Harnessing Teacher Talent for Leadership: The Feds Invest in Spreading the Idea

By Leonard Sparks

It's a lesson plan teachers have long clamored to see implemented, and the feds have now gotten behind peer-to-peer support and teacher leadership in a big way.

Hundreds of teacher-leaders have gathered at three regional summits organized under the banner of "Teach to Lead," a one-year-old initiative of the U.S. Department of Education and the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.

Nearly 70 organizations, including Teaching Matters, have declared their support for the initiative, which was created to raise to a national level the movement to retain good teachers by involving them as equal partners in education reform.

While some states and individual districts have taken up the torch, Teach to Lead and the organizations supporting it represent growing momentum to remedy an alarming disunity: education reform without the input of educators.

It is a reality that has led talented educators to give up teaching altogether or leave the classroom for administrative positions where they have more input – at a time when Common Core, new teacher evaluations and calls for better outcomes have added to the pressures on school districts and educators.

Motivated teachers are willing to use their talents in a range of roles, from instructional coaching and curriculum reform to crunching student data and organizing parents, but they've often been denied the chance. Not all principals have welcomed sharing leadership, or prioritized teacher ideas, needs and growth.

"The practitioners of instruction have had the least voice in how we move schools, said Lynette Guastaferro, executive director for Teaching Matters. "If teachers don't inform reform, there can be a disconnect between what works on the ground and policies."

"I am continuously amazed at how little our schools tap into the talent that many, many teachers have. They (teachers) want to use that talent without leaving the classroom," said Ron Thorpe, president of the National Board.

Their ideas and talents can be key in improving outcomes for their students and aiding principals who have seen the time they have to devote to curriculum and instruction eroded by other demands.

"They're saying their job is as hard as ever, if not the hardest it's ever been," said José Vilson, a math teacher in New York City and board member for the Center for Teaching Quality.

"A teacher leader can really do a lot to decrease the stress that principals have with developing all the new initiatives."

Summits organized under the banner of Teach to Lead took place in Kentucky, Boston and Denver in December, January and February. Jennifer Gleason, a senior education consultant for Teaching Matters, led a workshop at the first summit, held in Louisville.

Attending were educators and administrators who earned invitations after submitting ideas to "Commit to Lead," an online forum created as an adjunct to Teach to Lead.

The summit was a time to refine ideas and get feedback from other educators. Among those Gleason met: two Kentucky teachers who had hybrid roles, where they split their time between the classroom and as instructional coaches.

"They came to think about... how do we expand this initiative so that more teachers can take on a hybrid role in other schools in our district – how do we secure the funding for this; how do we communicate what the value of this has been," Gleason said.

"They were able to bounce their ideas off of other people and gain some traction by thinking about how they can influence up and how they can expand their work and their program," she said.

Videos shot at the three summits will be shown at the next Teaching & Learning Conference on March 13. At the conference, Teacher Matters will present a panel discussion on "Leading for Impact," Teaching Matters approach to building and supporting the competencies of teacher leaders in urban schools through mentoring and micro-credentialing.

On the horizon for Teach to Lead are regional summits and "leadership labs," where the best ideas from the summits will be implemented locally.

"There's been enormous interest," Thorpe said. "You can see it and you can hear it in what the people say. They are eager for this."