Teach to Lead: Looking Back, Moving Forward

On July 26th, the education community will celebrate the life of Ron Thorpe, president and CEO of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, who passed away after a battle with lung cancer.

I will always remember Ron as a relentless and unabashed supporter of the teaching profession. He championed the value of teachers’ expertise and experience, arguing passionately that teachers should be recruited, prepared, developed, paid and honored as the professionals that they are.

Ron was also a tremendous partner to me and to hundreds of teachers in developing and growing the Teach to Lead initiative. In the wake of his recent passing, it’s fitting to honor one part of his legacy by celebrating the significant impact Teach to Lead is making on teachers.

We announced Teach to Lead at a plenary session at the Teaching & Learning Conference in March 2014 as an idea. We followed that announcement with a panel discussion with teacher leaders who were candid about the challenges they faced. Citing the nation’s progress in addressing drop outs, improving graduation and college-going rates, I credited teachers, but said that their role has not been adequately recognized.

Group photo of Teach to Lead Denver participants.

Teachers gather for a photo at the Denver Teach to Lead Summit earlier this year.

According to a recent poll, 69 percent of teachers feel their voices are heard in their school, but only a third feel heard in their district, five percent in their state, and two percent at the national level. Failure to leverage the voices and expertise of teachers has deep implications for students, schools and the profession.

Ron and I had hoped to spur new commitments in teacher leadership and invite teachers to lead the change in their schools, districts and states. We never could have imagined our success. More than 80 organizations would join the effort, serving as critical friends and skill builders for teachers. Hundreds of teachers have participated in virtual and in-person convenings to take their best ideas for the profession and create action plans. And those teachers are telling their powerful stories to me and around the country. Here are a few:

  • Teachers Lesley Hagelgans, Renee Baril, Kristin Biggs, and Amanda Morick from Marshall Middle School (Marshall, Mich.) created an intervention-focused data project to close learning gaps. Their work has brought their whole community together around the shared mission of removing barriers to student learning.
  • Shawn Sheehan, a special education math teacher at Norman High School (Norman, Okla.) started the Teach Like Me campaign to improve teacher recruitment and retention by boosting the public perception of the teaching profession. Shawn and his team have developed a website and conducted significant in-person and online outreach for their project.
  • Jennifer Aponte, a geographically-isolated English instruction teacher at Davis A. Ellis Elementary School (Roxbury, Mass.) organized a team of teachers to research, present and publish their recommendations for how to achieve the Massachusetts state equity plan. Jennifer’s team is playing a critical part in closing opportunity gaps for low-income students and students of color in her state.

There are many of these stories to tell—example after example of leadership ideas created by teachers to solve the most pressing problems in education. They exist as proof that teachers—when given the time, opportunity and resources—are ready to lead.

This leadership is even extending beyond school and district boundaries as Teach to Lead is creating and expanding teacher leadership through systems change at the state level. I am hopeful for this work because I know that systems-level change driven by teachers’ voices can change the face of education in this country.

In May, Teach to Lead assembled teams from eight states, comprised of teachers and representatives from local and state educational agencies, at our first ever state summit. Together, these teams worked diligently to build action plans that would institutionalize teacher leadership at the state level. States are at different stages in developing teacher leadership strategies, but meaningful conversations and actions are underway all over the country. Here are a few examples.

  • New York is working extensively with educators across the state to gain a deep understanding of the systems and structures that will support the work of career pathways.  This June, the state presented to the Board of Regents on the Department’s proposed Framework for Career Ladder Pathways in New York State. Career ladder pathways are also viewed as a critical part of the New York’s strategy to ensure that every student has access to effective teaching. They are using teacher leadership as a tool to improve teaching and learning and ultimately close achievement gaps.
  • The 2014 and 2015 Maine Teachers of the Year, Karen MacDonald and Jennifer Dorman, worked with others who are active in teacher leadership work to organize teacher leadership, coordinating, streamlining and expanding opportunities in the state. They capitalized on structures and meetings that were already scheduled to take place to fortify their push for stronger collaboration in teacher leadership.

To date, Teach to Lead has engaged with more than 3,000 educators, in person and virtually, giving voice to more than 850 teacher leadership ideas, spanning 38 states. And we are not done yet. In the year to come, we hope to engage hundreds more teachers at Teach to Lead summits – including our largest yet in Washington, D.C. which is happening this week.

As more and more teachers join Teach to Lead, we’re committed to helping them develop their plans and connect with organizations that can support their work. We will continue to hold Summits with teams of teachers who have leadership ideas, connecting them with supporting organizations that can share their expertise and resources. We have set up Leadership Labs in teachers’ schools and districts, bringing the community together to support the teachers’ projects and work with them to move their work to the next level. We’re checking in and providing follow-up assistance to teachers and their teams.

With each summit, we see that the momentum around teacher leadership is spreading like wildfire. Teachers have sparked a conversation about the value of teacher leadership that is connecting in schools and districts across the country.

Looking at where we are and where Teach to Lead is headed, I know Ron would be proud.

Arne Duncan is U.S. Secretary of Education

1 Comment

  1. The voices of substitutes are certainly not heard in Arkansas schools. In fact, they are totally ignored. Even when substitute teachers pay for their own background checks so they can serve the children of the districts, the Feds drop the ball by failing to complete the background checks. This keeps the subs out of the district, undermines the students and since the subs live on the margins, it puts their lives on the line. No one notices and the Departments of Education do nothing about it.

    When was the last time anyone in any district really cared about their substitute teachers?

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