Flipping the System with Teacher Leadership

As the global narrative on teaching begins to shift, research shows that investing in high-quality professional learning systems is key to school improvement. The newly-published Flip the System, which features chapters written by members of the CTQ Collaboratory and CTQ staff, explores the role of teacher leaders.

Evidence is growing in the United States that the current reform movement—focus on charters that compete with government schools, short-cuts into teaching that bring in smart teachers, and test score-based teaching evaluations—is not moving the needle on student achievement. And this evidence is beginning to spread in both traditional and social media. As the narrative on teaching begins to shift, researchers from across the globe, such as Dylan Wiliam and Ben Jensen, are showing that the key to school improvement is not hiring brighter teachers or firing bad ones, but investing in high-quality professional learning systems.

The key to creating these effective professional learning systems is teacher leadership. Of late, a new cadre of economists, using sophisticated statistical methods and more nuanced understanding of the teaching profession, have concluded that students score higher on achievement tests when their teachers have opportunities to work with colleagues over a longer period of time and share their expertise with one another. A recent Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) report, from their review of policies in top performing nations, concluded that the most effective form of school leadership may very well be “self-sustained teacher collaboration.” And a just-released investigation reveals that teachers “improve at greater rates when they work in schools with greater collaboration quality.”

In Flip the System: Changing Education from the Ground Up, Jelmer Evers and Rene Kneyber have assembled a team of researchers and classroom practitioners who show from an international perspective how “teachers’ expertise should be capitalized and put to good use.”

In our chapter, my colleagues, Rachel Evans, Noah Zeichner, and I outline some of the most powerful research evidence as well as our teaching experiences in framing what it will take to advance teacher leadership for a reinvented profession. Rachel and Noah, who have served as CTQ teacherpreneurs in support of an online community of international teachers, continue to teach in the Seattle public schools, and have deep experience in working globally for their students and their colleagues.

Approximately 60 million teachers teach in very different contexts worldwide, which makes international comparisons of their status as leaders in their respective societies problematic. But here are three big lessons:

  1. As Rachel notes, in top performing jurisdictions, teachers speak of professional development in terms of peer-to-peer systems of observation and mentorship while her U.S. colleagues speak in terms of “external trainings;”
  2. Noah notes that teachers can readily learn to lead boldy when they can go public with their teaching – and have opportunities to not just share their pedagogical practices, but work alongside community partners and NGOs to develop a systems-view of the context in which they teach and serve students and families;
  3. I point out that many teachers across the world still have not even seen another colleague teach, but the Internet is rapidly breaking down classroom isolationism among those who teach.

Moving forward, we suggest the following actions:

Document what teacher leadership looks like: We need to make sure administrators and policymakers have more clear examples of what teacher leaders do and how their expertise spreads to their teaching colleagues in ways that benefit students.

Make public the conditions that advance teacher leadership: Many teachers work in top-down, bureaucratic school systems. Leadership from the classroom will flourish only if the right conditions are in place, particularly robust processes of collaborative inquiry, but we need more clear roadmaps on how to actually create the structures and processes required.

Establish a network of networks: There is no shortage of teacher networks. But we need a network of networks that would connect key teachers leaders, with a variety of strengths and interests, to lead, creating their own agendas and inspiring others to expand the possibilities of teaching and learning reforms from the classroom.

Across the globe, there are many diverse efforts to cultivate leadership from the classroom. Flip the System offers a glimpse into the possibilities. Other CTQ colleagues—Tim Walker, Lori Nazareno, and Kim Farris-Berg—have also contributed to this inspiring book, demonstrating how teachers and researchers can work together across networks, time zones, and cultures, as Jelmer and Rene suggest, to “change education from the ground up.”

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  • benowens

    Let’s flip & then scale a new PD paradigm!

    Thank you, Barnett, for an excellent summary to a problem I have noticed from the first day I entered the teaching profession. As noted in earlier blogs in this forum, one doesn’t become an excellent teacher in isolation – or for that matter a good practitioner of any profession. In addition to the research cited in your piece, a recent report from the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education makes a similar conclusion by noting that more than any other policy area, actions that lead to additional collaboration hold the most promise for in terms of teaching quality. And yet as you pointed out, compared to teachers in other countries and to other professions, we are generally on the early part of the learning curve in the U.S. when it comes to peer-to-peer professional learning. In fact, the OECD report you mentioned also includes a rather depressing statistic that states that 50% of teachers in the U.S. have never observed another teachers’ classes and provided feedback.

    I had the pleasure recently of sitting in a discussion led by Allen Blue, co-founder of Linkedin, where he talked about the intense collaborative culture in Silicon Valley. He indicated that despite working in different companies or on different projects, everyone in the region was willing to share their ideas and offer each other help and in his view, this is the reason Silicon Valley has been at the epicenter of innovation for the world and an economic powerhouse for the U.S. Wouldn’t it be great if we in education could develop a similar culture of collaboration and innovation for our students?


    But before I’m accused of just whining about a problem without offering a solution, I will remind CTQ readers of a pilot project I helped to coordinate in Western North Carolina to make peer-to-peer professional learning a viable alternative to the “external training” model that is all too common in most districts today (https://www.ednc.org/author/ben-owens/). And now, with cooperation from Dr. Dave Strahan at Western Carolina University, we intend to launch a phase II of this project this fall so that we can expand the number of participating teachers, as well as increase the focus area from just secondary STEM to all grades and curricular areas. In fact, we are currently actively recruiting schools and districts who may be interested to join us in this work of PD for teachers, by teachers (pardon the shameless commercial.)


    As the research you cited and as the phase I of this project has concluded, when peers can participate in genuine in-classroom collaboration in a way that allows them to provide each other with constructive feedback, each participant grows professionally and at a level that is hard to match with traditional “sit & get” training. It also provides the capacity for networks of such peers to become teacher leaders in their departments, schools, and districts, as they are exposed to, learn, and share best practices from other subject matter experts. In doing so, policymakers and administrators are able to clearly see the tangible benefits of such models, ideally leading them to make them a more significant part of the professional development mix.

    The time for a flipped professional learning model system is long overdue. One that enables teacher leader networks to grow in all schools and districts.

  • AnneJolly

    So true!

    “The most effective form of school leadership may very well be self-sustained teacher collaboration. And “teachers improve at greater rates when they work in schools with greater collaboration quality.”

    Those are two of my favorite statements from your article, Barnett!  You’ve really hit the nail on the head, to borrow a tired old metaphor. When teachers truly collaborate they learn leadership skills from each other. They share the best they have to offer as well as their problems, and they engage in collective problem-solving. Teacher leaders are, above all, intent on solving the real-world problems teacher face daily and making education work for both students and teachers. 

    Thanks for your insights!


  • Wanda Porter


    Teacher-powered is an innovative idea.  What are the parameters?  This needs to coincide with principals.

    • April

      Flipping the System- Teacher Leadership

      Thanks for sharing your ideas. I agree with Flipping the System. Somehow it is relevant on how teachers write the curriculum using the 'backward design'. In flipping the system, teacher ideas when thought, planned and shared through collaboration, it benefits students in the end. It is powerful given that schools should set something that is modeled by best teaching collaborative practices. 

  • BarnettBerry



    Wanda. Look at our website with Education Evolving on Teacher Powered Schools, teaching and learning systems led by bold ideas and best pracitces of classroom experts, not necessarily just administrators. Most of the TPS do not have principals; they are fully teacher-led with distributed teacher leadership. Also take a look at Kim’s piece at Huffiington Post: www.huffingtonpost.com/kim-farrisberg-/teacher-powered-schools_b_5613420.html


  • vinellapryce

    Barriers to Teacher Leadership

    I am very passionate about teacher leadership as it had impacted greatly on me from the very onset of my teaching career. I had met upon a few great new teacher mentors who had helped me profoundly and I have seen those who are so set in their ways. They are not adaptive to new strategies or ideas. I do believe that the most important challenge to teacher leadership is time.


    Teacher leader has to spend so much time doing daily logs, registers, lunch list, mark books, supervision during break and lunch time and activities. Then still find the time to complete multiple leadership duties such as marking lesson plans, doing weekly observation checks, logging activities that were done daily. And the list continues. Most of the time teachers have to stay hours after school catching up on back logs during the day's activities. Then our time for family is expedited. More so teachers continue to be bombarded with more work each year that is implemented by the administration. 

    I can recall a teacher leader who was promoted to Acting Principal and this has detracted the teachers' focus from the students learning more so to the position itself. This I deem as another barrier to teacher leadership. I believe teachers should be given the duties of the position that the principal intends on promoting the teacher for,  then based on the work output and the ability to cope before given the position openly. I believe this will save us a lot of work that could have been avoided.

    I am one who is not fearful of elevating oneself of my colleagues and this my last barrier to teacher leadership. one has to be strong emotional to deal with the response from our colleagues when given a promotion especially if we were not working well and displaying an exemplary professionalism. Those who teachers do not feel comfortable talking and collaborating with. Those who were not competent in the classroom, then all these criteria's can cause fear in accepting the promotion. Here is a website that speaks to overcoming barriers in teacher leadership.