Why your school should be a teacher-powered school

In his blog synthesizing CTQ’s first roundtable blogging discussion on teacher-powered schools, NC teacher Ben Owens makes the argument for why your school should join the movement that fosters deeper collaboration between students and teachers.

Would you believe me if I said that I was an advocate of teacher-powered schools even before I considered becoming a teacher? That’s a pretty bold statement, so bear with me as I explain.

When I entered the workforce right out of college in the late 1980s, the U.S. manufacturing sector was undergoing significant changes relative to an emerging global marketplace. My role as a young engineer was to find ways for my company to increase production output, while lowering costs, improving quality, and eliminating waste. My colleagues and I were on the front lines to ensure that our U.S. manufacturing facilities could remain viable and relevant in the face of intense offshore competition.

A major part of this work was obviously focused on the automation of our production processes, but an equally important part was directed at our respective organizations. The only way we could effectively compete was to move away from our traditional – and expensive – hierarchal organizations to a model that followed what we termed “lean manufacturing.” This meant that rather than waiting for bureaucratic layers of management to tell you what to do, everyone in the organization was given the capacity and empowerment to make just-in-time decisions toward a common mission and vision. Every employee was seen as an equal, respected stakeholder, using her/his skill set to being an intense focus on continuous improvement so that we could efficiently meet customer demands. This is something that I’m proud to say helped us ultimately keep high-paying manufacturing jobs in locations across this country – even to this day.

So what does all this have to do with my second career as a public school teacher? In my view, everything.

While I certainly appreciate the argument that education is a significantly different animal than what happens in the private sector, I also believe that rethinking any organizational and leadership structure is an applicable exercise for any entity wanting to remain relevant. Whether it’s within industry, the medical profession, the service economy, or our schools, one must be willing to embrace a model that moves away from a controlling, top-down focus to one that encourages collective autonomy opposite a goal of excellence. One where mutual respect enables teams to make nimble decisions based on the facts at hand so that goals are attained at an optimum pace. This is the reason I am so passionate about the teacher-powered schools movement.

As the participants in this first CTQ blogging roundtable discussion have so expertly pointed out, the teacher-powered model is a potent, working alternative to a status quo that has changed relatively little since when I was in high school. These articles have highlighted what works in teacher-powered schools: improvements in student equity through engagement, deeper collaboration between students and between professionals, and how redefined roles and the efficient use of data lead to more flexible, adaptive decision making.

These examples highlight what can happen when self-directed teachers work together toward a shared vision, create a desire to help each other grow as professionals, and transform their role from being “just a teacher” to one that as significant meaning and purpose in how a school successfully serves its students and its community.

These are characteristics that transcend traditional definitions of work and intrinsic motivation. I know first-hand, having had the distinct pleasure of working in these types of empowering organizations both in and outside of education. This is also why I’ve been a teacher-powered schools advocate before knowing such a phrase even existed. What can you do today to join this movement and help your school share these characteristics as well? You and your students deserve it.

Ben Owens is CTQ’s 2017 blogging lead for its first roundtable on teacher-powered schools. He teaches math and physics at Tri-County Early College High School, a teacher-powered school in Murphy, North Carolina. Ben was the 2016 North Carolina Science Technology & Mathematics Center’s 9-16 Outstanding Educator, a 2014 Hope Street Group National Teacher Fellow, and serves on the Teacher Advisory Council for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. 

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  • DawnFrahm

    Teacher Powered Schools

    Thank you for taking the time to talk about Teacher Powered Schools. I agree that improvements in student equity through engagement, deeper collaboration between students and between professionals, and how redefined roles and the efficient use of data lead to more flexible, adaptive decision making. Teacher leadership is not about power itself but about mobilizing other teachers’ potential to improve student performance. Teachers have qualities and skills that make others look to them as leaders so we have to build collaborative cultures and lead for change. I am a reader of The Connected Educator which is part of a course I am attending at a university #clc-teacherleader. Again, thanks for sharing.

    • benowens

      Nice definition of teacher leadership…

      Thanks, Dawn, for your comment and the definition you offer for teacher leadership. That's a term we tend to throw around a lot these days and as such, potentially water down its potency. But the aspect of mobilization is what I feel to be at the core of the proper definition of teacher leadership. Whether that's mobilizing our peers or policymakers, the actions we take to influence others to act is what true teacher leadership is all about.

      Thanks, also, for the book recommendation! I recently read one that sounds similar: "Digital Leadership: Changing Paradigms for Changing Times" by Sheninger, but will add this one to my queue!


      • sallyhawley

        re: Nice definition of teacher leadership…

        I love this!  They implemented this at a certain Springfield MO preschool

  • Bailey Belmont


    Totally agree with you, I'm pretty sure, that teacher-oriented schools will rule in the future. Furthermore, we all should start to reorganize our schools and other education offices now. Also, I'm a bit afraid, that if we will now do it now, we can end up with the students, who can only use essay writing  service  not their brains!

  • LoriNazareno

    Additional things to consider

    Great post Ben! For many years I and many others have been advocating for school redesign because of the "industrial era" structures of our schools that have not kept pace with the changin world. While I am also cautious about drawing parallels between schools and business, there are definitely some concepts worth considering, especially if we want to learn lessons from and about our rapidly changing world. There are two factors that get little attention yet still play a HUGE role in the need to redesign schools:

    • Teachers are highly educated. Current school heirarchical/industrial structures came of age BEFORE teachers were required to have college degrees. So the "job" of teacher, as it is currently designed, is structured as though teachers are not as highly educated as they are today. In short, teachers' jobs are structured as though they are assembly-line workers when, in fact, they are as educated (and in some cases more so) that the people who are supervising them. The result of this structure is that a whole lot of intellectual capital is wasted expecting teachers to be implementers of mandates, rather than designers.
    • Expectations have shifted for students. Whether we like or agree with it or not, schools as they are structured now, were designed to sort and separate students. In the industrial age that was okay because there were decent-paying jobs regardless of how students got sorted. As our world has transformed there is a necessity for ALL students to be prepared for that shifting world. Yet, our school structures has not adapted to those new expectations. In short it's like we have a system that is structured to produce rotary phones, and we act surprised that it isn't spitting out smart phones.

    Teacher-powered schools provide an opportunity to address both of these oft-overlooked realities of our schools. They provide structures that allow teachers to leverage their skills and talents on behalf of students. They also provide opportunities for students to see the significant adults in their lives work in ways that they need to learn to be a successful, contributing adult. And, while not all schools are going to become teacher-powered, they should be a viable option for students and teachers.

  • AnneJolly

    Right on!

    I, too, entered teaching from another profession. I worked in virology and, upon moving to a new city with my husband, was unable to find a job in my field. I received an offer to teach at a middle school in a remote part of the county and accepted the challenge.  I fell in love with kids, classrooms, and teaching, and knew that I had found a new direction for my life – one that would involve a pay cut monetarily, but would pile on riches of another sort. 

    One thing I realized early-on was that the people closest to the students – the ones at the school who knew them best and worked with them day in and day out – were not the people making the decisions. Having come from a profession in which I had a job to do and was trusted to be able to do it, I hovered between amazement and distress at the mandates that came down about how I was to teach and how many hoops I had to jump through.  Some of the peripheral things that were considered to be "my job" left me aghast and short on time to do the real work of teaching science to 160 eighth graders per day. 

    If teachers had been making the decisions about what needed to be done to ensure children had a good education from the time they walked in the door until the time they left, the teaching profession of my day would have looked much different. I worked with some amazing, knowlegeable, and dedicated colleagues. 

    I realize that much has changed over the years and that teachers are increasingly in the loop in some places.  Thanks to teacher-driven efforts like this Teacher-Powered School initiative teachers are gaining momentum in making short-term gains that lead to long-term change.

    I can envision a day when teacher leaders are actually calling the shots in some arenas and playing key roles in decision-making in others. And I can envision a day when we'll be turning out generations of kids are high-functioning members in colleges and in the workforce. 

    Teachers should be powering the schools. It's the only way to true reform. 

  • sallyhawley


    I love this!   They recently implemented this at a certain Springfield MO preschool