Welcome to SmartBrief Education’s original content series about the unique stories of teacherpreneurs. These are the innovative individuals confronting challenges, creating solutions and challenging the traditional definition of “educator.”
What if teachers could lead without leaving the classroom—and in doing so, incubate and execute their own policy and pedagogical ideas?
In recent years, the Center for Teaching Quality has supported two dozen teacherpreneurs — expert teachers who typically have a reduced teaching load of 50% — to lead bold reforms at the school, district, state and national levels. In partnership with districts (and with philanthropic financial support), teacherpreneurs like Noah Zeichner, Ali Wright, Jessica Cuthbertson and Julie Hiltz have achieved remarkable results for students, schools and the profession.
These classroom experts have generated powerful proof points for CTQ’s bold brand of teacher leadership, documented in a series of case studies. Their experiences have also yielded “lessons learned” that we can share with others interested in this model:
Extra time yields extraordinary results. Noah had long been a leader of other teachers, offering informal mentoring and broad collaboration with colleagues. But his principal Aida Fraser-Hammer noted that extra time as a teacherpreneur helped him “push things forward” to draw more teachers into work to design district-level programs and deepen student engagement.
The best teacherpreneurs “lead from the middle.” Teachers, administrators and students alike say that Noah is a successful leader not because he directs others, but because he engages and supports them as co-leaders in his work. “He starts conversations, he convenes people through similar interest, and he shows others how they can do the same,” says colleague Heather Griffin.
Technology keeps teacher leaders connected with the world while based in the classroom. During her time as a teacherpreneur, Julie engaged more than 900 teachers and principals statewide in webinars and design-thinking workshops to help them develop new leadership skills and new structures for classroom experts to lead. She also co-created (with teaching colleague Jaraux Washington) the national #TeachingIs social media campaign that reached millions of educators, parents and engaged citizens on the complexity of teaching in the 21st century. Mary Fernandez, her principal back in Florida, said, “Julie does so much to bring new ideas and perspectives to our school.”
In addition, Noah has taught in Ecuador and joined delegations to Singapore and Brazil to explore teacher-led reform within the context of their education systems, with implications for his profession back in the U.S. But when he isn’t traveling, virtual communities like the CTQ Collaboratory have allowed him to engage with global networks without losing instructional time with his students.
Relationships matter. As demands on Ali’s time grow, she has been careful to schedule time with colleagues, family, students and key partners. This has helped her live and work in connected, balanced ways. “She listens deeply to help the rest of us hear ourselves as leaders,” says teacher Lauren Hill. I recently completed a comprehensive review of the research on teacher leadership — and found that classroom experts who lead most effectively also seek to be led by their colleagues, just like Ali does.
Teachers who model leadership do the most for their students, in and out of the classroom. Ali shared her experiences as a budding blogger and speaker with her students. She challenged them to take a risk of their own: the AP Calculus exam. The result? All of Ali’s students sit for the exam and 50% earn the highest possible score. Meanwhile, as a teacherpreneur, Ali brought her daily work with students into policy conversations with Kentucky’s state legislature, national reform groups like Achieve or Student Achievement Partners, or with Noah and their work with the Asia Society’s Global Cities Education Network.
Blurring the lines between policy and practice makes each stronger. Ali’s hybrid role has allowed her to influence math teachers districtwide and participate in related state-level policy conversations. Education leaders in diverse roles see her as a trusted voice, and teachers have looked to her to keep them one step ahead of the reforms that impact their classrooms.
When educators can teach and lead, they and their schools benefit. Jessica was ready to leave coaching because she missed a close connection to students. Had it not been for her CTQ-supported hybrid role, her district would have lost the opportunity to leverage her expertise to drive systems-level improvements. She is now creating a system of teacher leadership for her district, driven by teaching colleagues in hybrid roles so many more can lead without leaving.
These are just a few of the discoveries that we’ve made in working with teacherpreneurs, building their capacity to solve local challenges and to bring their solutions to scale. We learn more all the time as we partner with savvy districts, state agencies, and other organizations to address their challenges and goals by designing, supporting, and systematizing new hybrid roles and leadership pathways.
Our greatest lesson: If student learning is going to be competency-based, personalized, and open-walled, so must the leadership of their teachers. CTQ’s work with teacherpreneurs has proven it can be done.
Barnett Berry is founder and CEO of the Center for Teaching Quality (CTQ). The CTQ Collaboratory now includes more than 10,000 members, fueling unique opportunities for teachers to lead boldly without leaving the classroom. Barnett is a former classroom teacher, think tank analyst, senior state education agency policy leader and university professor. His two books, TEACHING 2030 and Teacherpreneurs: Innovative Teachers Who Lead But Don’t Leave, frame a bold vision for the profession’s future. Follow Barnett and CTQ on Twitter: @BarnettCTQ and @teachingquality.