Teacher leadership plays a critical role in schools that dramatically improve student performance. However, despite many well-intentioned efforts, teacher leadership initiatives rarely become a lasting part of the way schools and districts organize. The cause? Efforts are often implemented in a piecemeal fashion and/or trade-offs are not put in place to secure adequate resources to sustain them.
To support districts in establishing teacher leadership programs that stick, ERS created the Teacher Leadership and Career Pathways Checklist, comprised of what we call the “must-dos” and “common missteps” for the six steps of program creation. The checklist builds on research and district experiences implementing teacher leadership, and it contributes new steps for how to successfully scale and sustain these efforts.
Why are teacher leadership roles so important?
Strategic teacher leadership roles:
Extend the reach of excellent teachers through teaming. If we want to dramatically improve student performance, the impact of the best teachers must be extended and supported through teaming, which is the collaboration and support structures that help all teachers grow.
Keep great teachers in schools for longer. Robust pathways for teacher career advancement provide professional and financial incentives for taking on leadership roles, ensure accountability, and make the job more sustainable.
Make principal job more doable. Principals have the challenge of managing 40 to 100 teachers. When experienced teacher leaders take on the responsibility of managing small groups of teachers, principals increase their capacity to develop faculty in a way that focuses on school needs and improving student learning.
Denver’s example: Increasing the capacity of principals by elevating teachers
In the 2013-2014 school year, Denver Public Schools (DPS) Superintendent Tom Boasberg launched the Differentiated Roles (DR) pilot program in a multifaceted effort to reduce the managerial burden on principals; meet the goal of retaining, rewarding, and recruiting exceptional teachers; and support the development of teachers and the sustainability of their jobs. Rather than creating managerial roles, top teachers are elevated to the new Team Lead roles, which simultaneously augment the capacity of the principal, enhances the teacher career ladder, and increases collaborative teamwork opportunities for teachers.
Team Leads manage small groups of fellow teachers for whom they provide real-time feedback, organize planning sessions, facilitate and participate in sharing ideas, and create opportunities for collaborative work. Team Leads split their time approximately in half between teaching in the classroom and working with other teachers, an innovative approach to the position.
Initial responses to the Denver pilot are positive, and it will move out of the pilot phase and expand to 115 schools for 2016-17 school year under the new name, Teacher Leadership and Collaboration (TLC). The New Teacher Project (TNTP) reported the impact TLC has on teacher work experiences:
While the student results are not yet measurable, teachers report a positive impact on their value proposition and work experience. A report from the Aspen Institute notes "the greatest impact is stronger instruction within the classroom. Teachers are getting feedback constantly. We're in classrooms every week sharing best practices."
The report “Transforming Schools,” released by Bain & Company, surveyed DPS teachers and found that teachers in the TLC pilot schools scored significantly higher on a job satisfaction scale than teachers in schools not yet implementing TLC. It should be noted that teachers historically score low on this scale, indicating a significant impact on staff morale.
If you want to learn more about Denver’s Teacher Leadership and Collaboration pilot program, watch this video: Teacher Leadership & Collaboration in Denver Public Schools.
Designing teacher leadership roles that last
For districts to institutionalize teacher leadership roles effectively, leaders need to take two fundamental steps: First, leadership teams need to clearly define teacher roles, making sure each role supports and is accountable to student learning. Part of this step includes matching compensation and incentives to the level and type of a teacher’s work contribution. Second, leaders need to ensure sustainable sources of funding, most likely by making trade-offs such as shifting dollars from coaches to the new teacher leaders or reallocating compensation dollars away from education credits and experience toward teacher leadership roles.
Why are teacher leadership roles a system responsibility?
We see over and over again that high-performing schools incorporate strong teacher teams. These teams, however, need effective teacher leaders, and it is more effective and cost efficient to create these roles on a system level rather than on a school level. In most cases, teachers need to learn new adult leadership skills to effectively play these roles. Building this capacity and working on the challenges inherent with introducing a new way of teaming can be hard to do school by school. The financial sustainability of these initiatives requires the shifting of resources that is easier and sometimes only possible on the system level. Additionally, teacher leaders can move within and across schools.
The Teaching Leadership and Career Pathways Checklist
Use our new checklist to guide your district past some of the common pitfalls around implementing teacher leadership roles. It defines six key steps to successful, sustainable, and scalable career pathways that strengthen school leadership, accelerate teacher and student learning, and enrich the teaching career.
Each step of the checklist includes three components: a high-level description of the step, “must-dos” highlighting specific actions, and “common missteps” indicating areas of caution. By placing common missteps alongside the must-dos, this checklist underscores the degree of deliberateness each step requires.
For example, the penultimate step in the checklist is “Secure Sustainable Funding,” a step often placed in the second phase of implementation. Providing sustainable funding is pivotal to making the program stick; therefore, districts must define centrally the stipend or salary ranges for different role types and align them to the requisite level of responsibility and expertise as well as the value of the investments they replace. ERS has identified the common misstep of funding these roles through TIF or temporary grants without a long-term strategy for sustaining them and without including the cost of release time required for some teacher leader roles. Without prioritizing these considerations when creating teacher leadership roles, the program may not last past the pilot phase.
For more information on finding sustainable funding for teacher leadership roles, read our white paper A New Vision for Teacher Professional Growth & Support, which provides six steps to a more powerful school system strategy.