The Case for Teacher Leadership

One of the things that has always fascinated me about the 1960s in America (and in some other Western European countries) is not simply that these years represent an era of upheaval, of a ready resistance to tradition and an aggressive questioning of those in authority, but that those at the forefront of this change were remarkably self-aware of the tectonic shifts in culture that were taking place. This dual perspective—being part of major shifts in social or institutional structures and being sufficiently able to rise above the day-to-day to contextualize these shifts in broader terms—is actually quite rare. More often, those engaged in the daily grind of life cannot lift up their heads high enough to appreciate how this grind represents not more of the same, but something fundamentally different from what came before.

This interplay between “living in the here and now” and “making history” has occupied my mind lately as I’ve been working with NCTL colleagues on our latest study. This report, which will be released in May, delves into the ways teachers use time to advance their own skills and learning so that they can strengthen instruction and, in turn, enable students to achieve to high expectations. The research is very much aimed at practitioners with the objective of informing and inspiring fellow educators to replicate these effective practices.

And, yet, this study of what teachers are doing in expanded-time schools around the country is not just about the best of professional learning, but also shines a spotlight on the fundamental changes now shaping the teaching profession—when the daily challenges of managing a classroom of 25 or 30 children are intertwined with much broader trends. With the advent of Common Core standards and with the various efforts to evaluate teachers in more sophisticated ways, expectations for teaching are not the same now as they were even just a few years ago. Teachers are no longer supposed to be merely the purveyors of knowledge, but guides for students’ own explorations. The value of teacher is expressed in how they lead, both in the classroom and out.

A recent speech from U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan picks up on this theme that teachers are not just individual agents in their own schools, but also can be part of a wider movement. They can meet “smaller” goals of educating particular children and grander ones at once.

Teaching will change, too, as the nation's understanding deepens about the critically important factors that may be just as important to student success as reading and math skills — factors like grit, perseverance, resilience, and confidence.

The role of teachers in leading through this change isn't a nicety — it's a necessity. Teachers must shape what teaching will become.

Indeed, that is one of the themes that kept emerging as we went around the country visiting schools and speaking with teachers: the recognition that the future of teaching is being crafted very deliberately by the teachers themselves. For sure, this “I’m part of history” perspective is a minority one among those I met. Still, many more individuals than I expected do have a strong sense that their labors—and their striving to become even better—are part of a larger mission to change the role and the expectations of teachers. I’m fairly confident that as these teachers grow in both their capacity as educators and as change agents, our schools and students will be better for it.