Let the Countdown Begin

Imagine, if you will, professional development designed to build the capacity of teacher leaders?  Imagine, PD driven not by someone else’s agenda, but rather organized about teachers’ own ideas for school imporvement?  Imagine actually being excited about PD for an entire year and having a ready-made network of like-minded professionals poised to support your efforts?

If you can, then you might be thinking about the Teacher Leadership Initative.

Read on…  This is NOT the Twilight Zone…

By Wendi Pillars and David Orphal

Houston, we have a problem

David has written about the teacher dropout crisis before in his blog. One of the reasons why both new and experienced teachers leave the classroom is because they feel like they have little influence over, or support for, decisions being made about education at their schools, districts, and/or states. While arguably the nation’s foremost experts in learning facilitation, teachers are rarely at the tables where educational policy and practice are decided. It’s high time for that to change.

To change that dynamic, we need not only shifts in the attitudes and beliefs policymakers have about teachers, but we also need teachers to develop the skills and competencies necessary to become teacher leaders. Certainly, there are hundreds of teachers who, on their own, have developed these skills and are engaged in this important work. However, America’s students need tens of thousands of teacher leaders, not mere hundreds.

Houston, we have a solution

Enter TLI, the Teacher Leadership Initiative.

In 2013-14, the National Education Association (NEA), National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS), and the Center for Teaching Quality (CTQ) partnered together to launch TLI. During that pilot year, 140 teacher leaders from across the nation participated. During this 2014-2015 year, an additional 300 teachers joined as part of the second cohort, which officially begins in October.

TLI is unique and innovative, unlike the typical “sit-n-get” professional development experiences we’ve all had. Here’s why. NEA, NBPTS, and CTQ do not have a product to sell, nor do they have an agenda to push. There’s not even a shiny new silver bullet with which they believe they can fix America’s educational ills.

Instead—wait for it—the partners believe that classroom teachers can transform the educational landscape through instructional, policy, and Association leadership. They believe that teachers know best which challenges face them, and that teachers need and deserve support to develop and implement their solutions.

Refreshing, isn’t it?

Building the rocketship

Countries like Singapore understand that teaching quality begins and continues with investments in teachers. They pre-empt teacher burnout, poor evaluations and drop-out by cultivating the many skills and knowledge of their teachers, and providing the time and space to do so.

TLI aims to do the same. The initiative’s theory of action states: “If we cultivate teachers’ knowledge, skills, and dispositions for leadership, they will transform both the act and the profession of teaching.” We all know teacher leaders±when we take the time to look, we can find teacher leadership from the classroom level through policy levels and beyond. Sometimes they are formally recognized with an official title, supplement, or support, but often, they are not. The TLI partners know that going it alone can be tough. A teacher’s time is limited, and leadership roles require going above and beyond the normal list of demands. Ironically, it is those who want most to advocate and transform who are the busiest—so, more than ever, their leadership is needed to build the capacity of other teachers to do the same.

What makes this initiative unique in its expansion of teacher leadership is that it is tailored by the participants for what they need most.

How often can you say that about PD?

Participants bring their plan(s) and in turn receive mentoring, guidance, powerful networking, resources, support, encouragement, and the opportunity to take chances borne of hope, optimism, and hard work.

In order to prepare for their new leadership roles, cohort members in TLI are spending the fall semester of 2014-15 learning about five key skill areas of teacher leadership:

  • Framing the context and defining teacher leadership;

  • Creating ideas that transform;

  • Communicating to advance teacher leadership work;

  • Practicing collaborative leadership; and

  • Advocating for a transformed profession.

All of these learning modules have been designed by teacher leaders. And each cohort’s learning experience is led by teacher leaders (the two of us included!) serving as facilitators and virtual community organizers.

Selecting the destination

As teacher leaders engage with the five modules listed above, they use their new skills to explore and implement their ideas.

In spring, individual participants will choose a focus area and deepen their understanding about current hot-button topics in educational policy and school reform, such as:

  • The Common Core State Standards;

  • Teacher evaluation;

  • School redesign; and

  • Equity, diversity, and cultural competence.  

Finally, participants will complete a capstone project to tackle a leadership challenge they’ve identified.

Oh the Places You’ll Go.

We’re thinking about one of the teacher leaders who took part in our first cohort. Last year, if you’d asked about “budding superstars” in our cohort, Deidra came to mind instantly. This year, this ace teacher leader is spending part of her day teaching students, and another part of her day helping to lead TLI as a Center for Teaching Quality teacherpreneur. She also serves as a virtual community organizer for the cohort in Mississippi. 

We feel like proud parents when we talk about Deidra, but she’s only one of the many motivated and informed teacher leaders from our cohort. Each of them is a case in point for not having to travel to the stars to find stellar leadership. Look around you. What leaders and potential leaders do you see? (PS. Don’t forget to look in the mirror…)

What intrigues you about TLI? What questions do you have? And what other PD opportunities have helped to develop your teacher leadershp? We would love to hear about them.

Author Bios

Last spring, Wendi and David teamed up together to mentor nascent teacher leaders from Arizona, Iowa, Colorado, Massachusetts, Mississippi, and Michigan in TLI’s inaugural year. In the summer, David worked with the group focused on Teacher Evaluation, and Wendi worked with the Common Core State Standards group.  This fall, they are teamed together again with a second cohort of TLI teacher leaders, all of whom are in Massachusetts.  …3…2…1……..