings. 

The mentor role in particular helps keep the schoolwide instructional leadership team deeply grounded in the realities of day-to-day classroom teaching. “During our meetings, we’ll look to our mentor teachers and ask, ‘How does that sound to you for your classroom? Does that sound manageable? Does that seem like it really matches your needs? Does that seem like it will make sense to teachers?’,” explained Amy Whittington, the principal of North/South Elementary in Central Decatur Community School District in Iowa. “One of our mentor teachers is really good about saying, ‘Okay, this is me speaking from the classroom, and that’s unreasonable’ or ‘We’re not going to be able to do that that way, so let’s look at it from another angle.’” 

When teachers have a career path, they are more likely to stay in a district

Leveraged strategically, teacher leadership roles can provide a kind of “super fuel” for solving many pressing challenges at once: expanding instructional leadership and distributing leadership in school buildings; reliably observing and providing more useful and frequent feedback to teachers; greatly improving the relevance and effectiveness of professional learning; increasing teacher retention; and accelerating student learning. We see this happen across the nation as teacher leadership roles become a sought after opportunity.

Slaton Independent School District in Texas provides a strong example of how teacher leadership roles can strengthen the leadership pipeline. Master teachers often move into school leadership positions in Slaton, creating openings for mentor teachers to move along the career ladder into the master teacher roles. Classroom teachers are recruited to fill the newly opened mentor teacher positions. “I tell my most effective teachers that I see them as potential members of the leadership team in their school,” said Superintendent Jim Andrus, “Being selected as a teacher leader becomes a goal, and they are more likely to remain in the district with a career pathway to pursue.” 

Teacher leadership roles are also helping to retain effective teachers in the Chinle Unified School District, a 4,200 square mile area of the Navajo Nation in Arizona. Working with NIET, Chinle has developed master and mentor teacher positions in every school. These teacher leaders play a critical role in supporting teachers to use new, high-quality curricula. “The NIET partnership has helped foster a professional learning community in which the stakeholders are constantly analyzing data and figuring out what is working and what isn’t,” Superintendent Quincy Natay said. This learning for teachers is having a direct impact on the quality and consistency of teaching and learning across the district.  

In Orangeburg County School District in South Carolina, Elloree Elementary School Principal Casandra Jenkins is focused on how a structure of teacher leaders in her school is helping her staff to use high-quality instructional materials. Teacher leaders work with school leaders to plan professional learning and classroom coaching. “Our teacher leaders work closely with teachers to break the curriculum down into small pieces and make connections with specific expectations for strong teaching in our state teaching standards,” Dr. Jenkins said. “Once teachers saw how they could take a lesson plan and customize it to the needs of their children, how their own teaching practices would bring the lesson to life, they started to see how to use the curriculum each day to meet the needs of students.” Teachers leaders are playing a key role in this system of continuous improvement.

Teacher leadership roles offer a powerful solution to the challenges of the teacher shortage by creating schools teachers want to be in. Teacher leaders working with school leaders offer the opportunity for high-impact professional learning communities and classroom coaching for teachers. Through their participation in the school leadership team, teacher leaders enhance the quality, consistency and alignment between instruction and other school systems or programs. This results in a professional learning environment that attracts and retains teachers. In the longer term, the opportunity to take on a leadership role offers an incentive for talented teachers to remain in the profession. As districts seek to attract, develop and retain teachers, teacher leadership is a strategy that works.