Teacher-Powered Innovation: the Value of and Opportunity for Teacher Leadership in Schools and Policy

When we do everything right in schools, our students move closer to that peak on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs – self-actualization. It sounds pretty awesome. I’d like to achieve self-actualization too. But when you’re a student facing poverty, racism, family trouble, or just life as a kid growing up, that peak starts looking like K2.

The question then becomes what changes can we make in our systems so that schools can support students in meeting their basic needs while still pushing them to make academic gains that will impact their future choices and opportunities? For me, answering that question starts with the people who are with the students every day – their teachers.

As a founding teacher on the Design Team for the pilot high school, Social Justice Humanitas Academy (SJHA) in Los Angeles, last week I was invited to join a small group of teachers and principals in a Tea with Teachers meeting with Secretary of Education John King to discuss the value of teacher leadership in schools and in educational policy-making. SJHA is a Teacher-Powered School, and as such is driven by teachers and their connection to students. The school was founded by a group of teachers who envisioned a school centered on building our students’ humanity through curriculum that is rigorous and relevant to our students.


Teachers discuss teacher leadership with Secretary of Education John King during a Tea with Teachers session.

Unlike some teacher-led schools, SJHA does have a principal, but instead of directing teachers to execute a plan that too often is devised by people who are not actually inside the school, the principal teams with the teachers to develop the steps necessary to reach students where they are. For example, the math department felt students would benefit from an integrated math model rather than a traditional algebra-geometry sequence. With support of school resources, the teacher-team worked together to choose the appropriate books and now finishing its second year, the team feels the program is making a difference for kids.

When teachers are able to exercise autonomy in this way, they are also more willing to be accountable to those decisions. With this new way of thinking, we were able to build a school for the students of SJHA, not for students at 160 different schools around Los Angeles.

At the Tea, we talked about the new Every Student Succeeds Act, which gives us some more specific opportunities to involve teachers directly in decision making. It is going to take more than curriculum and instruction to get our students to reach self-actualization. Schools need the ability to be innovative and flexible in supporting their students, and ESSA certainly uses that same terminology. If necessity is the mother of invention (or innovation), then we have to look at our students’ needs for the incentive to innovate.

Again, the people most closely connected to these needs are the teachers. At SJHA, a chemistry teacher saw that students were not getting enough opportunities to attend positive social events outside of school, so he started the Events Club. They have met famous authors like Malcolm Gladwell, gone to movie screenings, and even recently went to a political rally. Our principal saw that many of our male students were struggling to find positive male role models, so he started a men’s group. Our senior class plans and runs a community resource fair every spring – an idea that was started by an English teacher. Teachers saw needs first hand and have the power and autonomy to find and implement solutions.

ESSA gives us the opportunity to move forward on building schools that are more teacher-powered, more community-focused, and thus more adaptive to student needs. Instead of pushing ideas down to classrooms, we need leaders outside of the school to support teacher-inspired and teacher-powered innovation.

Self-actualization is a personal experience; why would we not personalize the support in finding it?

Jeff Austin teaches Economics and Government, serves as the coordinator, and was on the Design Team at the Social Justice Humanitas Academy in Los Angeles. In 2014-2105, he served as a Teacher Ambassador for the Teacher Powered Schools Initiative (a joint project of Education Evolving and the Center for Teaching Quality). An NBCT, he was a 2013 Los Angeles County and LAUSD Teacher of the Year. His experience at SJHA is included in Corwin Press’s Growing Into Equity and Richard Hess’s Cage-Busting Teachers.



  1. Jeff, I love your statement: “what changes can we make in our systems so that schools can support students in meeting their basic needs while still pushing them to make academic gains that will impact their future choices and opportunities?” At Wildlands School in Augusta, WI we were asked that question and a teacher and community team built a teacher-powered school to meet the needs of students in our community. The autonomy allows us to make decisions that are important for OUR students, and not follow a cookie cutter method, just like you’re doing. Such a positive change in education that kids deserve! Great read.

  2. “Teachers saw needs first hand and have the power and autonomy to find and implement solutions”.

    Great piece Jeff!

    I believe one of the true symbols of a teacher powered school is that ideas are generated by those that see the need on a first hand basis. Many of these ideas come from within the classroom (the true engine room of schools). At many schools where teachers are seen as equal stakeholders these ideas can flourish. Whereas teachers have been seen as islands unto themselves, the teacher powered model would far better match Donne’s follow-up line, “Every man is a piece of the continent”, or in this case, “every teacher is a piece of the school”.

    Having worked in a teacher powered school I can say that the more my ideas are allowed to grow and blossom and have an impact on the students, the more rewarding my job becomes.

  3. I believe that many teachers are definitely in favor of designing curriculum to meet specific student needs, but administrators and school district administrators are the ones who don’t see or understand that necessity. That is where the gap is created. Either more support from school districts, or more money for teachers, and we can begin to do it ourselves and be creative to meet those basic needs for our students in our classrooms.

  4. Teacher-Powered Schools create autonomy for teachers to meet a variety of student needs. At Woods Learning Center in Casper, WY teachers are going beyond “the test” to model 21st century skills of collaboration, communication, creativity, responsibility, leadership, and service to others. Students are then given the opportunity to use the same skills through projects in the school and community.

  5. The tendency to wars, poverty, pollution etc, are, I believe, due to inefficiencies inherent within our social structure, and therefore, our social interactions. These inefficiencies have grown to be a major threat to human longevity (I believe this error margin has increased over time due to the intended and unintended consequences of the advancements in technology).
    If we help develop a great many human lives on our planet, then we must have enough food, water, shelter, healthcare/wellness, clothes, and education for ALL of them.

    Do we have enough resources on this 1 planet for every single self-actualizing human being?

    NASA is looking for another earth like planet. They are studying how to grow vegetables in outer space. If we are not at the point in our classrooms where our young people see great value in human life and longevity, then we will never develop the mathematical equations necessary to get a space craft to a viable planet in less than a day. Our kids may never develop the kind of biology or chemistry that will allow us to grow food on Mars. Future generations will not be spurred to think the kind of thoughts they need to think to get us to the point where we are securing human longevity, anywhere for that matter.

    The inefficiencies within our world (hunger, poverty, lack of education, homelessness, violence, war, crime, pollution) can be seen as a way to manage population overgrowth, crudely spoken, if we just sit back and do nothing with ourselves.

    If we want to create better, alternative futures for ourselves, I believe we need to look within. I believe with good education, we can pull the best collective future out of every self-actualized human being.

  6. I love what you wrote. Thank you for sharing this information.

    I believe that if we have foremost in our minds the development of a human life for the better, then from those thoughts our curriculum can grow. Self actualization, human wellness and potential goes far beyond the realm of any textbook. I am finding that the more we shape good learning experiences for young people that will allow them to push themselves, ask questions, solve problems, collaborate, communicate, and exercise creativity, the closer we are getting to designing a more peaceful, tolerant, and cooperative world…….which will ultimately lead to the longevity of all life on our planet.

    The better we can be as human beings, the more we increase our chances for survival on this planet. As NASA is looking for other earth-like planets for us to inhabit, hopefully, when one is found we will have developed survivability skills that are transferable; survivability skills developed through an education that supports human longevity or self actualization, where coexistence with all things on our planet are inherent within that equation.

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