Teacher leadership is the fuel to get things done

June 13, 2019

Teacher leadership is the fuel to get things done

by NIET Chief Policy Officer Kristan Van Hook

"We had an opening recently for a second grade teacher. We had 78 applicants in the first four days."

Pat Mapes, superintendent of Perry Township schools in Indianapolis got my attention with that response to the teacher shortage question. Mapes leads a public school district that has the highest percentage of English Learners in the state of Indiana (28%), and the majority of these students are refugees from Burma. Perry Township should be struggling to fill teacher shortages. But they aren't. Last year the turnover rate in this high-need district was half the national average.

Mapes joined NIET CEO Dr. Candice McQueen and leaders and educators from Indiana, Iowa, Texas and Maryland for an event in Washington, D.C., last week to highlight ways policymakers can support teacher leadership. At the event, which also featured U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander's Chief of Staff David Cleary, Teach Plus CEO Roberto Rodriguez, and Ross Wiener of the Aspen Institute, NIET released a new paper with tangible recommendations: Investing in Teacher Leadership: A Better Way to Make Job-Embedded Professional Learning a Reality in Every School. Dr. McQueen, former education commissioner in Tennessee, led a discussion about state and district investments in teacher leadership.

McQueen highlighted Tennessee's focus on increasing teacher effectiveness and how teacher leadership is essential in driving improvements at the school and classroom level. She noted that those results can only happen when there is clarity around the role: "Teacher leadership has the potential to bridge the capacity gap in education; but to do so, it needs to be focused and formalized."

Rodriguez described conditions that are essential for effective teacher leadership: shared leadership at the school level, a school culture focused on growth, and time dedicated to this work. Sheena Washington, a Teach Plus fellow from Prince George's County, Maryland, said, "We need teacher leadership structures that place educators at the forefront of the conversation."

Perry Township, Mapes' district, has been a leader in doing just that. Seven years ago, Perry Township introduced formal teacher leadership roles in two of its highest-need schools. The goal was to provide intensive support to classroom teachers to help them meet the needs of a rapidly growing, diverse student population, with big annual increases in the numbers of English Learners. A federal grant provided initial support for those two schools, and based on positive results, the district used its own resources to make this the centerpiece of improvement efforts districtwide. The results have been remarkable, with Perry's student proficiency rates doubling those of similar districts and now surpassing state averages.

We shouldn't be surprised with Perry's results, since teacher leadership is a fundamental element of the world's best-performing education systems, according to Indiana Representative Bob Behning. Rep. Behning spent three years leading a task force of state legislators studying high-performing education systems across the world. The National Council of State Legislators (NCSL) report No Time to Lose found teacher leadership was one of four key components of high-performing systems, along with early learning, aligned career and technical education, and a systems approach that pulls all of these elements together.

This year, Rep. Behning worked to create a bipartisan coalition in support of state funding for innovative district work to create teacher leadership systems. He was clear that teacher leadership cannot be an add-on. Teacher leader roles must be formalized as part of the educational system, with clear authority, accountability, resources, and time.

That is happening statewide in Iowa. Ryan Wise, director of education in Iowa, described his state's multiyear, multimillion dollar Teacher Leadership and Compensation System as foundational to instructional improvement, explaining that "formalizing these roles has been the fuel to get things done." For example, technology in the classroom was moving faster than teachers could figure out how to use it effectively in their lessons. Teacher leaders provided peer teachers in their buildings with support integrating technology into specific lessons, and they followed up with coaching to be sure it went as planned. School-based teacher leaders support their peers to successfully introduce new content and strategies, analyze data, and make adjustments to ensure every student is moving forward. As new challenges or priorities arise, such as social and emotional learning hurdles or a focus on STEM, Iowa districts and schools now have about 10,000 trained teacher leaders in place to support that work.

Math teacher Christina Jamison from Grand Prairie, Texas, described how her position as a master teacher created a role for her that was completely different than prior ones as an instructional coach or department chair. "Teachers need to know their work is based on research," she explained. "As a teacher leader, I am able to model and support the introduction of strategies that will impact students and enable them to grow immediately." In her position, Jamison is able to give timely feedback to teachers – something administrators are not always able to do. She shared data from Grand Prairie High School illustrating that all of the math teachers she supports had significant growth in the number of students achieving the level of "mastery."

We hear a lot of great ideas about what should be done to improve teaching and learning. Putting in place a new curriculum, focusing on social and emotional learning, investing in early childhood education, and strengthening career and technical education are all important areas of work. Think of these as the "what" of educational improvement. But the "how" is often overlooked. How can these initiatives and investments have the greatest chance for success?

Teacher leaders are an essential part of the "how" of educational improvement – providing the fuel to get things done in every classroom. Teacher leaders grow the skills and knowledge of colleagues to deliver great classroom instruction, which strengthens school culture and results in teachers wanting to stay and to grow as professionals. Teacher leadership is no longer a "nice to have." Based on these results, it is a "got to have." 

Pat Mapes summed up why: "Teacher leaders help create a culture of success and high student achievement in our schools."