Effective teachers for all classrooms? It’s time for teacherpreneurs.

I will be speaking at the Global Education & Skills Forum in Dubai on March 15-16, 2015, when the Varkey Foundation will be awarding its $1 million Global Teacher Prize to a leading K-12 practitioner. This blog post offers an introduction to some of the ideas I’ll contribute during #GESF.

I will be speaking at the Global Education & Skills Forum in Dubai on March 15-16, 2015, when the Varkey Foundation will be awarding its $1 million Global Teacher Prize to a leading K-12 practitioner. This blog post offers an introduction to some of the ideas I’ll contribute during #GESF.  

Education conversations around the globe are focused on how to recruit, evaluate, and develop effective teachers. And for good reason. A steady drip of empirical evidence has shown that teachers are the most crucial in-school factor in student learning.

But in many cases education policy leaders have fixated on firing bad teachers and recruiting better ones. They have paid far less attention to spreading the expertise of the many effective teachers already teaching—or to providing them with opportunities to lead without leaving their classrooms and profession.

Enter the teacherpreneur—who teaches students regularly but has the time, space, and reward to incubate and execute his or her own ideas.

Imagine a public school teacher who has the respect (and income potential) of an endowed chair at a research university and whose pedagogical and policy expertise drives innovative, collaborative projects that spread effective teaching practices.

There are at least six sound reasons for this bold brand of teacher leadership:

  1. Researchers have proven that students learn more when their teachers collaborate in deep and authentic ways;
  2. Principals alone cannot address demands of 21st-century learning and accountability;
  3. Top-performing nations invest in teachers as leaders;
  4. The most effective teacher evaluation systems are driven by master teachers;
  5. Teachers trust their teaching colleagues more than anyone else to help them improve their practice; and
  6. Large percentages of teachers are interested in leading without leaving the classroom.

Our nonprofit organization, the Center for Teaching Quality, supports an Internet-based community of 9,000 teachers in the CTQ Collaboratory. We have seen firsthand the powerful ways in which teachers can connect, ready, and mobilize themselves in their students’ best interest.

Over the last several years, we have road-tested the teacherpreneur concept by supporting teachers in these hybrid roles. We have worked with school districts to buy out half of these teachers’ contracts so they can lead without leaving the classroom. The teacherpreneurs divide their workweeks between teaching students and leading projects that advance their profession (and CTQ’s mission). They organize online lesson studies, vet 21st-century student assessments, redesign professional learning systems, analyze policy, conduct action research, and “go public” with their bold ideas and expert practices.

“Leading without leaving” helps teachers learn to succeed as what organizational development and political science experts call “boundary spanners”: change agents who communicate across different (often competing groups) and establish links among them. We have been refining systems, including well-orchestrated virtual communities, that equip teacherpreneurs to support one another (and other teacher leaders) in developing these skills.

Teacherpreneurs have helped our organization make impressive gains in our work, advances that would have been impossible if we had not tapped teachers’ expertise in this new way. School systems—and, I am certain, entire nations—can do the same with teachers who lead without leaving.

I’ve learned a great deal from the CTQ teacherpreneurs about factors that can help teachers ramp up effective educational practices and policies: supportive administrators, peer mentoring roles that they engineer (rather than being mandated from above), and school designs that spread teaching expertise. Teachers also need the resources, often sequestered in distant bureaucracies, to develop the tools they deem necessary to accurately assess student learning. And they need teacher evaluation systems that place the highest value not on test scores but on how they help their colleagues improve.

But most of all? Teachers need the time and space to lead—just like the teacherpreneurs CTQ has supported. When these opportunities are in place, policy leaders across the world will no longer struggle in their efforts to ensure an effective teacher for every student.