Teacher Leadership By Any Other Name: Distributing the Load at Tompkins Square Middle School

Stacey Fell says she realized she was in a school that valued teacher input from the first minutes of her job interview. “I knew that this was different,” she remembers. “It was a room full of other teachers and the toughest questions came from the people who were going to be my colleagues.”

Tompkins Square Middle School (TSMS), located in the East Village section of Manhattan, is a very participatory place. Their principal of seven years, Sonhando Estwick, believes in trusting his staff to make good decisions. It’s a culture of direct democracy – or in education parlance,“distributed leadership.”

Just how does that play out? In this small community of about 380 6th – 8th grade students and 28 teachers, decision-making by consensus is the rule. Principal Estwick is committed to collaboration, and the structures that make it possible.

He explains that important choices – such as those about curricula, assessments, and schedule – are made by a 2/3 staff vote. And he scoffs at the notion that he’s taking a risk. “They care about kids…They’re just not going to come up with anything crazy…Principals walk around thinking…teachers are dreaming of some terrible things for kids or something. They’re just not.”

In fact, Estwick emphasizes, teachers in the trenches have the kind of knowledge that informs good policies about both what students and teachers need. Furthermore, once decisions are made with input, the decisions stick better. “[D]istributed leadership…puts me in a more powerful position at the end of the day…When we do a vote, I say every time, ‘I trust you guys to make the best decision.”

The school carves out time for teachers to meet together weekly in committees. Everyone is welcome. “We all feel more accountable when we’re talking to each other, when we’re making decisions together,” says Douglas Keyzer, 7th grade Humanities teacher. Keyzer has served as a committee “facilitator,” a coordinating role. There are regular meetings within departments, and within grades. One day a month, teachers have a joint best practices “show and tell.”

On a snowy day in February, a group from Teaching Matters visited the school, and saw classrooms with a culture that looked participatory, energetic – and effective. Later, a team of Tompkins Square teachers shared their thoughts about the school’s operation. Words recurred: community, trust, structure, consensus building, a democratic system.

At a time of heated debate in education policy about what works to engage – and retain – good teachers who in turn engage their students, it seems as if Tompkins Square has hit upon a winning formula. Their faculty turnover has been low, and student performance high.

But there are a few caveats.

TSMS is small, and it has a well-established culture of cooperation and participation. The school was founded with that ethic, and its teachers must subscribe to it in order to be hired. As a former teacher himself, Principal Estwick values it – and has been committed to ramping it up. Not every school has a principal who puts so much trust in his staff, and believes so strongly in teacher “voice.”

He is reluctant to tamper in some ways with what is working. Although some of his teachers say the school embodies the best principles of “teacher leadership,” he is leery of the term, because it could create too much hierarchical “division.”

In fact, when asked about federal initiatives to identify and support teacher leadership roles with additional pay, Principal Estwick was reluctant - even though he would like more funds for his brand of collegial support. He said that though he thinks teachers should be paid for the additional time and effort it takes to facilitate their peers, he doesn’t want to label some teachers as leaders who are elevated in role.

A full participation style isn’t necessarily essential for every school, particularly ones with greater challenges where teachers may be more concerned about getting their basic needs for instructional support met first - but respect for teachers and their insights is a key factor when it comes to healthy results for students and teachers alike. “Teachers can actually be very happy in schools where it perhaps looks on the outside as if they have no say in final policies because there’s no vote,” says Dr. Susan Moore Johnson. But, she notes, even without a vote, the question is “whether teachers’ views and expertise are seriously weighed and whether principals inquire from teachers about what they think might work or how to make things better.”

Clearly, at TSMS teachers’ perspectives are heard loud and clear.

Lance Leener, 8th grade Humanities teacher and a founder of TSMS, cherishes the communal, collaborative atmosphere - and his part in it, whatever it’s called. “When I think of teacher leadership, I think of my investment in the well being of our school community.” He also notes that teacher leadership “doesn’t operate in a vacuum,” but relies on strong administrative support - and a devoted cadre of teachers willing to go the extra mile.