Teach to Lead Summit Inspires Literacy Reform

Improvements are under way at the Louisa Boren K–8 STEM School in Seattle, and the most recent Teach to Lead summit played an important role in facilitating some big changes.

A month ago, 100 teacher leaders gathered near Tacoma, Washington, for the fifth regional Teach to Lead Summit with hopes of learning how to address challenges in their schools.

These summits are part of the Teach to Lead initiative, created by the U.S. Department of Education (ED) and the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS) to expand opportunities for teachers to lead, particularly those allowing teachers to stay in the classroom.

Two of us came to the summit from the Louisa Boren K-8 STEM School in Seattle, where we focus on low student literacy skills. We left this two-day meeting filled with energy and ideas to address our concerns, many of which our school has immediately begun to implement. Our rapid progress is amazing!

Since Louisa Boren opened in 2011, teachers have watched their students master subjects that today’s global job market rewards — science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Our students’ language arts skills, however, often don’t keep pace. Too many haven’t grasped phonics, don’t know how to break down words into syllables and lack skills that eventually will be needed to analyze complex literature.

We hoped the Teach to Lead Summit could set us on the right path, and we weren’t disappointed. During the summit we developed a concrete reform plan to take back to our school, “Literacy is the Backbone of STEM.” With support from one of the 70 educators present at the summit (our “critical friend”), we learned to:

  • Develop a “logic model,” which is a framework for evaluating a program and finding ways to improve it. We first clarified exactly what our problem is, then created goals to move us beyond the problem and finally developed steps and activities to reach the goals. Our biggest challenge is that Seattle hasn’t adopted an elementary school literacy curriculum in 14 years, so teachers in our project-based school have no common way to teach literacy. Consequently, students don’t have aligned literacy instruction and no consistent literacy assessments, nor is a structure in place to discuss student data and use it to inform instructional practice. Our aim is to provide instruction that is aligned within all classrooms at a particular grade, as well as from one grade to the next
  • Create an “elevator speech,” which provides us and other school educators with a short, clear, and consistent message about literacy expectations, which we can now share and communicate to and between the staff and the community
  • Use our critical friend, who was assigned to us at the summit, to guide us in developing our school’s logic model and helping us and our school find appropriate instructional resources

Since the summit ended, our work to implement literacy reforms has accelerated. In just one month, teacher leaders at our school (1) gave an elevator speech to the principal and presented the logic model; (2) developed and distributed a staff survey to learn how the STEM staff can align literacy instruction and assessment within the context of the school’s project-based learning environment; (3) developed literacy professional development plans; (4) gathered information to guide the improvement of classroom libraries; (5) made a presentation to the PTA president to gain support for literacy reforms, as well as more money for books; and (6) took steps to involve parents in the conversations and reforms.

And the work continues! We hope our logic model eventually can grow to address literacy issues not just within Louisa Boren, but throughout all Seattle Public Schools.

Mary Bannister is a teacher-librarian and Jodi Williamson is a second-grade teacher at the Louisa Boren K-8 STEM School in Seattle. Both teachers are certified by NBPTS.  

Sustaining Teacher Leadership

With strong support from the U.S. Department of Education and organizations such as the National Network of State Teachers of the Year, teacher leadership has emerged as a national trend. Given the need for teachers to guide the direction of their profession, it is prudent to support teacher leadership as a mechanism for teacher voice and meaningful professional growth. A lack of funding, however, will inevitably stifle the important momentum that has been generated over the last few years. Whether it is the inspiring work carried out by hundreds of teachers who attended the Teach to Lead summits, teachers taking on hybrid roles, or the many other iterations of teacher leadership, sufficient financial support for states and districts will go a long way toward enriching the professional lives of teachers and ensuring that teacher leadership remains a potent force in years to come.

Practice and Support

Creating and implementing well-designed structures for relevant professional development is a key feature of teacher leadership. Utilizing teachers’ expertise in guiding and supporting each other at various points across the career continuum is a smart approach that not only increases our pedagogical effectiveness, but also bolsters teacher self-efficacy, motivation, and morale. Hybrid roles, such as peer coaches, are another way that schools and districts are recognizing the value of teacher leadership at the local level. This distributed model of leadership fosters a participatory culture and maximizes teachers’ skills and capacities for the benefit of teachers and students. Teacher leadership is a means by which all teachers – novice and veteran alike – can support each other in the enhancement of teaching practices that are informed by authentic experience, collaboration, and research.

Advocacy and Policy

Teacher leadership also serves to facilitate positive, productive educator-policymaker partnerships. There are numerous examples of meaningful, genuine teacher voice being solicited and respected at the local, state, and federal levels. In Connecticut, for instance, the highly successful Empowered to Lead symposium brings together teachers, administrators, policymakers, and others to discuss current educational issues, potential solutions, and next steps. Participants leave the symposium with a greater sense of urgency and the knowledge that many of our educational challenges are best approached in a solutions-oriented manner geared toward improvement and innovation. Teacher leadership opportunities like this one result in a proactive – rather than reactive – stance, with interactions characterized by mutual respect and the understanding that all parties involved are working toward the same goal.

Teacher Leadership as the New Norm

In some countries, teacher leadership is ingrained in the educational culture. Teacher engagement in practice, support, advocacy, and policy is so commonplace as to be unexceptional, except when viewed from the lens of those who yearn for it. If we continue to insist on international comparisons, then we must also consider the policies and practices undertaken by other countries that have designed ways for teachers to be recognized, supported, and respected as the leaders of their profession – and we must act upon it.

We will know that we have been successful when the phrase, “teacher leader,” becomes a redundancy in terms. When that day comes, teacher leadership will be intertwined with the many professional roles and responsibilities carried out by every teacher every day. Teacher leadership is transforming the landscape of education and elevating the teaching profession. Accordingly, adequate levels of funding will further augment the conditions for teacher leadership to become the new norm.

Just as teachers are boldly stepping up to lead the needed changes in our education system, funders must step up and offer them the resources needed to bring their ideas to fruition.

Dr. David Bosso is a Social Studies teacher at Berlin High School in Berlin, Connecticut, and the 2012 Connecticut Teacher of the Year.

The Impact of Teach to Lead

Across the county, teachers are working to solve some of the biggest challenges facing education today. They do this work in their classrooms with students, in their schools and professional associations, and—increasingly—in collaboration with other educators who seek opportunities to lead the transformation of teaching and learning and to have a voice in the development of policies that affect their profession. On September 26-27, the Department of Education and the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS) will offer a forum for educators to transform their best ideas into actionable plans by bringing together 29 educator-led teams in Tacoma, Wash., for Teach to Lead’s sixth summit.

Teach to Lead started as an idea in March 2014 to recognize the importance of—and challenges faced by—teachers, and to advance student outcomes by expanding opportunities for teacher leadership, especially those that allow teachers to stay in the classroom. Today, Teach to Lead has received a groundswell of interest from teachers around the country.

Over the past 18 months, educators have submitted more than 560 ideas for expanding teacher leadership through Teach to Lead, from Hawaii to Florida and Maine to Alaska. And nearly 200 teacher-driven action plans—developed through the Teach to Lead network and with the support of key stakeholders—are being implemented by educators at the school, district, and state levels. What’s also encouraging is that 85 organizations are committed to supporting and sustaining the work of teachers engaged with Teach to Lead across the country.

Summits are an opportunity to help spotlight and advance the groundbreaking, teacher-led work happening in states, districts, and schools. Teachers have gathered in Louisville, Ky.; Denver; Boston; and Washington, DC. For the educators who join Teach to Lead’s summits, 91 percent report that they plan to stay in touch with people they meet at the summits to share promising practices and successes. And through in-person and virtual settings, Teach to Lead has connected more than 4,000 educators, creating a large network of professional support.

At the Tacoma, Wash., summit, teams of educators and supporter organizations will work over two days to translate more than 160 ideas into concrete plans that educators can take back to their districts and schools. Some of the educator-led teams will focus on issues such as aligning professional development with project-based learning in classrooms; integrating English language learning concepts into daily teaching practices; and developing programs to expand parent and community involvement in education.

There has never been a more critical time to recognize the importance of meaningful teacher voice in decisions that are made in schools, districts, and states. Earlier this month during the Department of Education’s annual back-to-school bus tour, I visited with teacher leaders at Roosevelt Middle School in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. What I saw there was nothing short of revolutionary. The state is in its second year of implementing a statewide system of teacher leadership that allows teachers to lead from the classroom and honors that leadership with greater compensation. These leadership positons are developed by local stakeholders and cooperatively staffed by teacher and administrative selection teams. I heard directly from teachers and principals about the impact that teacher leadership is having on their practice. Iowa is leading the nation when it comes to building strong models for teacher leadership.

We know that attracting and retaining effective educators in our classrooms is one of the most critical challenges that high-need schools face. We also have seen that when teachers are given the opportunity to lead, with autonomy, time, and a real voice in decision-making, the results can be remarkable and lead to increased learning outcomes for students.

A recent Los Angeles Times article highlighted Mission High School in San Francisco and the impact that the school’s teacher-supported and led initiatives has had on teachers and students. Mission High School has been able to address teacher retention through teacher supports, such as building in time where teachers can plan lessons together and design assessments that measure a broad range of skills critical for students to master.

Teachers also have created action groups where they review data and investigate the root causes of achievement gaps. These groups then create action plans to address the gaps. Graduation rates at Mission High have gone from among the lowest in the district, at 60 percent, to more than 80 percent. In 2013, Mission High’s graduation rate for African-American students was 20 percent higher than the district average.

I’m encouraged to see the progress at Mission High School, the work of teacher leadership in Iowa, and the many projects Teach to Lead has helped to support. The impact of teacher leadership is powerful and we must continue to find ways to support, highlight, and finance these efforts across the county. When teachers are given the opportunity and space to lead, the results are extraordinary.

What we know from the past five Teach to Lead summits is that teachers have some of the best ideas to solve many of the biggest challenges facing education. It’s our job to keep asking teachers, what do you need, and how can we work together? For more information, please visit: http://teachtolead.org/

Arne Duncan is U.S. Secretary of Education.

Be Bold! How a teacher-led summit changed my career

Here I stood at the Teach to Lead Summit in Washington, D.C. hosted by the U. S. Department of Education and the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. Not knowing what to expect — feeling discouraged from an arduous school year working as an Elementary Special Education Teacher, trying to meet the many needs of all of my students— I was not sure whether I belonged.

What brought me to the Summit was an idea devised by my colleague, Jane Tiernan. She submitted responses to an invitation from Teach to Lead regarding our students at P. S. 62 in the Bronx, New York, who face a variety of challenges and obstacles, which prevent them from reaching their full potential.

Intrigued by Jane’s plan for a school community that establishes connections between the school, families, students, health care facilities and outside agencies, I decided to become a member of her team. A school of this type would focus on the wellness of the whole child.

On day one of the Summit in late July, I sat through the panel discussion and intensely listened and ferociously wrote notes to reflect on later. I was so captivated by the entire forum for the evening. What an amazing sight to see! I was just in awe to be a participant in the room surrounded by so many individuals from across the nation; all here for education!

It was a lot to take in, but the energy and passion from the first day made me realize that we were all here because of our passion for education. Every person seemed to have a personal calling to become leaders at our schools—without needing to leave our classrooms or most importantly our students. Of course we all understand real change was not going to happen in two days. But that’s why Teach to Lead is helping move this work, by giving teachers a platform to share ideas and express the true obstacles we face in education, while also making sure we are heard by policy-makers.

During day two, I felt that even though there were numerous professionals in the room, I mattered, and they embraced me because I was here to make an impact on education for students at P. S. 62 and beyond.

After a few presentations and keynote speakers, it was time to work. And do I mean work. This was not about providing frivolous teacher leadership development. With the guidance and mentoring from the best critical friend ever, Brian Bishop from The Hope Street Group, (as well as observers who became honorary team members), we came together for the task at hand. Teachers led teachers as teams of professionals with expertise from various forums discussed logic models, problem statements, goals, inputs, outputs and outcomes…all for the betterment of student achievement. Yes!

The Teach to Lead DC Summit had my inner voice shouting, “Yes…Our teams small original idea had evolved and was still evolving into an actionable plan that was going to bring about real tangible change!”

The true essence of the Summit came to me at the end of day two. We were shown a video of an impromptu speech by Ruthanne Buck, Senior Advisor to the Secretary of Education at the U. S. Department of Education. All I remembered from the video during the day was hearing the words “Be Bold!”

It was not until 1AM the next morning that Ruthanne’s words fully resonated with my spirit. It brought me back to my first year of teaching and reminded me of why I became a career changer twelve years ago. Two simple words—Be Bold—told me what I was doing, despite the many difficulties and daily frustrations within the profession, that I had a purpose.

Sitting in that room, repeatedly saying “Be Bold,” “Be Bold,” “Be Bold!” I felt like Ruthanne and Teach to Lead knew that I was contemplating leaving the field, and she was personally speaking to me to stay in the fight. There it was…a personal message that is priceless! Watch the video below to see the moment I shared my revelation — with Secretary Duncan in the room!

I left the Teach to Lead Summit reminded that if I do not advocate for my students, then who will? And if I don’t do it now and make connections and build networks, then when?

With the knowledge and insight gained from the Teach to Lead DC Summit, our project – Team Making Connections – we are already taking steps to develop and implement a multi-faceted school community that is responsive to the whole child and will lead to all children making better life choices. We are committed to developing a wraparound school (I learned this term during the Summit).

Thank you Secretary Duncan, Ruthanne Buck and the Teach to Lead team for saying that REAL change in education cannot happen without teachers as key, respected stakeholders in development and implementation!

Natasha Bodden is an Elementary Special Education Teacher at P. S. 62 Bronx, New York

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

U.S. Educators Leading on the World’s Teacher Leadership Stage

The following is compiled from reflections from the six teachers and one principal who attended the International Summit on the Teaching Profession 2015 (ISTP 2015) as representatives of the U.S. Delegation. The teachers have all been active in Teach to Lead and are members of three of the initiatives’ key support organizations – the Hope Street Group, National Network of State Teachers of the Year, and Teach Plus. Sharif El-Mekki, the author, is a Principal Ambassador Fellow for the U.S. Department of Education.

Seeing the sights in Banff. Front row from left to right: Secretary Duncan, Pam Reilly, Wendy Bandi, Jennifer Aponte; Back row: Joseph Fatheree, Sharif El-Mekki and Mark Sass. Not Pictured: Natalie McCutchen (Photo credit: U.S. Department of Education)

Seeing the sights in Banff. Front row from left to right: Secretary Duncan, Pam Reilly, Wendy Bandi, Jennifer Aponte; Back row: Joseph Fatheree, Sharif El-Mekki and Mark Sass. Not Pictured: Natalie McCutchen (Photo credit: U.S. Department of Education)

It was wholly evident to us at ISTP 2015 that great teaching is increasingly being recognized worldwide – and rightfully so — as a key catalyst to improving trajectories for individual citizens and whole countries. The theme of the summit, Implementing Highly Effective Teacher Policy and Practice, focused on: developing and promoting effective leadership among principals, teachers, and administrators, valuing teachers and strengthening their sense of effectiveness or “self-efficacy;” and encouraging innovation in the 21st-century classroom. As guests of the U.S. Department of Education, Secretary Arne Duncan invited us to attend, learn and contribute.

Being party to this international conversation was exciting. As Jennifer Aponte, a K-12 teacher from Boston said, all the countries and delegates “should be commended for tackling the most complex educational issues.” These are not easy issues and it is such a tremendous opportunity for countries to learn from one another. However it was Secretary Duncan’s decision, Joe Fatheree, 2007 IL Teacher of the Year, noted to add “an authentic teacher’s voice to the conversation” that, “helped enrich the dialogue between global leaders on the importance of teacher leadership and innovation.” A key theme of the summit was teacher leadership and by inviting teachers and a principal, the Department of Education continued promoting educators as leaders and demonstrated its leadership on this issue.

Throughout the event, we were surprised that the sessions and panels did not include active practitioners nor highlighted active teachers as experts. As Wendi Bandi, 3-4th math teacher from Fall River, MA, put it, “the format of the summit did not reflect the ideas being discussed.” Mark Sass, a high school history teacher from CO observed, “teachers were continually referred to in the third person.” While ISTP 2015 had several experts about the field share useful analyses, there were no experts in the field lending their experience and expertise. Natalie McCutchen, a middle school math teacher from KY, remarked, “I was in awe…but one aspect of ISTP that kept resonating with me was that teachers should be in the forefront of the summit; teachers needed to be the ones delivering firsthand accounts of the initiatives and programs that have proved successful in their schools… teachers need to be the voice, face, and the experts of education.”

In an unusual move, Secretary Duncan insisted that the seven us be in the room to help shape the U.S. Delegation’s commitments for 2015 and asked that Jeff Charbonneau, the 2013 National Teacher of the Year, present our commitments to the international community. This symbolized that educators were both an integral part of creating the United States’ commitments, as well as key to meeting them. In doing so, “Secretary Duncan modeled what teacher leadership looks like when you cultivate and empower teachers to flourish as visionary leaders and not just part of the backdrop,” said Pam Reilly, the 2014 IL Teacher of the Year. Indeed, the seven of us felt very empowered, and in the pursuit of continuous improvement, convened a meeting with the other teachers from around the world. Collectively we committed to supporting teachers becoming an integral part of the 2016 International Summit on the Teaching Profession. 

Next year, at this time, each country will travel to Berlin to share the progress they made towards and lessons learned from the commitments they announced in Banff. How the summit is formatted will also tell a story about countries’ commitment to teacher leadership. It is exciting that so many great minds are devoted to tackling some of teaching’s most complex issues. We are confident that we can build on the successes of the 2015 Summit and include more practitioners among those great minds. As leaders in U.S. schools, we are committed to help make this happen.

Sharif El-Mekki, is principal of Mastery Charter School – Shoemaker in Philadelphia and a 2013-15 Campus Principal Ambassador Fellow of the U.S. Department of Education.

Teacher Leadership on the Global Stage

During the last weekend in March, union leaders, state education leaders, teacher leaders, one of ED’s Principal Ambassador Fellows and I joined delegations from 15 high-performing education systems across the globe for the 5thInternational Summit on the Teaching Profession in Banff, Canada. As countries around the world share a common desire to give every child a chance in life and to support teachers who devote their lives to that goal, the summit is a unique opportunity to learn from each other’s successes and challenges and to look for ways to replicate or adapt back home what other countries are doing well. We all appreciated the hospitality of Alberta Minister Gordon Dirks and his colleagues from across Canada for providing us the opportunity to grow and learn in such a beautiful setting.

Each year at the international summit each participating country commits to work in key areas over the course of the year and then report back on progress at the next summit. Together with the AFT, NEA, and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), we reported on the progress of our commitments from 2014 on teacher leadership, early learning and labor-management collaboration to increase learning for all students.

This year, the U.S. delegation introduced Teach to Lead, an initiative that seeks to advance student outcomes by expanding opportunities for teacher leadership both in and out of the classroom, to the global stage sparking international interest in this teacher-led and designed initiative to promote meaningful opportunities for teacher leadership that improve student outcomes. Teach to Lead has become an important vehicle through which so many teachers are fighting to make their leadership dreams a reality.

While at the summit our U.S. teachers, including six who have been active in Teach to Lead, convened a meeting with Canadian, Dutch, German and Estonian teachers and are now creating an international team of teachers exchanging ideas and working to advance teacher leadership and innovation across the globe. The teachers who attended are also getting the word out to educators across the U.S. and are beginning conversations about one of the commitments we made this year–a domestic summit modeled after the international summit to highlight and expand teacher leadership opportunities in the U.S.

During the summit, countries discussed their different approaches to leadership and the importance of collaboration. The Ontario Minister described their competitive Teacher Learning and Leadership Program to fund teacher projects; Singapore builds leadership development into each of its three career tracks; Finland starts leadership training in its initial teacher preparation; and New Zealand discussed its new Communities of Schools initiative and Teacher-led Innovation Fund.

I came away from the summit discussions with a renewed energy and commitment to teacher leadership and collaboration at all levels of education. With Jeff Charbonneau, 2013 National Teacher of the Year, presenting, the U.S. delegation committed publicly to:

  • Convene a summit in the U.S. to highlight teacher leadership and expand leadership opportunities.
  • Continue to work to increase the number of children with access to high-quality early learning and encourage teacher leadership in this regard.
  • Work to increase access for learners of all ages to high-quality career and technical education and encourage teacher leadership in this regard.

As Sharif El-Mekki, principal of Mastery Charter School-Shoemaker Campus in Philadelphia, said “I was proud that teachers and principals were a part of the decision making process for establishing the United States’ commitments for this coming year. A classroom teacher (and leader) presented our commitments to the world. The significance of this was profound, and lauded by the other international teachers in attendance. It was a proud moment for teacher leadership, nationally and internationally.”

With our teachers in the lead, we are already moving ahead on our commitments and will report back on our progress to the international community next year at the 6th summit in Berlin, Germany. As Mark Sass, high school teacher leader from Colorado, said “It is exciting to know that the work we are doing around teacher leadership is building nationally, as well as internationally. I left the Summit empowered and energized knowing there is a global collective focused on elevating the profession.”

When we hosted the first international summit in New York City in 2011, it wasn’t evident that it would create an ongoing international community of practice dedicated to enhancing the teaching profession, and dedicated to improving learning for all students. But it has and that reflects the global view that all teachers and principals need and deserve excellent preparation, support and opportunities for growth. Our educators and students deserve nothing less.

Arne Duncan is the U.S. Secretary of Education.

Teaching and Leading at the 5th International Summit on the Teaching Profession

Each March I look forward to joining colleagues from around the world at the International Summit on the Teaching Profession to learn from high-performing and rapidly improving education systems about ways to elevate and enhance the teaching profession in order to improve student learning. I never imagined when we started the International Summit in New York City in 2011 that it would become a vibrant and lasting international community of practice. But the thirst among countries to learn from each other is strong and on March 29 and 30, Canada is hosting the 5th Summit, Implementing Highly Effective Teacher Policy and Practice, in Banff, Alberta.

We’ve learned so much from past Summit discussions and can see a real connection to education policy and practice in the U.S. over the years, as well as significant progress on commitments made by the U.S. delegation at the end of each Summit. I am particularly excited about this year’s Summit because teacher leadership — one of our three Summit commitments last year — will be highlighted this year.

Last week Secretary Duncan reported back on the first year of Teach to Lead, an initiative in partnership with the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards that is designed to advance the national conversation around the future of the profession and promote meaningful opportunities for teacher leadership that improve outcomes for students. Teach to Lead is teacher-designed and teacher-led and has the support of more than 70 organizations, including the AFT and NEA which, along with Secretary Duncan, are part of the U.S. delegation to the International Summit. As Secretary Duncan said in front of a crowd of thousands, “I was hopeful [about teacher leadership] last year. I am convinced we are onto something really important and special now. Change has to come from teachers who own it and lead it.”

The progress and excitement in Teach to Lead over the past year has been phenomenal. Thousands of teachers have engaged in Teach to Lead through the online ‘Commit to Lead’ community, and more than 500 teachers, administrators, and representatives from supporting organizations have been at our regional summits and local leadership labs. Teach to Lead has truly been about elevating the teaching profession and supporting teachers by giving them opportunities to collaborate, plan and shape their own roles for their own contexts from the school to the state.

A real question for Teach to Lead is — what next? How does teacher leadership expand and grow? This year’s Summit agenda poses three questions that can help the U.S. to reflect on possible future paths.

  • How do high-performing countries promote deeper and more collaborative forms of leadership at all levels within education systems?
  • What strategies allow education systems to exercise consistent and widespread teacher leadership?
  • What should be the role of teachers and their unions and associations in creating conditions for teacher leadership?

Six amazing U.S. teachers who have been actively involved in Teach to Lead – from Colorado, Illinois, Kentucky and Massachusetts — are part of the U.S. delegation to this year’s Summit.   This is an opportunity for them to share their work, to hear what other countries are doing to support and encourage teacher leadership, and to reflect on next steps to elevate and advance teacher leadership back home.

I am eager to learn from our Canadian hosts and other international colleagues and excited to do so with creative, committed teacher leaders from around the United States.

Maureen McLaughlin is senior advisor to the Secretary and director of International Affairs at the U.S. Department of Education.

If There’s No Seat at the Table, Make Your Own Table

A year ago when Secretary Arne Duncan introduced an effort to promote teacher leadership called “Teach to Lead” to thousands of educators, none of us had any real idea of what it was going to become. The speech that introduced it was long on aspirations but short on plans and details. To be quite honest, there was a hefty bit of skepticism among many I spoke with that the US Department of Education wasn’t going to do anything more than rhetoric around teacher leadership. I wrote Arne to ask if I could remain as a Teaching Ambassador Fellow for a second year in a hybrid role working part-time for the Department to help structure Teach to Lead, while also teaching in Omaha. I offered to be one of the people who would lie awake nights, making sure this all came together! It was impossible to know then that Teach to Lead would come to involve thousands of educators from throughout the country, producing hundreds of meaningful ideas to improve education for young people while strengthening the teaching profession.

Was I crazy to sign on to such a vaguely defined project? Obviously. But I was also passionate in my belief that only teachers could bring about real system reform that put students first. I had experienced teacher leadership as the backbone to student success. Over the previous 5 years my school, Miller Park Elementary, had been transformed. Student achievement, and students’ belief in themselves, had soared. What made us successful – teachers leading transformation in collaboration with our principal, students and parents – had to happen everywhere. My mantra, “When teachers lead, kids succeed!” comes from experience.

The Teach to Lead team, comprised primarily of teachers from the Department of Education and National Board, knew that we had to have something that was “scalable” (capable of reaching teachers across the country). We developed a website that has over 2,000 members on the virtual community “Commit to Lead” where teachers can share their ideas and receive feedback from colleagues. The website is also a place to access the resources of our 70 support organizations and read the inspiring stories of teachers who are leading change.

Three national Teach to Lead Summits were held in Louisville, Denver and Boston during the winter. The Summits were run by teachers – we set the agenda and ran the show. We asked teachers to help us score the ideas to select participants. We placed teachers as prominent speakers and trainers. Teach to Lead was going to walk the talk.

Over 350 teachers from 38 states came alone or in teams, equipped with their ideas for change. The energy in the room at each Summit was palpable! Teachers were claiming their authority as change agents and the networking was compounding their drive towards success.

We provided training on logic models and our growing list of support organizations provided the critical friends who asked the hard questions and pushed participants to think deeper. We held workshops to learn more about working with administrators, resource development, talking with policy makers, mentoring and more. Our participants arrived with nascent ideas and left with over 100 fully formed action plans to implement at home – and new skills to get it done!

At the end of the Denver Summit, a teacher from Eagle County schools in Colorado told me, “I’ve been to many weekends for teacher leaders and sometimes I feel like I’m a part of somebody else’s agenda. This is the first time I feel like I was supported in moving forward with my own agenda which is the agenda of helping my students.” We were on the right track, but we continued to listen to feedback, reflect and adapt to make Teach to Lead stronger.

Secretary Duncan speaks at the 2015 Teaching and Learning Conference (Photo by Leslie Williams/U.S. Department of Education

Secretary Duncan speaks at the 2015 Teaching and Learning Conference (Photo by Leslie Williams/U.S. Department of Education

Today, our last year of work on Teach to Lead culminated on stage at the National Board’s Teaching & Learning conference with a panel of 4 exceptional teacher leaders and Secretary Duncan. In front of a crowd of thousands, Arne talked about Teach to Lead, stating, “I was hopeful [about teacher leadership] last year. I am convinced we are onto something really important and special now. Change has to come from teachers who own it and lead it.”

Chris Todd speaks at the 2015 Teaching and Learning Conference (Photo by Leslie Williams/U.S. Department of Education)

Chris Todd speaks at the 2015 Teaching and Learning Conference (Photo by Leslie Williams/U.S. Department of Education)

Another panelist, Chris Todd, a history teacher and a teacher leader in residence at the Connecticut State Department of Education said “Every teacher has the potential to be a teacher leader. The expertise that comes from experience makes for a better policy recommendation.”

The next step for Teach to Lead is to get even more “boots on the ground”; we are choosing 2-3 ideas out of each Summit to develop through Leadership Labs. The Labs are opportunities for local teams to receive hands-on targeted technical assistance from the Teach to Lead team and supporter organizations, convene stakeholders to discuss the status of plans and future actions, and develop approaches to integrate teacher leadership into systems and structures within local contexts. Our first Lab was in Marshall, Michigan and in just one day, our teacher leaders received tremendous community support including:

  • Expanding their project to neighboring middle schools through a joint effort
  • Partnering with 2 universities to assist with data collection and analyzing as well as providing pre-service teachers to help with after-school programs and other interventions
  • Highlighting their project as an exemplar by the Michigan State Department of Education
  • The assistance of two social workers from local organizations
  • Greater access to mental health care for their students

Working on Teach to Lead this past year has been a joy. It has given us the opportunity to offer a megaphone to the voices – and incredible ideas – of teachers around the country. We’ve begun to change the culture of what it means to be a teacher by proving that teacher leadership can transform both student learning and the education system.

From the beginning of this effort, I was a fierce advocate for doing this right. To me, that meant empowering teachers to design and implement this initiative. I’m so proud to say we’ve done that in Teach to Lead with Arne’s fervent support. As he said during this morning’s panel, “If there’s a seat at the table, grab it. If there’s no seat at the table, make your own table.”

What an honor it has been to work with the Teach to Lead team and my colleagues across the country! Margaret Mead said it best, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

Thanks for letting us make our own table, Arne.

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.


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.