This blog was originally posted on HomeRoom, the official blog of the U.S. Department of Education.

When we do everything right in schools, our students move closer to that peak on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs – self-actualization. It sounds pretty awesome. I’d like to achieve self-actualization too. But when you’re a student facing poverty, racism, family trouble, or just life as a kid growing up, that peak starts looking like K2.

The question then becomes what changes can we make in our systems so that schools can support students in meeting their basic needs while still pushing them to make academic gains that will impact their future choices and opportunities? For me, answering that question starts with the people who are with the students every day – their teachers.

As a founding teacher on the Design Team for the pilot high school, Social Justice Humanitas Academy (SJHA) in Los Angeles, last week I was invited to join a small group of teachers and principals in a Tea with Teachers meeting with Secretary of Education John King to discuss the value of teacher leadership in schools and in educational policy-making. SJHA is a Teacher-Powered School, and as such is driven by teachers and their connection to students. The school was founded by a group of teachers who envisioned a school centered on building our students’ humanity through curriculum that is rigorous and relevant to our students.

Unlike some teacher-led schools, SJHA does have a principal, but instead of directing teachers to execute a plan that too often is devised by people who are not actually inside the school, the principal teams with the teachers to develop the steps necessary to reach students where they are. For example, the math department felt students would benefit from an integrated math model rather than a traditional algebra-geometry sequence. With support of school resources, the teacher-team worked together to choose the appropriate books and now finishing its second year, the team feels the program is making a difference for kids.

When teachers are able to exercise autonomy in this way, they are also more willing to be accountable to those decisions. With this new way of thinking, we were able to build a school for the students of SJHA, not for students at 160 different schools around Los Angeles.

At the Tea, we talked about the new Every Student Succeeds Act, which gives us some more specific opportunities to involve teachers directly in decision making. It is going to take more than curriculum and instruction to get our students to reach self-actualization. Schools need the ability to be innovative and flexible in supporting their students, and ESSA certainly uses that same terminology. If necessity is the mother of invention (or innovation), then we have to look at our students’ needs for the incentive to innovate.

Again, the people most closely connected to these needs are the teachers. At SJHA, a chemistry teacher saw that students were not getting enough opportunities to attend positive social events outside of school, so he started the Events Club. They have met famous authors like Malcolm Gladwell, gone to movie screenings, and even recently went to a political rally. Our principal saw that many of our male students were struggling to find positive male role models, so he started a men’s group. Our senior class plans and runs a community resource fair every spring – an idea that was started by an English teacher. Teachers saw needs first hand and have the power and autonomy to find and implement solutions.

ESSA gives us the opportunity to move forward on building schools that are more teacher-powered, more community-focused, and thus more adaptive to student needs. Instead of pushing ideas down to classrooms, we need leaders outside of the school to support teacher-inspired and teacher-powered innovation.

Self-actualization is a personal experience; why would we not personalize the support in finding it?

Jeff Austin teaches Economics and Government, serves as the coordinator, and was on the Design Team at the Social Justice Humanitas Academy in Los Angeles. In 2014-2105, he served as a Teacher Ambassador for the Teacher Powered Schools Initiative (a joint project of Education Evolving and the Center for Teaching Quality). An NBCT, Jeff was a 2013 Los Angeles County and LAUSD Teacher of the Year. His experience at SJHA is included in Corwin Press’s Growing Into Equity and Richard Hess’s Cage-Busting Teachers.

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