Don’t be misled by the innocuous uniform of cardigans, clogs and school ID tags. The teachers of the Reiche Community School in Portland, Maine, are revolutionaries. More than five years ago, when a well-liked principal moved along to another assignment, Reiche teachers and their union, the Portland Education Association, worked with district officials to put in place an alternative governance model.

Simply put, the teachers took over.

Today, Reiche is one of 70-plus teacher-led schools in the U.S., including Denver’s Math and Science Leadership Academy (MSLA), which the Denver Classroom Teachers Association helped set up. (Both Reiche and MSLA also are part of NEA’s Priority Schools, an initiative that helps low-performing schools to innovate.) At Reiche, Christine Keegan, Lori Bobinsky, and Ted Hummel are the three teacher-leaders who split their time between administrative duties and instructional work.

Although the governance structure may vary among the nation’s teacher-led schools, they all have teachers with a renewed sense of purpose and professional autonomy. “Every teacher has a voice here,” says kindergarten teacher, Kevin Brewster, one of the original teacher-leaders at Reiche.

teacher-led schoolGood morning! As students make their way off the playground to their classrooms, the school climate plan—written by Reiche’s teachers, of course— guarantees each will be greeted by no fewer than three adults. “Part of the Reiche culture is the understanding that they’re all our kids. Not your kids, your class,” says Brewster. Additionally, research shows that students benefit from meaningful relationships with adults — so, with that in mind, each spring the Reiche staff creates a big chart with every student’s name on it. If a teacher believes she has a relationship with a child, she puts a sticker by his name. Children with too-few stickers are noted, and will get the attention they need to thrive.

Teacher-Led Reiche School in Portland, MaineI see you. Reiche’s 1970s-style open-classroom layout is a physical symbol of its collegial culture. “Here, the inclination is to share best practices. We get into each other’s classrooms, and observe master teachers at work,” says Brewster. “As an observer, you can always pick up something to use, and as a lead, you have to be reflective, ‘why did I do it that way?’” Also, Brewster and others say, teachers feel safe asking each other for help. “It’s not a sign of weakness, it’s a sign of desire to improve,” says Brewster. To aid collaboration, grade-level teams meet twice a week.

Teacher-Led Reiche School in Portland, Maine“I like what [Reiche] does because it [empowers teachers]!” Reiche’s school success plan allows its teachers to choose an instructional focus, and this year it’s “accountable talk.” So what you might hear from students, in classroom discussion or over lunch, are phrases like, “I agree with you, but would like to add…” At Reiche, where about 40 percent of students are English language learners and 50 percent of them have no English, accountable talk helps students dialogue for deeper understanding, says teacher-leader Lori Bobinsky.

Teacher-Led Reiche School in Portland, MaineLet’s make like a tree, grow your branches! “Over the years, we’ve seen the arts constricting, and we just said no. These kids need enrichment,” says Brewster. Thanks to money raised by its Parent Teacher Organization, and allocated by its teacher-led enrichment committee, Reiche’s students have daily enrichment activities. While second- and third-graders dive into swimming lessons, fourth- and fifth-graders enjoy hip-hop dance. For kindergartners and first-graders, it’s yoga. “For a high-poverty school, we have really happy, engaged kids, and I think it’s because we understand that kids are more than test scores. We want them to be engaged in art, in music, in more,” says Brewster.

Teacher-Led Reiche School in Portland, MaineTed Hummel’s phone is beeping. It’s time to check in with a second-grader who sometimes struggles to stay happy and focused. At Reiche, the collective approach to discipline problems is to prevent them, and so teacher-leader Hummel meets regularly with kids who need to feel the community around them. When issues do arise, Hummel asks questions like these: “What did you do? What problems were you trying to solve? Did your response work? What can you do next time?”

Teacher-Led Reiche School in Portland, MaineDemocracy is time-consuming — but rewarding. Although Reiche’s three teacher-leaders attend daily to typical “principal duties” such as checking in substitute teachers or chatting with the boy who snuck away to play Minecraft in the bathroom, the important decisions are made by consensus of Reiche teachers. This can be time-consuming, but it means everybody has a stake in the school’s success. “Before the teacher-led model, I had less control over making my efforts make a difference. Now, I feel an obligation to make a difference,” says second-grade teacher Laura Graves. The way it works is Reiche teachers meet every Wednesday afternoon, first as a school-wide group and then as members of four committees: instructional leadership, professional development, climate, and enrichment. iPhones are stashed in tote bags, the goals of the meetings are made clear, and chocolate bars are dumped on a table. Recently, the agenda ranged from planning for a fund-raising 5K to professional development around the new math curriculum. Interestingly, when teachers plan their own professional development, around work that they actually do, the calendar fills up very quickly.

Teacher-Led Reiche School in Portland, MaineOn the playground. “When you see a kid hanging around after school without a parent, you don’t turn and find an administrator. You are on the hook,” says Graves. “You have the power to solve these problems.”

Soup’s on. Seven years ago, these gardens consisted of waist-high weeds, seeded with beer cans. Then the PTO allocated $7,000 to their revitalization, and teachers invited the school’s neighbors to planning charrettes. These days, parents spend many hours outside, maintaining raised beds with drip irrigation and granite-curbs-turned-reading-benches, but they also enjoy an open-door policy inside Reiche. “We feel like we have a direct line to the teacher leaders,” says parent Judy Watson — and they do. “There is no ‘my’ in a teacher-led school — it’s all ‘ours,’” says Brewster. “It means giving up some control, but the more parents we have in our school the more support we get.” Meanwhile, the outside spaces support Reiche’s garden-based science curriculum, developed by Graves and others to fill the gaps in state science standards. “I really feel that science is a shared experience that builds community,” says Graves. Each fall, the potatoes, leeks, and other student-raised veggies are harvested and turned into soup by a local kitchen.


Reiche teachers have some advice for those who would follow their lead. First, spend at least a year researching your options, and try to visit a teacher-led school near you, if possible. Reach out to other constituent groups, like your union. As teacher-led schools become more common, more resources exist, such as the Center for Teaching Quality’s Teacher Powered Schools.

Photos: Jeff Stevenson

  • Ysbeth

    Teachers used to have a lot more autonomy before NCLB and some children really benefited from that. I personally had some great teachers and one that got drunk and passed out at her desk instead of teaching 9th grade math. However, NCLB was put in place because too many teachers and schools were failing children – like my 9th grade math teacher. I worked in HR at the time that NCLB was put in place and we could tell by the high school a person graduated from whether they would pass the new hire test or not and that test covered things that should have been learned in elementary school (reading everyday words, alphabetizing, and basic arithmetic). If we made every school like this some would thrive but others would fail miserably. Motivated teachers can accomplish a lot but not every teacher is motivated.

    • Gail

      Blaming a teacher for a child’s failure is short-sighted. Teachers, parents, schools, extend family members, physicians, and the community are all partners in raising our kids. To place blame on one person or profession is just not fair and promotes teacher-bashing.

      • Ysbeth

        Blaming a teacher for one child’s failure is short-sighted. However, some teachers fail large majorities of their class every year (like the drunk teacher I had) while other teacher’s manage to teach most of them and that is the fault of that teacher. However, I specifically said teachers and schools.

        When I worked in HR before NCLB, we would give an entrance exam to new hires (and companies still do this) because you couldn’t trust a high school diploma (and still can’t). The test would cover elementary school level skills like basic arithmetic (addition and subtraction), spelling everyday words (like the State the applicant lived in), and alphabetizing (for filing). The graduates of some schools consistently failed those tests even though they had GPAs about 3.0. How can you graduate high school, with a decent GPA, without elementary school level skills? The students didn’t pass themselves through without learning anything or write their own unearned diplomas. Most of the students had no idea how deficient their education was until they tried to join the workforce (emphasize on “tried”). They passed the classes they were told to take with As and Bs.

        I will be the first to say that some children will not get an education due to family culture and community culture but the schools were still the ones that gave them a high school diploma when they shouldn’t have even made it to middle school.

    • Val E. Forge

      It really is too bad that the motto of public schools seems to be, “Since we can’t (or won’t) get the guilty (your 9th grade math teacher) we’ll impose upon the innocent (the rest of us).” Also the motto of the gun control crowd.

    • LightningJoe

      NCLB is not the “classic” state of the teaching art. We need to go back much further, to see all of the pieces. One of those pieces is the dominance of administrators in nearly every school in the country since WWII at least. It seems we liked the results of top-down “industriality,” and put those same principles into practice where they didn’t belong: our schools.

      Time after time, I’ve seen (I work in a supporting role at a traditional school) administrators weigh into a situation that was being handled (or was on the way to being handled) by the teachers, and the best result (learning and growth) is almost always derailed by the process. For one thing, administrators are like Cops: they value their own authority very highly, AND they think that action outside of their approval is threatening to their authority. Their idea of solving a problem is to STOP it – which also stops the evolution of solutions, as often as not making the situation worse by burying it. They apply that principle to EVERY problem they run into. But that “control” is almost always of an obstructive quality: STOPPING a situation keeps the problems in place, rather than letting players continue to work toward solutions. COMMONLY, that control is expressed in terms of STOPPING the very interactions between players, as in the very commonly-used phrase (presented as a “solution”) “Well, don’t talk to him anymore.”

      But the competent solution-space is almost always approached THROUGH talking among the players. What we need in most of those situations is MORE talk, of a monitored, structured sort… until the situation is clarified, and all parties can see their way through. Administrators earn their bread by PREVENTING what they call confrontations, but many of those “confrontations” are actually solutions in the making, the natural result of being in an educational setting!

      As illustration, recently a Middle School Counselor got a bad review from “our” Principal, though her work has been selfless and effective for the kids. This Counselor goes far out of her way for the kids. The kid in this case was/is being physically abused by her mom’s boyfriend, evidenced by the facial abrasions she regularly comes to school with. The Mom insists this is not happening (her boyfriend said so) (seen this before?). After the second inquiry from the Counselor, Mom called the Principal to complain. That was all it took for the Principal to censure the Counselor through the mechanism of an unfavorable review (handily illustrating the “terror” component of the review system). I see the effect this has had on the Counselor, who is far from her home territory on the East Coast; she is now afraid to cross the Principal’s path, and she is more conflicted than ever, between what she sees as her own clear responsibilities, and the job risks of taking those responsibilities seriously.

      Certainly she is now pulled in two directions: serving her core constituency (the, um, KIDS), on the one hand, and on the other fitting into the Administration’s corrupted expectations of an uneventful tenure. The Law tells her she MUST pursue the issue, while the Principal just wants a “good review” on his own job, and is thus willing to risk the well-being of his charges, and the good will (and functional sanity) of “his” teachers, in order to bring that about.

      In other words, it’s all just One More Lie, told for corrupt purposes, and given its authority by our industrial culture.

      Heaven help us, if the boat gets rocked and people actually have better lives because their role models helped them out…

  • Gail

    Terrific article. Empowering teachers can result in improved education for our children.

  • Jack Steve

    I think students also must have the same rights to decide what is good or bad for them and then, educators and parents can help them choosing the right path. Happy holidays, Students. Merry Christmas 2015

  • Let My People Go

    Sounds like a great opportunity for teachers to teach. So much of education today has become top-down, micro-management which begins in Washington D.C. and Common Core, then extends to the state department of education, and eventually to the district, to school administrators until each bureaucracy has added some new “best practice” designed to waste the time of teachers who are doing the hands-on job. Washington should not be involved in education at all except maybe to assign funds to schools in impoverished neighborhoods. The real problem in education concerns the breakdown of the American family, and the damaged children who are inhabiting our schools. A teacher can be great, but if the students are too broken to assimilate to the culture of education, no amount of genius or creativity can put Humpty-Dumpty back together again.