When it comes to turning around low-performing schools and districts, the role of teacher leadership is essential. Likewise, when it comes to building high-performing educational systems, in the United States and around the world, teacher leadership is likewise essential. What models for developing teacher leadership can be used by districts around the country? 

One teacher leadership model was described by a new report from the Center for Assessment, Design, Research and Evaluation (CADRE) at the CU Boulder School of Education. This multi-site study found that a key ingredient for improving student performance at low-performing schools was that campus and district policies needed to “enable teacher leaders to help execute the instructional vision at the school.” 

This was accomplished by supporting schools which “shifted more autonomy to the teacher teams” to decide how best to develop instruction; this led to schools “establishing reciprocal accountability between teachers and school leaders” while improving student performance. In other words, teacher leadership was absolutely essential for improving student performance. 

This also extended to building up newer teachers, who may need mentoring and support from teacher leaders. The same CADRE study noted that both mentor teachers and novice teachers benefitted from this case of teacher leadership, and the mentoring programs “motivated novice teachers to stay at the school.” 

This study emphasized what’s been known in top-performing international education systems for years: teacher leaders are the rocket fuel that powers student success. 

In Japan, which regularly outperforms much of the rest of the world in international exams like the PISA and TIMSS, teachers are expected to develop as leaders over the course of their careers, with frequent movement between schools and a clear prefectural-level salary ladder. There are also opportunities for teachers to lead their departments and their local educational boards in developing instruction based on their experiences in the classroom. These are both relatively straightforward policies that can be implemented in reform-minded districts throughout the country. 

Of course, the most famous case of teacher leadership in Japan is the Lesson Study; this involves a group of teachers collaborating to design and refine a lesson or series of lessons, with the end result being a high-quality, reusable lesson plan available to all teachers in the prefecture. This is a model that gives teachers a tremendous amount of leadership responsibility, since it involves building lessons that can work across a variety of classes. Nevertheless, there is research supporting the idea that “lesson study can be practiced, adapted, and sustained by US educators” as long as they have the right support. 

Turning now to another top-performing educational system, Singapore’s education system has what is probably the most developed system for teacher leadership in the world. This is because Singaporean schools “affirm, build upon and further develop the many unique strengths and capacities different teachers will possess” throughout their careers. 

Singapore provides multiple pathways for teachers to develop as leaders, often while staying in the classroom. Teacher leaders are also used as school-based developers and trainers for other teachers, who are able to help teachers target weaker areas of student performance for improvement, or quickly disseminate and build upon innovations from individual teachers. This creates a culture in which teachers can not just collaborate, but lead. This focus on developing teacher leaders ensures that the strongest teachers can remain teachers, while still satisfying their ambitions for career growth and validating their expertise as teacher leaders. 

These lessons can be applied by school districts in the United States. To help them do so, districts should look to partner with existing organizations. Teach For America, for example, spends a great deal of its time developing its teachers’ leadership skills and interests. (Disclosure: I’m a member of Teach for America, and can recommend it from personal experience). Likewise, groups like Leadership for Educational Equity (LEE, of which I’m also a member) can help teachers build the educational policy expertise needed to speak with a greater voice on campus or district affairs. This is all to say that there is an ecosystem of support for building teacher leadership out there, and districts interested in supporting their teachers can experience firsthand how teacher leaders can help not just their students, but a whole school or a whole district. 

These examples show that successful models for encouraging and developing teacher leadership have been developed around the world. While different models have different points to recommend them, one common feature we see in successful educational reform efforts and in successful international education systems is an emphasis on teacher leadership. That’s why every district would benefit from  asking how it can better develop its teacher leaders. 

Editor’s Note: The above guest column was penned by Tristan Reynolds. Reynolds is a 2021 Teach For America Corps Member who teaches 8th grade English Language Arts/Reading (ELAR) at the Academy for Academic Enhancement Middle School in Rio Grande City, Texas.

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