I was delighted when USDOE Secretary Arne Duncan used the very language I’ve so often employed—of leading without leaving the classroom—to announce a new teacher leadership effort last week. But is his administration ready to address the significant barriers teacher leaders face?

Graphic notetaking of Teacherpreneurs session by teacher leader Wendi PillarsTeachers are ready to lead in bold ways. The polls say so— and also confirm that the public deeply trusts K-12 teachers.

Last week, CTQ offered two sessions on Teacherpreneurs: Innovative Teachers Who Lead But Don’t Leave at the National Board for Professional Standards (NBPTS)’s Teaching & Learning 2014 event. Standing room only. The air was electric with accomplished teachers’ desire for the time and autonomy to both teach and lead.

This spirit wasn’t confined to our sessions, as early childhood teacher John Holland has poignantly documented. In fact, I was delighted when USDOE Secretary Arne Duncan used the very language I’ve so often employed—of leading without leaving the classroom—to announce a new teacher leadership effort at the NBPTS event. Teachers want to take back their profession—so they can better serve their students.

Secretary Duncan’s rhetoric was right-on. And inspiring. Duncan committed to partnering with NBPTS “to work with districts and even states across the country to provide more opportunities for genuine, authentic teacher leadership that don’t require giving up a daily role in the classroom.”

But Secretary Duncan didn’t speak to the organizational, cultural, and political barriers that must be addressed to ensure that “leadership” isn’t just another responsibility added to teachers’ already heavy loads.

Here are just a few of the barriers that top-performing nations have eliminated to boost teachers’ leadership and effectiveness:

  • Archaic school schedules that don’t make the best use of students’ and teachers’ time;
  • Evaluation systems that value individual teachers’ efforts at the expense of collaboration; and
  • Political resistance to teacher leaders having time and autonomy to incubate and execute their own ideas.

How will the USDOE address significant barriers to teacher leadership?

Secretary Duncan plans to “convene a group of teachers, principals, state Chiefs, teachers’ groups and district leaders, among others” to “foster real-world commitments on teacher leadership.”

I hope Duncan will go further. The USDOE has its own part to play in advancing the brand of teacher leadership he describes: systematically breaking down barriers.

In the closing chapter of Teacherpreneurs, we gazed into a crystal ball, predicting how hybrid roles could go to scale in the United States:

Then came the game changer. Right before President Obama’s presidential term ended in 2017, a new initiative had launched to help hundreds of thousands of classroom experts virally spread their expertise. Federal incentives, supplanting those previously used in Race to the Top, were offered to states and school districts to cultivate and support teacherpreneurs.

It’s not so far-fetched.

Imagine if the USDOE shifted gears now:

  • Drawing on international lessons learned (and exemplary practices close to home) to advance new models for school schedules and leadership configurations;
  • Collaborating with unions to support teacherpreneur roles that advance Common Core implementation and reforms in teacher evaluation systems and school redesign.
  • Modifying teacher evaluation and pay systems to systematically encourage and reward teachers to lead and share their expertise with their peers;
  • Marketing teaching as a 21st-century profession of classroom experts, highlighting the work of teacher leaders; and
  • Investing in teacher preparation that readies preservice teachers to lead without leaving the classroom.

Secretary Duncan’s administration could be poised to leave a meaningful legacy for the teaching profession, but convenings and conversations won’t be enough. We need a federal commitment to reducing the barriers that block teacher leaders’ efforts to transform schools. Bold changes require bold decisions—at the federal level and beyond.


Image credit: Graphic notetaking during Teacherpreneurs session by NBCT Wendi Pillars

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