As we enter back-to-school season, I’m anticipating a heavy dose of talk about the importance of “lifting” the teaching profession. I frequently heard talking points about “teacher leadership” last year while serving as a Teaching Ambassador Fellow at the U.S. Department of Education.
As a teacher, I enthusiastically support this focus. But after a year in Washington, I am also leery that we are reaching a dangerous point where the “teacher leadership” movement becomes little more than an educational buzzword. This is not to say there haven’t been promising developments, such as the national work of Teach to Lead and local innovation in places like Iowa. However, I’ve also increasingly seen “teacher leadership” treated as this decade’s version of past panaceas like “differentiated instruction” and “open-space classrooms,” movements that were good in concept but often became watered down in implementation.
I fear a similar fate for “teacher leadership” without matching commitments to creating conditions where teacher leaders can thrive. Simply advocating for “teacher leadership” without advancing other necessary changes is largely an instance of words without meaning.
So what else is necessary to ensure teacher leadership is more than a catchy education reform slogan? First, we must develop robust systems of support for teachers. Too often, policymakers seem to think it is enough to simply proclaim teachers are leaders—as if saying “we want you to be empowered to lead” alone will result in meaningful change. However, effective leaders require development in every profession, and teaching is no different.
In July, I participated in a convening focused on developing a framework for educator support. The framework emphasized teacher-led professional development with ongoing learning, opportunities for peer observation, time and space to collaborate, and chances to reflect. Many observers of our system have noted the need for greater teacher autonomy, but the framework placed additional focus on ensuring teachers have systemic supports in order to foster growth as instructors and leaders.
While part of those supports is structural, we also can’t disregard a second necessary condition for teacher leadership: sufficient funding. I can’t envision any industry telling their talent to lead and innovate without providing funding to do so, but that is exactly what is happening in education. Policies like the elimination of Title II funding would remove the very resources needed to develop teachers as leaders.
Supporters of these cuts have noted a lack of evidence that funds have been used effectively in the past, but this is flawed logic, especially when espoused by those who claim to want to advance teacher leadership. To illustrate, if a doctor found a patient was misusing medicine, I have to believe the doctor would show the patient how to appropriately use the medicine rather than taking it away. Similarly, if policymakers truly believe teachers should be empowered to lead, they should focus on highlighting and encouraging effective use of funding, not cutting funds. Title II funds are being used to great effect in many places, and elimination of those funds would be devastating to initiatives far beyond teacher leadership.
Finally, for “teacher leadership” to be meaningful, teachers must have seats at the tables where decisions are made. The “meaningful consultation” of teachers required by Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) has led to some steps in this direction, but even in these instances teachers have often been treated more as advisors than real leaders. For teachers to truly be leaders, they can’t be invited to offer feedback to policymakers who then retreat behind doors to make decisions; teachers have to be allowed behind the doors to contribute directly to the work of crafting policies.
In the end, if our society truly values teacher voice and expertise, we have to be willing to do more than offer lip service to teacher leadership. Teacher leadership has the potential to help stop the flood of teachers leaving the profession, and it also ensures the people working most directly with students are actively informing school, district, state, and national policies affecting kids. To realize this potential, policymakers have to commit more than rhetoric to teacher leadership, and teachers have to engage in advocacy for chances to lead.