The Future of Teaching Starts Now

Gretchen Weber

This is the third in a series of blog posts on teacher leadership. Read the first, "Real Teacher Appreciation: Let Them Lead," and the second, “Teacher Leaders: Many Titles, Big Impacts.”

Picture this classroom of the future: instead of a teacher shepherding a group of students through their lessons, there's a team of specialists, each member drilling down into one piece of the learning process.

One specialist, a Learning Pathway Designer focused on competency-based learning strategies, works with students and families to set goals and track progress. Another, a Learning Naturalist, captures evidence of how children learn in different environments, whether a classroom, a museum, or at the kitchen table.  

Sure, the titles sound wonky. But a recent KnowledgeWorks paper exploring these and other roles reminded me of work we did in 2009 identifying emerging roles for teachers. And that got me thinking about the progress some districts and states have made in giving teachers more options and opportunities beyond the two career paths available to teachers today: keep teaching or become a principal. Many more options could be open to teachers if we set up the right structures and opportunities in our schools and districts.

When you look at what is happening in Maine, Denver, BaltimoreMinnesota, Indianapolis, Iowa, Texas, Charlotte-Mecklenburg (NC), Tennessee, and Massachusetts, it’s not so far-fetched to imagine that schools could someday—and someday soon—offer a more finely tuned array of specializations for the teaching profession. A Learning Clinician, say, or Technology Practitioner.

Today's teachers have quite a bit to say about how their expertise could be targeted more strategically. At a school district I worked with a few years ago, for example, we came up with five pathways: teacher leader, expert teacher, master teacher, research teacher, and a design-your-own option. Each pathway offered roles and opportunities for teachers at mid- and late-career stages. Each built professional mastery and gave teachers more voice in their career trajectory, but also fostered recruitment and retention, with the end result of creating a stronger learning environment for students.

Most teachers get excited by the promise these kinds of staffing structures and opportunities hold. No small feat, considering teacher satisfaction has declined to its lowest point in 25 years.

When I describe such a scenario in conversations, teachers—not to mention parents and other educators—often ask:  "So, how do we get that in our school or district?"  I tell them that the most successful initiatives will recognize that teacher leaders belong at the forefront of this change because they know the unique culture and context of their school and its community. Examples such as Public Impact's Opportunity Culture also offer a great starting point and resources.

Whatever they look like, new roles for teachers that emphasize leadership skills and precise expertise can motivate current and future teachers to stay in the profession and help them thrive and flourish. Marilyn Katzenmeyer and Gayle Moller said as much more than a decade ago in their call for a new paradigm in teaching. “Within every school there is a sleeping giant of teacher leadership," they wrote, "which can be a strong catalyst for making change.”

Gretchen Weber is former vice president for Policy, Practice, and Systems Change at AIR.