Teacher Leaders: Planting a flag – or foot – in the classroom

Jose Vilson has been a math teacher in Manhattan for about a decade. He’s part of the new crop of “Teacher Leaders” with one foot in the classroom, and another on a career ladder up.

When he first began expanding his duties, it was to coach other teachers in math instruction. Now, he’s an advocate and author too, and a board member of the Center for Teacher Quality, one of the supporters of the federal Teach to Lead initiative. He says he has no plans to leave his school anytime soon.

Just what - and who - are teacher leaders? Why does the role exist? And who chooses them?

A key feature of teacher leadership as it is evolving now is greater precision about qualifications, selection, tasks, and rewards.

Professor Susan Moore Johnson, who has been advocating for a more differentiated teacher corps since the 1980s, says the teacher leader role responds to a relatively flat teaching profession that has characterized American public education. By recognizing teachers for their expertise and providing them increased responsibilities, the teacher leader position creates some “elevation,” she says, and can stem the fast-swinging revolving door of teachers that creates instability in the workforce, and problems for schools that have to cope with constant restaffing.

Katherine Boles, a colleague of Johnson’s, couldn't agree more - and hopes that it’s enough to counteract the challenges the profession faces, such as its pink collar tradition, lack of voice, and lack of advancement opportunities. “The idea of teacher leadership is to work in the classroom, but to affect people beyond the classroom to create this into a profession like medicine...so the teacher has the respect and the status.”

The goal of teacher leadership also includes improving teacher effectiveness very directly - through the collaborative help that an experienced teacher can give a colleague. In New York, Teaching Matters is working on a project that helps teacher leaders facilitate teams working with special populations to address their students’ needs better.

But teacher leadership is not yet universally understood, or embraced. Johnson explains that there are three powerful “norms” of teaching that this new model for structuring schools challenges. They are respect for individual teachers’ autonomy; privacy; and seniority.

Though these old assumptions can make pay a sticking point, there are ways around the problem - and some unions have in fact embraced new ways for teachers to be compensated if there is a clear recognition that the pay is for additional duties or in recognition of specified criteria.

The 2010 Baltimore Teachers’ Contract is an early example called “remarkable” by Moore Johnson. Says Marietta English, head of the Baltimore Teachers’ Union, “Our contract...really revolves around ...teachers having a voice, and teachers being able to choose a pathway for their career.” She says that while merit pay was once considered a third rail in teacher compensation, the vast majority of her members don’t want to go back to the previous system which relied on years-in-service and degrees, and appreciate the chance to advance at their own pace, “according to how aggressive they are in moving up the ladder, as far as getting pay for the performance they do.”

Good principals can also overcome resistance to teacher leadership. Moore Johnson says “I think principals are absolutely critical in what happens with these roles. I do think in some cases principals won’t let go.” There are pioneers, however. Katherine Boles credits principal Jerry Kaplan with unflagging support decades ago when she and her colleague Vivian Troen were first talking about the teacher leadership they were developing with him in their school. “He was our leader, but he gave leadership to us as well...We began to go to conferences and speak. [People] would always say, ‘Can we call your principal?’ It astounded us. We said, ‘No, you can call us if you want to know anything more.’ That’s the way he wanted it to be.”

And there is a benefit that goes directly to principals; teacher leadership can help distribute their very heavy workload.

Overcoming resistance may also involve a very structured teacher leadership program. In New York City at the Department of Education, Donalda Chumney is leading implementation of a federal Teacher Incentive Fund effort to make crystal clear who teacher leaders are, and how they are selected.

Back when she was a teacher, she started an inclusion project in her school for special education students, and over time helped her peers provide the same kind of support. When she was a principal, she continued to use a collaborative approach to teaching, with teacher teams an integral part of the school’s structure.

And now, Chumney is drafting descriptions of just what it means to be a teacher leader in New York. “The goal here is to articulate what skills it is that teacher leaders need to thrive and to help them be supported in getting them. Once those people have demonstrated competency in those skills, [it’s] creating this career ladder that helps sustain their ongoing learning and helps invite more people into career development.”

Selection may work especially well if it’s not done by either self-selection, or just a principal’s selection. Says Susan Moore Johnson, “I’m very favorably inclined to selection committees that include administrators and teachers, whether that’s within the school [or] across the district. It’s well worth the time it takes to plan a program with a joint committee.”

What are the merits of infusing teacher leadership into a school’s culture?

Bringing teacher leadership to a school has already been linked to greater teacher satisfaction, greater retention, greater teacher mastery - and gains in student outcomes. The case for expansion is out there - and finally taking root.