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Leadership lifts teachers

Job satisfaction jumps as more classroom educators coach—and lead—their colleagues
Jessica Cuthbertson, a teacher leader in Aurora Public Schools, teaches middle school students. Cutherbertson considers herself a “teacherpreneur” and attends summer retreats via the Center for Teaching Quality.
Jessica Cuthbertson, a teacher leader in Aurora Public Schools, teaches middle school students. Cutherbertson considers herself a “teacherpreneur” and attends summer retreats via the Center for Teaching Quality.

Jessica Cuthbertson’s dental hygienist cleans the teeth of many unhappy teachers—exhausted, burned-out folks who feel pulled in too many directions and have too many papers to grade.

Cuthbertson isn’t one of them. “You’re the happiest teacher I see in this chair,” the hygienist told Cuthbertson during a recent appointment. “The others don’t speak about the profession with the joy that you do.”

One reason for Cuthbertson’s joy: Although she spends part of each day teaching eighth-grade English in the Aurora Public Schools, near Denver, her job has another dimension. She’s part of a growing national effort to retain teachers and improve instruction by creating a new corps of “teacher leaders”—classroom educators trained to coach colleagues, develop curriculum and even advocate for policy change.

Although teachers have long assumed such responsibilities informally and without compensation, teacher leadership programs aim to formalize the role by instituting rigorous selection processes, training and pay.

Cuthbertson, who has transformed her classroom into a “learning laboratory” where fellow teachers can watch her methods and try out their own, says the new way of working “has kept me professionally grounded.”

“It has kept me positioned as a learner, it has made me excited about the possibility of what schooling might look like in 10 years,” she says. “It has kept me in the profession.”

Old idea, new interest

Teacher leadership is not a new idea. For decades, education researchers have explored the formal and informal leadership responsibilities that teachers take on outside their classrooms, documenting the improvements in school climate and job satisfaction that result when teachers have a greater voice in running schools.

Teacher leaders must teach. Must a teacher leader teach?

    To some researchers and practitioners, the answer is yes, because only someone who continues to wrestle regularly with classroom challenges, even part-time, will have the expertise and credibility to help colleagues hone their teaching.

    “It keeps that connection between theory and practice,” says Steven Troen, director of teaching and learning in the Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan Public Schools in suburban Minneapolis-St. Paul.

    But not everyone agrees. Even teachers who move into non-teaching roles can retain “the soul and the knowledge of what it means to be a teacher leader—which is that you work collaboratively with teachers,” says Ann Lieberman, a senior scholar at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education. “You don’t ignore the complexity of the classroom, the kinds of kids you’re teaching, the culture of the school.”

    By definition, teacher leaders are not administrators. Rather than supervising or evaluating, teacher leaders coach, facilitate and inspire.

    And that makes teacher leadership different from—and, for some, preferable to—education’s traditional career path, which commonly steers gifted teachers into administrative positions.

    “It breaks my heart that wonderful teachers leave the classroom,” says Robin McBee, a teacher education professor at Rowan University in New Jersey. “I want to be able to promote the development of more teachers who lead from the classroom.”

Some older education reform initiatives, such as site-based management, drew on that work. But a confluence of issues—the growing complexity of school management, an increased interest in foreign education systems and renewed attention to the problem of retaining talented teachers in the profession—has given the teacher leadership concept new currency.

Managing a school—including supervising instruction, evaluating staff, forging community connections, meeting with parents and reporting to district higher-ups—has become too complex a job for even a principal to do alone. Delegating some leadership responsibilities to teachers is an obvious solution.

“The principal should be an instructional leader, but the principal shouldn’t have to be the only instructional leader in that building,” says Mary Jane Cobb, executive director of the Iowa State Education Association, the teachers’ union.

American educators have also started to pay closer attention to the way teachers work in foreign nations like Singapore and Finland, whose students consistently outrank U.S. students on international assessments.

Teachers in those systems spend far less time in the classroom than do their American counterparts—17 hours a week in Singapore compared to nearly 27 hours in the United States—leaving more time to refine practice by observing or collaborating with colleagues.

Such peer-to-peer support is the best way to improve instructional practice, many say—far more effective than are dictates handed down from supervisors.

“When it’s the teacher next door that’s helping you to do it, the impact is just so much greater,” says Bill Bechtol, deputy superintendent of Eanes ISD in Austin. “There’s a higher trust level.”

And expanding teacher leadership opportunities not only helps improve instruction, it can also persuade talented teachers to remain in a profession notorious for offering seasoned veterans few chances to grow in their careers. “It’s rare that people can hang in there for 25, 30 years,” says Ann Lieberman, a senior scholar in Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education. “People who are smart or who read or who want to know more and do more get worn out, and want to do something different.”

Leadership experiments

Across the country, educators and policymakers are experimenting with ways to improve PD and classroom instruction.

In the 8,000-student Eanes ISD, three dozen teachers mentor new entrants to the profession. They also coach colleagues on instructional methods and the best use of the tablet computers the district provides to every student. Many more teachers work in teams to develop expertise in particular content areas, returning to their home schools to share that knowledge.

“We want them all to see themselves as teacher leaders,” Bechtol says. “The more things are done closer to the classroom, the better the results.”

In the 38,000-student Aurora Public Schools, Cuthbertson spends part of her day teaching eighth-graders, part of it helping fellow teachers refine their practice, and part of it sharing best practices through blogging and social media. She’s careful not to suggest she has all the answers.

“You don’t bring me your broken teachers—I’m not going to wave my wand and fix them,” she says. “But if you have a real question or if you want to try something and you’re just a little afraid to try it with your own kids, come on in and try it here.”

In Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan Public Schools, which enrolls 27,000 students in suburban Minneapolis-St. Paul, teachers for the past two years have been leading workshops at an annual professional development day. The teacher-led workshops have covered such topics as integrating technology into middle school social studies, the use of formative assessment in science, and the best ways to reach diverse learners.

“The first year that we did it, I had 30-year veteran teachers come up to me and say, ‘Best staff development day ever,’” says Steven Troen, the district’s director of teaching and learning. “It was practical, it was peer-to-peer, they had great conversations and dialogue and sharing, and they left with ideas they can use.”

Broader-based teacher leadership initiatives are also underway. The National Education Association is partnering with the Center for Teaching Quality (CTQ) and the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards on a three-year Teacher Leadership Initiative that will ultimately reach 1,000 teachers nationwide. Participants take a months-long course—paid for by the partner organizations and largely delivered online—covering leadership and education policy before completing leadership projects of their own.

And this fall, the state of Iowa launched a three-year, $150 million Teacher Leadership and Compensation initiative, the goal of which is to install one-quarter of the state’s 34,000 teachers in formal leadership positions—including as instructional coaches, mentors to new teachers and curriculum developers.

Culture change

The most fundamental challenge confronting teacher leadership efforts may be the cultural change they demand. Traditionally, schools operate hierarchically and hermetically, with a principal at the top and teachers working alone, behind closed doors. As the public schools confront new challenges—the task of preparing increasing numbers of low-income and minority students for jobs in a demanding, globalized economy—they need to adopt new approaches, teacher leadership advocates say.

“I cannot see us solving all the problems that we’re going to be facing without a very different leadership system,” says CTQ head Barnett Berry. Developing new ways of cultivating teachers “has to become a must-do on a superintendent’s agenda.”

For superintendents interested in that work, time can be “the four-letter word of education reform,” Berry says. Full-time classroom teachers seldom have a spare minute for the extensive collaborations built into the schedule of a teacher leader like Cuthbertson.

Solving that problem may require districts to rethink the definition of a teaching position, creating more hybrid teaching/coaching roles. Districts can also restructure the time already set aside for professional development. Three times per semester, Eanes ISD starts the school day two hours late to give teachers a chance to meet in professional learning communities for discussions led by teacher facilitators.

Rethinking resources

Cultivating teacher leadership also takes money—to train teacher leaders, compensate them for their additional responsibilities, and cover their classrooms while they work with their colleagues.

Funding may be local: the affluent Eanes ISD started its instructional coaching program more than five years ago using surplus funds. It has cut back and then restored the program as state school aid fluctuated during the Great Recession.

Funding also may come from non-profits. In Colorado, CTQ and a statewide business-education coalition have helped support Cuthbertson’s work. Or, funding may come from the state. Iowa’s teacher leadership grants of about $309 per student, currently funded under a three-year phase-in, will eventually be folded into the statewide education funding formula.

“We spend a lot of money on externally-driven professional development, and what we’re trying to do here is cultivate more teachers who can lead the professional development of their colleagues,” says Berry of CTQ. “A lot of this can be done with very little dollars if you rethink time and resources.”

In small districts, such rethinking has its limits, says Denny Wulf, superintendent of the 2,600-student Norwalk Community School District in suburban Des Moines.

“I spent a large chunk of my career trying to make this happen without the money,” says Wulf, who eventually parlayed his frustration into a seat on the task force that developed Iowa’s statewide program. “I could not cut the pie any differently. I had to increase the size of the pie.”

Superintendents considering allocating scarce resources to teacher leadership initiatives won’t necessarily see a test-score payoff. Although studies confirm that empowering teachers increases job satisfaction, decreases turnover and improves school climate, evidence that such efforts boost student achievement remains limited.

But education research hasn’t yet caught up to the growing interest in teacher leadership efforts, says Nathan Bond, associate professor of curriculum and instruction at Texas State University, who edited a recent book about teacher leaders.

Despite the shortage of data, teacher leadership is a better bet than many of the education reform initiatives preoccupying the nation’s schools, says David Benson, superintendent of Iowa’s 16,000-student Cedar Rapids Community School District.

“This reform initiative, in my opinion, is aimed at the correct point of contact,” Benson says. “That point of contact is a better instructional design delivered by a better-trained teacher to arrive at better results for kids.”

Deborah Yaffe is a freelance writer based in New Jersey.