A new brand of superintendents and their visions for 2015

Learn about six progressive administrators’ plans to maximize teacher leadership this year.

Will teachers come to play an acknowledged central role in mediating change or will their autonomy be increasingly constrained and professional status increasingly diminished?

Annette Weinshank, Emily Turnbull, and Patrick Daly were practicing teachers when they asked this question in “The Role of the Teacher in School Change” in 1983. Their commentary called on policymakers to involve teachers in change to attract imaginative candidates to the classroom and ensure successful implementation of complex reforms.

Their poignant question holds true today, some 32 years later. Yet we’re hearing a good bit more now about teacher leadership. Scholarship now shows direct linkage between teacher leadership and student achievement. Meanwhile, it is becoming clear that a lack of autonomy and professional advancement opportunities has only exacerbated the profession’s recruitment and retention challenges.

And a new brand of innovative school superintendents has emerged. Successful in improving their systems and student learning, they are finding new ways to cultivate and utilize teachers as leaders in districts and states across America.

I asked a handful of these educators to share what they’ve learned recently about teacher leadership and how they would like classroom practitioners to lead in 2015. Here are a few themes I heard:

Teachers know the most about what will work in the classroom.

These superintendents realize that teachers have the most practical understanding of why and how students learn or don’t—and of how curricular reforms can best be implemented.

Consider what Mary Sieu, superintendent of ABC Unified School District (ABCUSD) in California, told me:

We already have teachers who serve as program specialists at the district level, sharing instructional resources and leading professional development to our teachers.  We have learned that our classroom teachers are best suited, as they understand the content standards more so than anyone else.  As we look to 2015, we will continue to strengthen our teacher leaders to support our district efforts—and we will support the work of over one hundred teachers as leaders, coaches, and curriculum writers, representing each school in the district. Over the years, we have learned that building teacher leadership is critical to the success of our schools in ABCUSD. 

Susan Enfield, superintendent of Highline Public Schools in Washington, pointed out that teachers’ classroom expertise gives them an invaluable mindset:

Poet Theodore Roethke said, “What we need is more people who specialize in the impossible.” Teachers are these people. They work with our students on a daily basis to accomplish things that most people would say are impossible—but they make it reality. We must provide more opportunities to not only highlight their work, but also hear their insights and encourage them to lead the change we want to see in our school systems.

Many teachers are already poised to lead—we need to create formal channels for their action.

A 2013 MetLife poll revealed that nearly a quarter of America’s teachers are “extremely interested” or “very interested” in filling hybrid roles as teachers and leaders. Savvy superintendents are creating new opportunities for teachers to contribute as leaders without taking on full-time administrative roles.  

Superintendent Donna Hargens told me that her district—Jefferson County Public Schools (JCPS) in Kentucky—is “beginning to capitalize on the expertise and experience” of National Board Certified Teachers (NBCTs). About 110,000 NBCTs work in our nation’s classrooms—and this year, Donna’s district is home to the largest number of new NBCTs in Kentucky.

The rigorous certification process doesn’t assess teachers’ leadership abilities and accomplishments. But it does push classroom practitioners to learn to go public with their pedagogical know-how, articulating their teaching practices and impact on students. Unfortunately, many NBCTs across the country are “all dressed up with no place to go” as leaders.

Here’s what Donna told me is in the works in Jefferson County:

We must now find additional ways to use NBCTs as resources for teacher leadership. NBCTs played a key role in the Great Beginnings New Teacher Induction this summer by serving on discussion panels, networking with new teachers, and giving guidance about the first weeks of school. Several NBCTs are currently facilitating Elementary New Teacher Professional Learning Communities, leading pertinent conversations about issues facing teachers in classrooms. Expanding the role of NBCTs as teacher leaders is a logical and important next step for JCPS in providing teacher support in 2015 and beyond.

Also encouraging is that in 2014-2015, JCPS has employed a teacherpreneur working in a hybrid role that combines teaching with leadership responsibilities. Paul Barnwell teaches high school English and digital media and spends half his workweek cultivating teacher capacity to design, facilitate, and improve professional collaboration in online spaces.

It’s time to “obliterate the distance” between those who teach in schools and those who lead them.

Jason Glass leads Eagle County Schools in Colorado. He believes that, given the complexity of educating children today, it is time to “obliterate the distance” between top-level decision-makers and teachers—those who are actually closest to the work. He told me:

Teacher leaders are foundational to any school organization to realize genuine greatness. We have literally decades of evidence and countless case examples informing us that empowering front-line line professionals and creating systems that work for them leads to a more engaged workforce and better organizational outcomes. And teacher leadership must be the centerpiece in our efforts to raise the status of this noble profession.  It is a catalyst for recruiting talented people to enter teaching, retaining our dedicated teachers in the profession, and creating practitioner-driven systems of collaboration and innovation. Only through raising the capacity for leadership across entire organizations can we hope to become the high-performing education systems our children need and deserve.

Today’s most progressive superintendents have a new spin on “distributed leadership,” a term which, in schools, has often been interpreted in ways that circumscribe teachers’ autonomy and influence. Principals or assistant principals are sources of authority who delegate the ability to make specific decisions. In this way, “teacher leadership” is often restricted to particular kinds of activities within schools (often coaching or professional development).

Contrast this old-school approach with the kind of distributed leadership that Josh Starr, superintendent of Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) in Maryland, describes:

When I interview potential principals I always ask them to define instructional leadership. The answer I look for is one that describes the need to organize a leadership team of teachers within a system to support an instructional vision. Hence, principals must establish a school culture and commensurate structures of distributed leadership whereby teachers are given significant responsibility to lead innovation, improvement and intervention efforts. In MCPS, we measure teacher engagement because we know that there’s a direct link between results and the extent to which teachers and support professionals feel that they’re actively contributing to a team and the school’s mission. In the years ahead we will conduct formal analyses of the link between teacher engagement and student outcomes to test our assumptions and advance leadership from the classroom.

Don’t just listen, but find ways to engage and work directly with teachers.

There is a lot of talk about teacher voice today. Influential think tanks, like the Center for American Progress, have discovered of late the importance of listening to teachers. But the most progressive superintendents realize we should do more than just listen. They understand the importance of working alongside teachers—and embracing the wisdom that practitioners have accumulated about teaching and learning.

Terry Holliday, Kentucky’s commissioner of education, demonstrates this insight in his plans for the new year:

As I work on my 2015 resolutions, I want to see Kentucky fully develop a career pathways model that provides more leadership opportunities for teachers without having to completely leave the classroom. Also, I resolve to utilize teacher voice more significantly in the decision making process for state policies. I have learned that you improve student results by listening to and working with teachers rather than doing stuff to them!

Growing numbers of progressive superintendents in 2015?

In 1983, Annette and her colleagues pointed out that effective teacher leadership “requires long-term administrator interest, commitment, and involvement.” Three decades later, it is still rare to find top-level administrators leading in ways that encourage a bold brand of teacher leadership.

But Susan, Jason, Donna, Terry, Mary, Josh, and others are strengthening the case for a new way of thinking about change in schools. They are launching innovations in work structures (peer review and teacherpreneur systems, just to name a couple) that create new ways for teachers to incubate and execute their own ideas and take charge of their profession.

As these groundbreaking superintendents become more visible, they will help policymakers and fellow system leaders see the value in a bold new brand of teacher leadership. Their words gave me reason for hope—and will inspire and inform what we do at the Center for Teaching Quality in 2015. I’m looking forward to discovering and highlighting even more superintendents who are creating ways for teachers to lead without leaving the classroom!