Written by Josh Brown
Teacher leadership. It’s a phrase used by many organizations in the education community, but one that lacks a consistent definition and is open to interpretation. You also know it when you see it.
Last month, I saw teacher leadership in action.
A few weeks ago, I attended The Teach to Lead Summit in San Jose, California. Teach to Lead, which is administered in partnership by the U.S. Department of Education, ASCD, and Teach Plus, facilitates the exchange of best practices among a variety of education stakeholders. It also brims with networking opportunities and problem-solving strategies. At the summit I attended, teachers, principals, and community partners collaborated around issues in STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, Math) instruction while seeking to remediate an issue in their community.
Throughout the weekend, I worked with a group of elementary educators and community stakeholders from Burlington, Vermont, who were looking for ways to incorporate interdisciplinary STEAM instruction into the 4th grade curriculum. We brainstormed, collaborated, and problem-solved our way towards a solution-oriented plan of action. Participants at the summit had additional support from a number of organizations and agencies, including Google for Education, who provided guidance and feedback to each team.
During the two days I worked with my colleagues from Vermont, I saw firsthand how teachers, when given the proper support and resources, can solve the most challenging issues in public education. The summit wasn’t just about discussing what the teachers wanted to change; each team was tasked with crafting an explicit action plan to address the STEAM issue facing their school community. On our team, the classroom teachers provided salient feedback on curriculum development, our school administrator focused on ESSA compliance and logistics, and the community representatives sought to supplement the school’s pre-existing resources. By the end of the weekend, we had identified key stakeholders in the school faculty, talked about how we would coordinate efforts with community and parent groups, and drafted a plan of action to motivate school administrators to buy into the plan.
After watching all of the teachers discuss, strategize, and plan tirelessly all weekend, I had an “aha” moment: the Teach to Lead Summit was effective because educators had ample time and support to problem-solve and collaborate around issues affecting kids. This is a model worth implementing at the district and school level. There are a couple of ways we can go about doing this:
First, school districts could create teacher teams that specifically seek to troubleshoot problems facing their districts. For example, in lieu of district-mandated professional development, these teams could use that time for collaboration around curriculum, policy or instruction. By collaborating directly with district-level decision-makers, teachers will have a seat at the table while they are given ample time to collaborate around actionable solutions that directly affect their students. This small investment of time and resources will yield tremendous results for student achievement. Second, schools could allocate a specific amount of professional development time for teachers to troubleshoot a specific issue on campus. Companies like Google apportion 20% of employee’s time to pursue side projects of their interest, thus encouraging creativity and solution-oriented thinking. This same philosophy could be applied to schools by allowing teachers to work on a project or issue that affects their students.
The Teach to Lead Summit reaffirmed for me what educators know already: The answers to our most pressing questions about public education are found inside the schoolhouse walls. When a teacher’s voice is amplified, supported, and encouraged, student success follows. I still can’t succinctly define the term teacher leadership, but I can say one thing for certain. Every single educator I met at the Teach to Lead Summit is a Teacher Leader.
Josh Brown teaches 10th, 11th, and 12th grade special education at Francis Polytechnic High School in Sun Valley, California. He is a Teach Plus California Teaching Policy Fellowship alum.