By Meghan Everette, School Ambassador Fellow
Research shows that teachers who identify as leaders are more likely to stay in the profession longer and have a greater impact on student achievement. Teacher turnover and shortages in certain subjects and geographic areas have been an ongoing concern, and there are fears this shortage will continue to spread throughout the country. Recruiting more teachers can’t offset turnover alone, so retaining teachers is important. We know the value of experienced teachers and districts saves money in onboarding and training costs when they are able to keep teachers in the profession. Teacher leadership fosters collaboration, excitement about the profession, increases teachers’ skills, and benefits communities. Donna Harris-Aikens, Senior Advisor for Policy and Planning, met with teacher leaders to talk about the kind of experiences that foster and support teacher leaders in the classroom and throughout their educator networks. Here are the top five takeaways from teachers across the country on engaging and supporting teacher leaders.
1. Teachers are empowered when their skills are developed, acknowledged, and utilized.
Educators have a vast set of skills that extend far beyond academic content. Tanasha Mahone, an Atlanta-area teacher, says “Teachers are solving these problems in their other lines of work; teachers run organizations outside of school, they are on boards, they do all kind of advocacy work, but they’re not brought into the conversation within the school to help make those decisions.” Leveraging these talents does more than attract and retain teachers; it is a valuable opportunity to address school needs.
2. Engaging connections play a valuable role in developing teacher leaders.
Teachers that engage with education networks and organizations helps quell isolation while fostering leadership skills. “We know community is key in order for us to stay in this profession… I would not have made it to year six if I had not had the community,” says Detroit teacher Patrick Harris. Teachers shared that having the opportunity to elevate their activism and advocacy keep them energized and connected to the profession. Examples of connections and leadership fostered in education organizations include leading committees and connecting outside of the school setting to discuss district, state, and national education issues.
3. Educators need opportunities for continuous learning.
Educators want to learn. One teacher leader reflected “People stay when they feel like they’re growing.” For teacher and advocate Lauren Jewett in New Orleans, National Board certification “shaped my advocacy. It continues to embed the fact that we are lifelong learners.” . State and local districts require teachers to earn continuous learning points, often expecting credits to be earned outside of school hours and without funding, in order to maintain certification. Teachers are spending their personal time and self-funding opportunities to further their own professional learning regularly, which isn’t sustainable, say teachers. Continuous learning opportunities aren’t just about checking off re-licensure requirements, they are valuable opportunities to leverage learning as part of retention strategies. Teachers suggest considering hybrid roles that allow teachers to learn, mentor, advocate, and still stay in the classroom are one proven solution to keeping teacher leaders active.
4. Teachers crave collaboration.
When asked what schools and the Department of Education can do to support teacher leadership, Colorado educator Mark Sass stressed the importance of convening teachers to share and build ideas. Fostering this “helps provide a sense of agency for teachers to feel like they can actually have an impact,” says Sass. This can be particularly salient after a challenging year. Teachers all shared a desire to know what other districts are doing successfully and noted “Right now is a good time to have conversations with teachers about what they’ve learned during the pandemic and remote teaching.”
5. A culture of leadership is more powerful than policies.
Teachers suggest putting the community, students, and teachers at the forefront of decisions making, instead of using top-down approaches. “Superintendents change, but the community does not,” noted one teacher, which is why educators say listening is the first step in supporting teachers. “What would it look like if all the practices were based on what the community needed, and the leader was expected to come in and serve that community?” asks Mahone. Sass agrees, “Some of the issues with teacher leadership have less to do with policy and more to do with culture. It won’t be one or two policies that shift teacher leadership thinking.”
While there is work to be done in supporting teacher leaders, educators are hopeful. They are excited about the innovative and creative ideas that emerged out of the pandemic and the possibilities the future holds as they continue to advocate for all students.