'We Need Teacher Leaders': Joint Initiative Launched to Elevate Education Profession

NEA President Dennis Van Roekel remembers how incredulous he was when he sat in the audience at NBC’s first Education Nation in 2011 to listen to a panel of non-teachers talking about teachers. Even though it was merely a television broadcast, the event was symptomatic of the absence of teacher voices in the national dialogue about public education.

Which is why NEA has taken the lead through a series of initiatives that aim to empower teachers to lead, shape education policy, and prepare the next generation of teacher leaders.

On Tuesday, at NEA headquarters in Washington D.C.,Van Roekel, joined by Ron Thorpe of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS) and Barnett Berry of the Center for Teaching Quality (CTQ), announced the national Teacher Leadership Initiative (TLI), a joint endeavor between the three organizations to advance the profession through teacher leadership.

“This is truly the beginning of something great,” Van Roekel said. “This initiative will ultimately develop expertise and engage thousands of teacher-leaders in leadership work in schools, with NEA affiliates, and in state houses throughout the country—because every student should have the best possible educators in their schools.”

“It is our strong belief that positive change in education must be driven by the profession and shaped by the invaluable experience of teachers working in classrooms. The TLI initiative marks an important milestone in our collective effort to elevate the profession,” added Thorpe.

The long-term goals of the TLI are: 1) design accomplished-level-teacher standards; 2) develop relevant experiences and supports to help teachers meet those standards; and (3) activate teachers to be leaders for their profession as a result of their participation in this process.

One hundred and fifty educators representing Arizona, Colorado, Iowa, Massachusetts, Michigan and Mississippi have been chosen for the 2014 pilot year. Participants in the pilot will engage with an interactive curriculum designed and facilitated by other expert teachers and will focus on three frames of teacher leadership: instruction leadership, policy leadership and union leadership.

“It’s time to blur the lines of distinction between those who teach in schools and those who lead them,” said Berry, who pointed out research and surveys indicate that many teachers show a serious interest in taking on a more “hybrid” role in schools that incorporates leadership responsibilities.

NEA President Dennis Van Roekel (center) answers questions about the new Teacher Leadership Initiative on Tuesday with Barnett Berry of the Center for Teaching Quality (left) and Ron Thorpe of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. Photo: Sewell Johnson

The Teacher Leadership Initiative, Berry explained, is about “finding those teachers and help them help each other.”

The TLI will help public schools catch up to many independent schools that, according to Ron Thorpe, are ahead in fostering climates more friendly to teacher leadership.

“Not only do teachers need to be trained to take on these new responsibilities but we have to change the nature of our schools so that they can absorb this new leadership. It’s a challenge but there’s no reason why we cant be successful in shifting the culture,” Thorpe explained,

Last summer NEA also launched the NEA Master Teacher Project to recruit the best teachers in the country to document and share what makes them effective—95 of the highest performing K-12 Math and ELA common core teachers across the country were selected and awarded $15,000 to share all of their lessons and practices with their fellow educators. Later this month they will release a site built entirely for Common Core State Standards resources. NEA has also partnered with Teach Plus to launch a selective fellowship that will empower solutions-oriented teachers, most of whom are in the first 10 years of their careers, to advise union leadership on teacher engagement and retention.

“This is all about giving voice and energy to the men and women who are in the classroom every day,” Van Roekel said. “ We need teacher leaders now.”