Teaching is Leading: Takeaways from the Teach to Lead Summits

The room was electric. Just a year ago, back in my own classroom, this scene would have been unimaginable to me.

I watched as hundreds of teachers, overflowing with formidable drive, shared innovative ideas and engaged in deep discussion on teaching and leading in Denver, Co. The same dynamic played out weeks before in another packed venue in Louisville, Ky.

What drove these teachers to Denver and Louisville?

Despite diverse backgrounds, each was prompted by a desire for authentic, meaningful opportunities for leadership in their schools and beyond – without leaving their classroom and students.

And Teach to Lead is the vehicle through which so many teachers are fighting to make their leadership dreams a reality.

Born of a partnership between the Department of Education and the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, Teach to Lead is spotlighting and scaling up promising projects across the country to expand teacher leadership opportunities and to improve student achievement.

To accomplish these goals, Teach to Lead is hosting three regional summits – in Louisville, Denver and, soon, Boston. Later this year, local leadership labs will help select projects culled through the summits and the online community at Commit to Lead to develop further.

The moments I experienced in Louisville and in Denver have filled me with certainty: this effort will lead to real change for teachers and kids, and these amazing teachers (alongside principals and advocates who support them) will be the ones to lead it.

I felt this certainty as I watched 2015 Principal of the Year Jayne Ellspermann help teachers at the summit understand how to develop an alliance with their principals as part of their efforts to lead.

I felt this certainty when State Teachers of the Year shared tried and tested advice about how to make their voices heard with administrators and policymakers alike.

And, more than anything, I felt this certainty when I heard the voices of energetic, empowered teachers like Sean from Oklahoma, who said, “It’s so powerful to be in a room with all of you … and to know that we share the same struggles. That gives me the motivation to continue moving forward.”

The expectation of Teach to Lead is not that every idea will be successful. We know that, in some places, the appetite or room for real teacher leadership is lacking.

But, Teach to Lead is not about any single idea. It’s not even about the summits.

It’s about helping teachers build a sense of empowerment and the skills to lead adults as confidently as they lead youth. And it’s about equipping teachers to replicate great leadership in their communities so that teacher leadership is not just an idea in the halls of the Department, in the heads of aspiring teacher leaders, or in forward-looking states and districts like Iowa, Hawaii, Kentucky, Denver, and Long Beach.

Teacher by teacher, we’re building a movement – one that says our nation’s hard-working educators should undeniably have a voice in the decisions that shape their work and lives; that they should lead their schools, districts, and states; and that their expertise shouldn’t be honored simply with words, but with actions.

And all of this leads me back to my own path as a teacher leader.

I loved teaching. My students constantly amazed me with their intellect, spirit, and joyful approach to learning. But I felt stymied by the limitations of my role. Though my classes and school were high achieving, my ability to make a difference was obstructed by the walls of my classroom and the attitudes of others toward me – that I was “just a teacher.”

So, I left. And, though serving the President and Secretary Duncan is an immense honor, I paid a heartbreaking price.

This is the real power of Teach to Lead. I know there are many teachers out there like me – who yearn to use their leadership skills and to be heard by decision-makers. Our nation is losing an unquantifiable resource as teachers make the tough choice to leave the classroom year after year.

It’s time that we recognize that the toughest problems facing education today cannot be solved without teachers, their input, or their leadership. We must build systems at the federal, state, and local levels to equip teachers with the resources and support to develop as educators and as leaders.

In these efforts, Teach to Lead is undoubtedly moving the needle. And as the movement heads to Boston and beyond, I feel incredibly lucky to play a part.

Kelly Fitzpatrick is a confidential assistant in the Office of Planning, Evaluation, and Policy Development at the U.S. Department of Education.

Testing: Can We Find the Rational Middle?

Recently I visited Glen Iris Elementary School in Birmingham, Alabama to meet with a group of teachers and their principal. I was in Birmingham as a Teaching Ambassador Fellow and it was highly recommend by local educators that I visit Glen Iris while in Birmingham to see the incredible work going on at the school. During my visit I learned about the school’s focus on project-based learning, how it energizes teachers and promotes cross-curriculum connections and implementation of college and career ready standards in a way that has significant meaning for students and the surrounding community. I learned how this type of learning relies on several factors including the internal capacity among teachers to lead and bring others along in this work and a supportive principal who will work to make sure the resources needed are provided (even grow a beard and sleep on the school roof to fundraise if necessary!). I also learned about their school garden, which was a sight to behold and a powerful a lesson for how to keep learning focused on developing the whole child.

The assessment culture was also very different at Glen Iris Elementary. It was clear that every teacher in the room agreed that we can and should measure learning, but, also, that current “tests” were measuring learning. When I asked Principal Wilson to share his views on testing he looked at me very calmly said, “There is more than one way to measure the standards. We have to be ever-growing.”

Since returning from Birmingham, much has happened in the “testing” world.

Recently, the Foundation for Excellence in Education came out with an analysis of district testing calendars from the 2013-14 school year. The foundation looked at 44 districts and found huge variation; some required as few as eight tests on top of required state assessments – and one required 198 additional exams. In addition, the Council of Chief State School Officers and Secretary Duncan have shined a spotlight on testing and are asking states and districts to have difficult conversations about the quantity and quality of tests administered to students. Also in recent weeks, several school districts in Florida have moved to cut down on testing. Miami-Dade County cut 24 interim assessments, adding 260 minutes of instruction back into the schedule, while Palm Beach County cut 11 diagnostic tests and made all district-level performance assessments optional. Moreover, Hillsborough County school district leaders are calling on the state to reduce the amount of testing in schools while several school officials have already eliminated final exams at middle and high school levels, as well as reduced the number of assessments for elementary grades in math, science and language arts.

I recently sat down with Secretary Duncan to hear his perspective on the current state of testing and accountability. While the testing pendulum has swung from one side to the other, my hope is that we will land somewhere in the rational middle. And as I continue in my education journey, I will forever keep those timely words of Dr. Wilson at the forefront of my mind and will challenge all of us to be “ever-growing.”

Emily Davis is a Teaching Ambassador Fellow at the U.S. Department of Education.

An Invitation to Commit to Lead

When I was honored to be named Nebraska teacher of the year in 2007, almost in the same breath folks said, “Congratulations – when are you leaving the classroom?” Unfortunately, we have built into the American teaching culture this perverse disincentive that only seems to listen to and honor educators who move farthest away from those who need us most – our students.

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Teach to Lead seeks to flip that by allowing teachers to lead from the classroom. We know that the many of the best ideas come from teachers – in fact, the solutions to today’s educational challenges will not be solved without the involvement of classroom teachers in the development as well as the implementation of innovative educational ideas.

Teach to Lead was developed by the U.S. Department of Education and the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards to advance student success by expanding opportunities for teacher leadership – in other words, to make sure that teachers were involved in the development and implementation of education transformation.

One of the components of Teach to Lead is our virtual community, Commit to Lead. Commit to Lead is for those who have a seed of an idea, those who are developing their ideas, and those who are deep in implementation. It’s for classroom teachers, administrators, system leaders, advocacy groups – all those who are working to include teacher leadership in their decision making. The platform is a place to discuss and learn from others who may have already been down your path – or who want to learn from your success!

Commit to Lead is easy to use. After you join the community, you can post your own idea (just 300 words or less) and interact with others who comment. Or you can join and then peruse the ideas posted by others, offering your suggestions and giving a “thumbs up” by voting for those ideas that you find most compelling.

Christina from Willamsport, Pennsylvania, has submitted the most talked about idea so far:

“Principals, central office admin, consultants, and state ed departments would be required to teach just one prep or class for a 3-6 month period at least once every two years. The teacher in which they are ‘subbing’ for would then be released during that time to participate in some of the leadership responsibilities of the person assuming their role as teacher. Or they could use their release time to coach a colleague (or new teacher).

An easy idea to implement? Not really. Worthy of discussion? Absolutely! To be done right, this wouldn’t just be a simple schedule change, but a real culture shift that exemplifies the importance of being as close to the classroom as possible. I’ve often heard teachers say that some policies would never happen if administrators had to live by their own rules. I also know many teachers that don’t understand the heavy burdens and isolation faced by many in traditional leadership positions. A change of this magnitude would be great if it was done thoughtfully and with the best interests of students at the forefront.

Commit to Lead isn’t just about posting your own ideas. It’s also about sharing your “teacher wisdom” with colleagues across the country. Meeting the needs of her English Language Learners is what prompted Donna from Virginia Beach, Virginia, to reach out to colleagues through Commit to Lead:

I would like to start a discussion of ways to foster accurate academic participation for ELLs (or other student populations). Currently, I use scaffolds such as posted and practiced academic sentence frames to assist students when reporting out ideas after “Think-Write-Pair-Share.” I would like to collaborate with others to broaden my strategies and increase student use of academic language and structures.

Maybe you are just the person Donna is looking for to help fill her teacher toolbox! The best ideas are stolen or borrowed from other teachers – maybe even you!

Deidra from Hattiesburg, Mississippi, saw a problem in her teaching community and stepped up with a solution:

All teachers benefit from collaborative interaction, so I am starting a collaborative learning group among the CTE [Career & Technical Education] teachers I work with at my high school. Because our planning times do not coincide, I am using Google classroom to share professional readings with my colleagues, opening up discussion threads, and encouraging them to post articles and reading suggestions as well.

I’ve been reading The Teacher Wars by Dana Goldstein and she advises, “…the next step in American education reform may be to focus … more on classroom-up interventions that replicate the practices of the best [teachers].” Christina, Donna, and Deidra – and so many other teachers like them – are doing just that: leading from their classrooms!

Commit to Lead is just a beginning and we know this work isn’t easy, but it won’t be done correctly unless professional educators are key players.

We invite you to be part of the dialogue by joining us at http://teachtolead.ideascale.com/. Do you have more questions? Please email me at info@teachtolead.org and let me know how I can help!

Maddie Fennell is Literacy Coach at Miller Park Elementary in Omaha, Nebraska and a Classroom Teaching Ambassador Fellow working on Teach to Lead.

Announcing Commit to Lead

Today, we are announcing a new opportunity to advance teacher leadership. But, for it to succeed, we need your voice to be a part of it.

Since day one on the job, many teachers have shared with me an overwhelming desire to excel in the profession, lead others, and to have a stronger voice. Too often, great teachers leave the classroom because they lack avenues to exercise their leadership – and that’s a loss for our students, our schools and for the profession. As I’ve heard this common refrain from teachers, I thought it was critical to respond. In the midst of dramatic change in education, we need to give our teachers genuine opportunities to be leaders without leaving their classrooms.

To promote and accelerate opportunities for teachers to lead without leaving the classroom, we announced one of our most exciting initiatives earlier this year – Teach to Lead. This initiative builds on years of work to elevate the teaching profession, particularly through our RESPECT effort, and on the leadership of our Teacher and Principal Ambassador Fellows, who advise our team on key decisions and represent the Department externally. Together with the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, we launched Teach to Lead to advance student outcomes through expanding opportunities for teacher leadership. And, to achieve this vision, my team and our partners committed to identify, spotlight, and support promising models for teacher leadership across the country.

Teach to Lead is a collaborative effort to advance student achievement by opening doors for all teachers to engage in meaningful leadership opportunities, while remaining in the classroom and in the profession they love. Most importantly, this initiative should be shaped by your thoughts, experiences, and ideas. The shape of teacher leadership shouldn’t be dictated from outside the profession, it should be decided and shaped by teachers themselves, in partnership with principals and other educators.

That’s why today we’re unveiling a key platform to spur more ideas, more conversation, and more collaboration around teacher leadership – Commit to Lead.

Commit to Lead is a public, online community that directly engages teachers and other educators to define what teacher leadership can and should be in their communities, so that collectively we can help make it part of the fabric and culture of every school. It builds on the great work that already exists in the field, and invites the creation of new ideas.

Through this platform, educators will have the opportunity to share ideas and get feedback from peers and collaborators nationwide. It offers a place to spark discussion and build momentum around the best teacher leadership ideas and strongest commitments you can come up with – whether you’re a veteran teacher-leader with best practices to share, or you’re a novice who’s just beginning to get engaged in the conversation. The launch of this site represents one step in our ongoing commitment to listen to educators and support their vital leadership of their profession.

Using Commit to Lead, participants can vote on each other’s ideas, allowing the most promising ideas to rise to the top. We’ll stay a part of the conversation, so that we’re learning from your invaluable experience and knowledge, but also so you can benefit from resources and contacts at our more than 100 partner organizations. The ideas that this online community shares – the ideas fostered, developed, and supported by teachers everywhere – will help to drive a number of regional leadership labs for teachers. At these convenings, featuring teams of teacher leaders and experts from across our partner organizations, your ideas will become plans and, soon, those plans will become actions.

Teach to Lead is all about giving educators the power and a seat at the table – and through this virtual community, the chance to share and develop your ideas on a massive scale is in your hands. Already, we’ve heard of great ideas like the classroom structure reorganization led by 5th grade teacher Vicky Edwards and the school-wide writing program developed by Rhea Espedido, a reading interventionist who wanted to boost student success in writing throughout her entire school.

We want to hear the next great idea – will you be the one to share it?

Arne Duncan is U.S. Secretary of Education.

#AskArne: Teaching and Leading

At this year’s National Board for Professional Teaching Standards Teaching and Learning Conference, over 5,000 educators from all 50 states shared in two days of teacher paradise, which included some of the most influential and knowledgeable trailblazers in education. I felt proud to be part of the event and even more proud to witness history in the making.

Watching Secretary Duncan unveil a new initiative titled “Teach to Lead,” I saw heads nodding and smiling. Even though I work at the U.S. Department of Education (ED), hearing that ED is partnering with the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards to focus on advancing teacher leadership is music to my ears.

But is it really? As a Teaching Ambassador Fellow I have had the opportunity to listen to hundreds of educators the past few months talk about what it means to be a teacher leader. Their responses range from self-initiated teacher leaders, who reach out to help colleagues on a daily basis, to teachers who are excited to take on new roles, but don’t know where to start. Others want to join in but feel they already have too much on their plates.

When I think about the size and scale of an undertaking such as Teach to Lead, it is easy to become cautious, if not skeptical. How we will be able to highlight all of the different types of teacher leadership that occur in schools throughout this country already? How will we even define teacher leadership, given the many forms it may take? How will we involve principals and state and district leaders in a vision of teacher leadership that truly improves education? Will they be willing to share power and rethink structures to create systems for teacher leadership to thrive?

What I am not skeptical about is whether or not teachers will embrace leadership. I have seen firsthand that teacher leadership is alive and well. Monika Johannesen a veteran teacher from Dan Mills Elementary School in Nashville, Tenn., explained that in her 20 years of teaching, not a day has gone by that she hasn’t helped teachers foster their craft. Her ability to collaborate and build relationships within her school has directly impacted the school’s success, and she is viewed by all as a teacher leader.

As the Teach to Lead initiative takes off, I am encouraged that teachers are the ones being called on to help shape it. As Teaching Ambassador Fellows continue to engage with teachers from the field and work with the National Board to engage educators via survey, I am reassured to hear Arne Duncan voice sentiments like these, “Teachers have spoken eloquently about how important it is to have a voice in what happens in their schools and their profession — without leaving the classroom.”

I recently sat down with Secretary Duncan to ask him how @TeachToLead will work, but more importantly how we will maintain the integrity of teacher leadership, without it being just more thing on our plate. Ultimately, creating an initiative by teachers for teachers can and will lead to historic transformative change that will boost student learning and provide a critical next step for the teaching profession as envisioned in the RESPECT blueprint.

I look forward to next year’s National Board conference to see how far we have come and the milestones we “teacher leaders” have accomplished. The road ahead is not an easy one, but it is one worth taking.

Tweet us your ideas @TeachtoLead using the hashtag #TeachToLead.

Emily Davis is a Teaching Ambassador Fellow at the U.S. Department of Education