Master Teachers Discuss Pathways to Leadership – Inside and Outside the Classroom

Even as far back as the nineteenth century, policymakers overstepping their bounds in the debate over education were a problem. Renowned philosopher and educational psychologist William James, says David Berliner, sounded the alarm more than 150 years ago by proclaiming that lawmaking should not interfere with the art of teaching.

“James warned about the arrogance of researchers and policymakers who think they can tell practitioners what to do,” Berliner explained during a panel discussion at the NEA Foundation’s recent Cross-Site Convening. “He said that we need ‘intermediate inventive minds’ to help broker the transition from research to practice.”

The importance of a strong assertive teacher voice in the formulation of education policy was one of the topics Berliner, himself an award-winning educational psychologist and author, discussed with Melissa Collins and Gladys Sossa-Schwartz, two National Board Certified Teachers, and Joshua Parker, an NEA Foundation global learning fellow and the 2012 Maryland Teacher of the Year. The panelists also offered insights on how teachers can become “master practitioners.”

Master teachers discuss leadership and professional development at the 2014 NEA Foundation Cross-Site Convening.

While it’s critical that teachers have voice in policy decisions affecting students, how should they approach this challenge if they don’t have the necessary background or deep knowledge of policy? To help educators get to this point, the panelists agreed, unions must teach them to effectively speak out against so-called reforms.

“We need guidance on shifting that conversation and the language we need to use so that we’re not viewed as people who are against accountability or testing,” Sossa-Schwartz said.

Some countries leave many decisions in the hands of their educators. Berliner noted that Australia appoints teachers to make education policy decisions. If Australia wants to implement a standards-based reform, educators serve on its department of education – while still receiving their regular teacher salary. Simply put, educators need to be the ones to make these decisions, Berliner said.

“Imagine if we had a system where someone would say, ‘Can you come join us for two or three years? We’ll pay the extra costs that are involved, we’ll keep you on your salary schedule, and you go back to the classroom when you’re ready’” Berliner said. “That’s a much saner system than the one we have.”

Their are pathways in the United States that enable educators to become teacher leaders, conduct research and spark discussions with policymakers and stakeholders.

In 2013, NEA partnered with the Center for Teaching Quality and the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards to launch the national Teacher Leadership Initiative (TLI). TLI is a joint endeavor to develop a new generation of leaders within the teaching profession. Thanks to a grant from the W.K. Kellog Foundation, the initiative expanded in 2014.

Teachers can also help shape education policies by becoming National Board Certified Teachers (NBCT), a rigorous process in which teachers become mentors and instructional coaches.

Teachers need encouragement from their union and other educators when pursing National Board certification, because, as Melissa Collins pointed out, only 30 percent of teachers become certified on their first try. Collins didn’t succeed on her first attempt but her principal pushed her to take the test again and the Tennessee Education Association gave her the professional development she needed to pass the test.

Berliner helped shape the board certification process in Arizona.

“In Arizona, they very often have candidates do it in pairs or trios from a school,” he explained. “That way they meet together, they talk together, and they go to the support groups we have for them. … Even the teachers who got the bad news all said this was good professional development.”

Berliner suggested a “two-tier evaluation system” be tied to professional development— one that would focus on growth and the other on deficits. For those who have been teaching for less than five years, Berliner explained the system would be deficit oriented so that they can learn the skills needed to be successful. On other hand, the growth model would be for teachers who have tenure. Instead of pointing out their flaws, ask those teachers: What do you want to learn, and how do you want to grow?

Joshua Parker encouraged educators to develop “internal” professional development. When he first began teaching, he did much research on his own and found different ways to teach African American males to read. Once he started outside reading and researching, his students improved.

To Gladys Sossa-Schwartz, professional development must always be student centered. Today, too much professional development focuses on analyzing data, she said, instead of discussing student improvement.

“If there’s professional development that’s not aligned with those values, it’s not as meaningful,” she added.

Video: Master Teacher Speak: Communities, Unions and Districts Listen (Discussion begins at 11:30 mark)

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