Real Teacher Appreciation: Let Them Lead

This is the first in a series of blog posts on teacher leadership.

As we look back on Teacher Appreciation Week, it’s time to go beyond the week-long outpouring of cards, flowers, lunches, tweets, and hugs. Give teachers something longer-lasting, something that elevates the profession.

Let teachers lead.

We’re not talking about the “Sunshine Committee” celebrating birthdays, ordering takeout lunches, and organizing Casual Friday. While important for school morale and climate, that doesn’t get teachers to the end game of influencing education reforms, elevating and strengthening the profession, and impacting students.

We are talking about authentic leadership roles—as mentors, curriculum writers, peer evaluators, data coaches, team leads, action researchers, and many other roles that come with recognition, titles, authority, release from some instructional time—and, often, extra compensation. We also recognize that there are both formal and informal teacher leadership roles and multiple pathways into them.

In 1997, researchers noted that teachers were taking on more formal leadership roles and more informal ones through “creative insubordination.” Since 2010, other studies reported that increasing teacher influence and empowerment is among the most important changes associated with improved teacher retention, teacher job satisfaction and student achievement. Examples can be found in such places as Baltimore and Minnesota and many more are popping up all over the country—while at the same time teacher leadership advanced degree programs have grown.

Teacher leadership is no longer an afterthought or add-on.

In 2014, at the Teaching and Learning conference, the U.S. Department of Education launched Teach to Lead. This initiative, in partnership with the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, is designed to advance the national conversation around the teaching profession’s future and promote opportunities for teacher leadership that improve outcomes for students.

More than 70 organizations have signed on in support of Teach to Lead and more than 500 teachers have participated in Teach to Lead regional summits and local leadership labs. Thousands of others are engaged in Commit to Lead, an online community that allows participants to share and collaborate on promising ideas to advance teacher leadership to address pressing problems in education by:

  • Increasing pathways and opportunities for teachers to exercise leadership, especially those that allow teachers to continue to teach students
  • Elevating teacher voice and influence in policy and practice
  • Expanding efforts and creating models for the field of effective teacher-led work

Just last month, representatives from 17 countries came together for the 5th International Summit on the Teaching Profession. The summit, called “Implementing Highly Effective Teacher Policy and Practice,” focused on developing and promoting effective leadership among principals, teachers, and administrators, valuing teachers and strengthening their sense of effectiveness or self-efficacy, and encouraging innovation in the 21st-century classroom. Education Secretary Arne Duncan brought six classroom teachers and one principal—all active in Teach to Lead and members of three of the initiative’s key support organizations: the Hope Street Group, National Network of State Teachers of the Year, and Teach Plus.

A key strand of the summit was teacher leadership. With Jeff Charbonneau, 2013 National Teacher of the Year, presenting, the U.S. delegation committed to the following in 2015:

  • Convene a summit in the U.S. to highlight teacher leadership and expand leadership opportunities
  • Continue working to increase the number of children with access to high-quality early learning and encourage teacher leadership of this effort
  • Increase access for learners of all ages to high-quality career and technical education and encourage teacher leadership of this work

If schools and districts commit to creating teacher leadership structures that are authentic and valued—and so strong that they are not dependent on policy changes, discretionary budgets, or an egalitarian culture—every teacher could begin to feel valued and important.

That’s what real teacher appreciation is all about.

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