Teacher-Led Schools: They’re Here And More Are On the Way

teacher_led_schools_1There is no principal at Howard C. Reiche Community School, a K-5 elementary school in Portland, Maine.

Within a traditional public school structure, this may seem as if the school is missing its leader. To some parents, it may sound chaotic, with no central figure to call the shots. Whom, for example, do educators turn to when they need answers? Who decides the curriculum or which books to purchase? Who’s responsible for the day-to-day operations?

At Reiche, educators call the shots!

For the past four years, the elementary school has operated as a teacher-led school, which means educators work together on everything, from instructional planning, professional development and enrichment programs to compensation, peer evaluations, and hiring. There is total autonomy, where educators decide what’s best for their students.

This is not a new idea. Teacher-led schools can be traced back to as early as the 1970s, in New York City, but there has been a growing momentum for educators to be a part of the decision-making process, not just give input.

In 2009, the Math and Science Leadership Academy (MSLA) in Denver became a teacher-led school through collaboration among teachers, their union (the Denver Classroom Teachers Association) and the Denver Public Schools. The school doesn’t have traditional administrators like a principal. Instead, all the decisions—from the length of the school day to the color of the chairs—rest with the educators who openly collaborate with education support professionals, parents, and students to drive the direction of learning.

For Ruth Ocon-Neri, one of two teacher leaders at MSLA, this means, “I’m actually a human being. I have a voice for my students.”

The Washington Post reported last month that—at minimum—there are 70 public schools in 15 states that are being led by educators, with more on the way. Many of the schools are charters, but MSLA and Reiche are traditional public schools with union members. They’re also a part of NEA’s Priority Schools, an initiative that works with members, communities and policymakers to make lower-performing schools a priority; to disrupt the status quo, and to make permanent changes that significantly raise student achievement.

The Beginning

It starts with awareness of the different models that can exist and thrive within a public school setting coupled with dialogue.

For Reiche, the conversation, four years ago, focused on creating stability for their student population. After experiencing a high turnover rate of principals, educators wanted the school to be a stable environment for their students, many of whom are homeless, refugees, immigrants, or come directly from war-torn countries.

In 2010, Reiche had lost another principal—a good one, too, who had a hand in helping the school get off the U.S. Department of Education’s list of “failing” schools. However, leadership within the Portland Education Association had been already researching teacher-led schools, and sharing their findings with the Portland Public School district. The two groups worked together to give educators the option to either hire a principal or take an interim principal so they could explore the teacher-led concept.

Educators took a full year to do their research. They studied what leaders do and how they make decisions. Through an NEA grant, a team of educators visited MSLA and another teacher-led school in Boston. The visits proved powerful as it turned theory into concrete, actionable items, such as getting approval from parents, which they did—75 percent voted for Reiche to become teacher-led.

Snapshot of the Structure

Kevin Brewster, a kindergarten teacher with more than 20 years of experience, is now one of three teacher leaders. At first, he was a skeptic, never before hearing of teacher-led or teacher-governed structures. “But now, I’m a true believer,” he says, adding that “this may not be the model for everyone, but it should be on the menu of options.”

The three leaders operate Reiche as a collective of co-equals who are responsible for all aspects of the school.

(l-r): Kevin Brewster, Christine Keegan, and Lori Bobinsky

(l-r): Kevin Brewster, Christine Keegan, and Lori Bobinsky

Brewster, Christine Keegan, and Lori Bobinsky all take on different roles, which were established based on their comfort level, strengths, and skillset. For example, Brewster is responsible for student discipline while Keegan handles personnel issues, scheduling, and substitute teachers. Bobinsky works with instructional planning and data.

The work isn’t on the shoulders of just these three. Brewster says they delegate “a ton” of work to committees and the PTO, which pays for enrichment programs like yoga, swim lessons, and dance classes.

And, unlike MSLA, where the teacher leaders are out of the classroom, the three-person team still gets to teach and work with students.

Thinking About a Teacher-Led School?

Leaders at Reiche offer some suggestions to those who are interested in pursuing a teacher-led model:

  • Take your time and do the research. “If you have a year to explore, take the full 12 months,” Brewster says.
  • Establish group norms, set clear boundaries and agendas. Meetings are more effective with established norms and it keeps people on task.
  • Be slow and consistent.
  • Reach out to other constituent groups, like the union.
  • Get the structure done right the first time. It’s hard to remediate later.
  • Visit a teacher-led school near you.

While the concept has been around for years, many educators who took the teacher-led route were making it up along the way, says Brewster. Today, there are several resources that can help guide a school community in the teacher-led direction. The Center for Teacher Quality (CTQ), for example, provides a digestible breakdown of where to start in Teacher Powered Schools, as well as a collection of resources for educators who are designing, running, or maintaing a teacher-led school. Several books, exist, too, including Trusting Teachers with School Success, by Kim Farris-Berg, Edward Dirkswager, and Amy Junge.

Photo (top): Getty Images

  • Lauren Stephenson

    Fabulous piece! This movement is growing stronger every week, with numerous new teacher-led schools in development RIGHT NOW.

    There are also MANY resources for teacher-led/teacher-powered schools at http://www.teacherpowered.org, including: a comprehensive online guide for creating teacher-powered schools, an inventory of existing teacher-powered schools with breakdown of governance models, and discussion guides for teacher teams working to design and run schools. There is also an online community, the Teacherpowered Schools Lab, where teachers can ask questions, share proposals, and more on the CTQ Collaboratory (www.teacherpowered.org/community).

    Help is out there for teachers looking to design, manage, and run their dream schools–let us help you make it happen!

  • QAdvocate

    If you consider that most Principals and a large portion of Superintendents were teachers before they moved into those positions then are not all schools already teacher lead? Diane Ravitch is a huge fan of putting the experts in charge of what they do best, admins administrating, teacher teaching and curriculum designers designing…..

    • Mike Larsen

      Teachers and administrators have conflicting goals which are part of their designated positions and responsibilities. These goals are not always in the best interests of the student. The conflicting goals often lead to teacher alienation. The concept of teacher led schools appears interesting. I think there are a lot of questions; how do the teacher leaders manage teaching time and management time, how are they chosen, how if final decision making concluded, how are they paid, what is their tenure….

    • Evan Jacobson

      I disagree that being a former teacher or having teaching experience=teacher lead schools. Depending upon the school’s mission and admin’s agenda will determine how empowered educators actually feel. I worked in a school that was micromanaged by a corporate principal. The minute you felt empowered to make certain decisions, she would walk all over you. After 5 years of that, I moved on to another inner city school. The leadership style was so different and I actually felt empowered to lead my students. I was NEVER questioned by my new principal and he even said at our very first staff meeting, “I am not interested in micromanaging or putting letters in your file…we are doing god’s work and I trust that you’ll do your part…my door is always open if you need anything…” I paraphrased, but that should give you an idea of feeling empowered to teach versus the illusion of feeling empowered and underscoring a lack of support…

    • Guy Montag

      Since most principals I have known (21 in 27 years of teaching) were the least flexible, least creative, least compassionate and most power hungry people in the school, most of them were not good school leaders! Teacher led is important because we need people who really are there for the students and not for their own ego, their own over inflated salary, and their own convenience.

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  • QAdvocate

    I would rather see a school with Principals that were teachers helping to orchestrate a student centered school than one lead by a superintendent with little to no classroom experience…

  • Special Educator

    How does a teacher led school handle the special education piece, the general election teacher’s I work with think half their class is special education due to panic around lack of growth on assessments and these students do not have a disability!

    • QAdvocate

      I do not see much of a change on the Spec Ed side as state and Federal laws drive the decisions. Here is a link where you can explore it further or ask questions.

  • RetiredTeacherwhocares

    Would like to know the size of teacher-led schools. Are there any that have more than 500 students for K-6? That is the size of “my school”.
    Teachers with experience know what needs to happen in the school. Principals with only a couple of years or less of regular classroom teaching do not have the same perspective as teachers who have experienced the highs & lows of teaching for over five years. A person who has only taught in Jr. High/Middle School should not be an Elem. Principal. A PE Teacher should not be a Principal without regular classroom experience. Only when you have been “in the trenches” do you “get it”. We have had frequent turnovers in Administration. Considering what some of them were like, that was a good thing! Always hoping that the next one would be better. People wanting to have the job can say/profess anything they know is the right thing to say to get the job. Carrying through is a different matter. Same thing is true in other areas of life, like politics. If everyone was as honest & caring as they profess to be, there would be a lot fewer problems.

  • Linda Johnson

    Yes, this is the future. Sooner or later people will realize that in order to attract well-qualified teachers, these people will have to be offered professional status and autonomy. How very sad that the teachers’ unions did encourage this at the very beginning of the corporate reform movement.

    • QAdvocate

      We first have to have to get colleges to stop making the teacher track one of the easiest tracks there are. In other countries the teachers a highly respected, not for being a teacher, but because the teacher is in the top 20% verse the top 70% for the US. And we need early childhood teachers who embrace math, if not love it, and all math and science teachers should have a major in math; not less than half. We also need teachers, like Finland, where when presented with a poor test scores don’t rear up, pass blame, or use children as pawns…but rather, who roll up their sleeves, dig in and find out why and make the necessary changes. At the same time, each stakeholder needs to evaluate why we are doing so poorly and own up to their part; parents, student, teacher, community and government.