McQueen: Take a Page From Our Playbook in Tennessee — Teacher Leadership Works

Charla Hurt teaches U.S. Government and Politics as well as Economics at Lincoln County High School. (Photo credit: Chiefs for Change)

The idea seemed like common sense: Engage the most effective teachers, ask them to come up with ideas for improving schools, and share what they know with their peers. And along the way, support these educators with time, resources, and a network they can lean on and learn from.

Perhaps surprisingly, that’s the exception around the country — but increasingly, that’s the norm here in Tennessee. It’s still a work in progress, but we think teachers here have built something the country can learn from.

We’re eight years into building the Tennessee Teacher Leader Network, in which highly effective teachers serve in the classroom while taking on leadership roles such as peer mentoring, writing model lessons, delivering professional development, and more. At the state level, we help teacher leaders receive training and networking opportunities, and we support districts in developing and sharing teacher leader programs. As teacher leaders and policymakers, we also get together through roundtables and convenings — the kind of gatherings that brought the two of us together — to exchange ideas about moving education in Tennessee forward.

It was gratifying to see our network recognized as a national model in a new report by the nonprofit Chiefs for Change. Creating career opportunities for teachers beyond moving them into administrative roles aligns with other steps we’re taking to support and retain highly effective educators. All this is adding up to increased teacher effectiveness and student achievement.

Tennessee students are outpacing others across the country in growth in reading, math, and science on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Last year, the rate of students graduating from high school was at its highest in history, more students than ever earned college credit through AP exams, and students earned a record-high ACT composite score.

For teachers like Charla, who teaches U.S. government and economics to high school students, teacher leadership has meant continuing to work in the classroom, a job she loves, and growing professionally in order to have an even broader impact.

Charla is currently focusing her leadership work on boosting college readiness as measured on the ACT and delivering professional development to her colleagues on visible learning, which focuses on practices that have been shown to have a positive effect on student learning. Tennessee’s annual Educator Survey shows that 85 percent of our teachers feel encouraged to participate in school leadership roles, and feedback from district administrators continues to be supportive of these efforts. As we seek more information about what’s going well and how to improve, we have engaged Vanderbilt University in a formal evaluation of Tennessee’s teacher leader program.

Other states thinking about starting teacher leader networks might want to consider our lessons learned. Tennessee is a diverse state, with the Great Smoky Mountains at one end and the Mississippi Delta on the other, and our students attend school in cities, suburbs, and rural areas like Lincoln County, where Charla teaches. With that in mind, we decided not to adopt a uniform approach. Instead, we’ve encouraged districts to select teacher leadership systems that fit their needs. We then supported them with state standards for effective leadership, as well as opportunities for statewide networking and professional development. So, although we expect districts to create a shared leadership structure, increase the use of effective teacher strategies, and foster an improved culture, we don’t prescribe how to get there.

While some states still use outdated teacher-pay rules that may block districts from paying teachers more for serving in leadership roles, Tennessee supports differentiated compensation for teachers, which allows district leaders to boost compensation for teacher leaders. In Tennessee, we also allow districts to use federal Title II funds to support teacher leadership programs. It’s rewarding to branch out professionally through a leadership network, and receiving financial compensation for the extra work is both professional and justified.

Of course, having a network in place isn’t enough, and we can’t just check that box and expect better results. Policymakers actually have to listen to what educators have to say, and, as Charla notes, it’s also helpful for teachers to hear from state leaders about why they may be pursuing certain policies. Teacher leadership strengthens the actions we are undertaking in Tennessee to improve academic proficiency, boost college-going rates, improve assessment, and more. For example, our Read to Be Ready early literacy campaign includes multiple initiatives for improving reading in young children, including a role for teacher leaders to coach their peers on what strong instruction looks like.

It’s good to hear that policymakers in states such as Mississippi and Nevada are also working to build effective teacher leadership networks, and that more established programs in places like New Mexico and Louisiana continue to evolve, just as we have in Tennessee. Although many education policies generate debate and even division, this is one idea that we can all get behind. Teacher leader networks are essential for teachers and good for kids, and they ought to be part of the basic fabric of the American educational experience. And we encourage other states to head in that direction.

Candice McQueen is the commissioner of education in Tennessee and a member of Chiefs for Change, a network of state and district education leaders that advocates for policies that improve outcomes for students.

Charla Hurt teaches U.S. government and politics as well as economics at Lincoln County High School and is a member of the Tennessee Teacher Leader Network.

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