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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