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.

2 Comments

  1. This article doesn’t give much detail as to what these “Teach to Lead” teachers have actually accomplished other than having conferences. We are still knee-deep in standardized testing that most teachers KNOW do not help in the education of students. We are still knee-deep in district- and state-control of curriculum. We are still knee-deep in the take-over of the of the urban public school system by charter schools… the continuing of the privatization of education. Where is teacher leadership in all of this?

  2. I am so proud to represent National University and our National Board P20 Leadership Center in this powerful and impactful initiative. As an organization supporter and partner, I was fortunate to attend all three summits and to have the privilege of working with teachers and teams who brilliantly shaped ideas from “seeds” to full blown initiatives, via collaboration and use of logic models. The Summit Leaders, Maddie, Emily, Keisha, Tami, Laurie were exemplary in the design, delivery and outcomes of participation… Now, it’s time for round 2…These ideas are shaping into policies and practices at every level and that means students are the beneficiaries of the work and commitment to advance teacher leadership. Here’s an open invitation to Join us in San Diego, May 30-31, for a “next step”–TAKE the Lead to SHARE the LEAD Summit in P20 education; an opportunity to celebrate the Summit process and progress and to engage “mixed” stakeholders in the conversations and resulting innovations. I am soooo excited to be a part of the collective WAVE of enthusiasm and commitment to explore system wide approaches to develop teacher leaders even before they enter a teacher preparation program and to offer opportunities to seek out, communicate and utilize teacher expertise to inform policy and programs that impact P12 learners. I see a day when “P20” Leadership Centers provide platforms for “mixed stakeholders” to convene, partner and inform each other’s work and roles in order to more rapidly advance student learning with equal access to high performing, evidence based effective teacher LEADERS! Rock on and Lead on. Thanks for the inspiration and the promise of a National Board Certified Teacher Leader for ALL children in the future. Rock on and LEAD on for kiddos! Whatever it takes!

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