April 16th, 2012
11:40 AM ET

My View: Calling all 'teacher leaders'

Courtesy Camille BurkeBy Noah Zeichner, Special to CNN

Editor’s Note:  Noah Zeichner is a National Board-certified teacher at Chief Sealth International School in Seattle, Washington. He currently serves in a hybrid teaching role, dividing his time evenly between teaching social studies and supporting the Center for Teaching Quality's New Millennium Initiative.

Everyone these days seems to be talking about the importance of effective teachers. I often hear people say that there is no more important job in our country than that of an educator. So why isn’t teaching the most pursued profession in our society today?

And for the people who do decide to teach, why are so many early-career teachers leaving the profession? An estimated 46 percent of teachers leave teaching within their first five years in the classroom. In high-poverty schools the turnover rate is even higher. And according to the latest MetLife Survey of the American Teacher, job satisfaction is at its lowest point in more than twenty years.

I am one of the lucky ones. I made it over the five-year hump and am currently in my eighth year of teaching high school social studies and Spanish. While my primary focus has always been my students and their challenges and successes, I can attribute some of my energy for what I hope to be a long career in teaching to what I have done outside the classroom.

I have had several remarkable leadership opportunities over the past few years that have challenged me and allowed me to grow as a leader and an educator. We need more opportunities like these that ensure that teachers are always learning and improving, both for ourselves and for our students. We need more teachers in positions that give us a say in decisions that directly affect our classrooms.

The Traditional Career Path: Teaching or Leading

When most people think about school leadership, they think of the principal and other administrators, and rightfully so. Administrators are most often in charge of academics, discipline, hiring, budgets, and staff evaluations.

But where do teachers fit into the leadership structure? Many teachers serve as department heads, committee chairs, or members of building leadership teams. These roles commonly involve additional time beyond the school day. I have served in most of these roles over the past few years. And through them I have had ample opportunities to practice many of the 21st-century skills that we aim to teach our students (recognizing other perspectives, clearly articulating ideas, having civil conversations with others with whom we may disagree, taking action to improve conditions around us, etc.). These leadership roles have brought even more purpose to my work as a teacher. But is adding extra responsibilities to teachers’ already overflowing plates a sustainable way to encourage teacher leadership?

Many teachers who want to lead do not want to leave their classrooms to become administrators or principals, especially after spending several years mastering their craft. They want to play a leadership role in their school or district, but also want to remain in the classroom where they can have the most direct impact on students. And they want—and deserve—to have the time to lead well and teach well.

A Re-envisioned Career Path: Teaching and Leading

A key strategy proposed in the recently released Teacher Leader Model Standards is restructuring the profession to create more “hybrid” roles for teachers. In addition to teaching their regular classes, hybrid teachers might also serve as instructional coaches, mentors, curriculum designers, family outreach coordinators, or policy researchers. And with one foot always in the classroom, they are still firmly grounded in the everyday complexities of teaching and learning.

While there are many teachers who have hybrid roles today (myself included), there could be many more. Not only would re-envisioning the career path for teachers encourage effective teachers to remain in the classroom longer, but it would also likely attract more talent to the profession. For more ideas on career paths for teacher leaders, see this remarkable graphic designed by a group of California teacher leaders.

Our students deserve effective teachers in every classroom. But imagine if every school also had a team of effective “teacher leaders.” For teacher leadership to reach its full potential in our schools, we have work to do. We must trust teachers to use their classroom expertise in new ways. Principals and administrators would need to systematically commit to sharing leadership with teachers in their buildings. We would need to dramatically alter the way we structure time during the school year.

These are not impossible tasks. But they do require a shift in how we think about school leadership. I believe strongly that by increasing opportunities for practicing teachers to spread their expertise more widely, better outcomes for students will result. What are we waiting for?

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Noah Zeichner.

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soundoff (25 Responses)
  1. new school teacher

    I am a special educator and I hold myself accountable for my teaching methods. I became one because I WAS SO BORED in school. I don't know why more technology isn't implemented more. I remember taking and loving computer apps in middle school, and basically taking the same course in high school. I know that intelligence is not determined merely by a student's ability to read and write, but I feel so bad for all of those visual learners out there with their "old school" teachers. In grad school I learned that 70% of females are auditory learners and 70% of males are visual. I've seen other teachers "verbally assault" kids by not giving them enough wait time and speaking way too fast and loud. So if you have ever had a child come home really frustrated and tell you "I don't understand my teacher!" while you have no problem understanding her at all, this could be why. I find myself just feeling confused over the lack of common sense that exists in some schools. What we need to teach people how to do is be kind to each other.

    April 21, 2012 at 5:44 pm |
  2. MrJay1

    If people homeschool. They shouldn't have to pay taxes for schools. If enough do it. The DOE would collapse onto it's bloated self. Articles such as this twaddle would become wholely irrelevant.

    April 21, 2012 at 9:41 am |
  3. pk

    Teacher salaries need to increase. Then education would attract talented men and women who would find a reason to stay past the 5-year mark. Teacher salaries also need to be tied to performance. This would provide motivation. Most teachers are women who can stay in teaching because their husband works and makes more than they do. At least that describes 90% of female teachers I know. Fix these two areas and you will see a difference. Teachers are horribly underpaid with little incentive to improve.

    April 19, 2012 at 11:20 pm |
  4. FLeducator

    Tenure is a scapegoat so ignorant sheep who make misguided comments have a bandwagon on which to jump when they hear the word accountability. Teachers with tenure get fired just like the ones without it through due process. This means that when the teacher of your academically underachieving child provides all the interventions and jumps through all the RtI hoops to help him after he has failed two grades before he gets to 4th grade and still can't get testing for accommodations, then finally puts her foot down, calls out the system for failing this child, and demands MORE for YOUR child, she won't get fired for rocking the boat or stepping on toes. Having graduated high school does not qualify you to know the ins and outs of the education system any more than buying over the counter medication to relieve headaches, upset stomachs, and sore throats qualifies you to be a doctor. I drive a car, inflate the tires and change the fluids and filters, but I'm not a mechanic. Instead of beating down, degrading, and disrespecting MY profession, get involved and find out how you can improve your child's academic success by just being supportive and following the teachers' professional advice and suggestions. Learning is not limited to 7.5 hours a day, 5 days a week in a classroom.

    April 19, 2012 at 9:03 pm |
  5. Angela

    I find it very disturbing for those who generalize teachers from ones own experience or feel the need to express that "teachers don't do there jobs." I also think it is outrageous to think tenured is absurd for elementary level. If you want to calculate a teacher spends anywhere from 1000-5000 dollars of their own money back into the classroom for your children. "Teachers can write off the money they spend with taxes." Yes that argument is true, but did you know that we are only limited to a certain amount? This amount is no where near 1000. How does a teacher spend that much on a classroom? In order for your child to learn you need lots of visual reminders, school supplies, extra materials, and in case of emergency situations. Children forget easily and lose things or breaks things easily. Did you really think your school supplies last all year long? Most of the time your child goes through the supplies with in two months. For the less affluent neighborhoods the teachers invest their own money into the classroom. We supply our own classroom libraries, books that your children sometimes destroy and we need to buy new ones. Sometimes your child has a stomach ache because they did not eat breakfast and can not learn, we provide the snacks. Sometimes your child forgets lunch money, we provide the lunch money. Many of us stay 10 – 12 hours at school preparing, grading and evaluating our students. Do you know what the best part of this argument is? MOST teachers do not file them in their taxes.

    To argue school did not do anything for me and that I learned everything from my parents or books that is absurd. Someone taught you how to read from left to right, someone extended your motor skills. If you did not learn from a teacher that someone who taught you did. Guess what? Those books that you read are written by someone who went to elementary school where they learned the basics to read and write.

    From the time you are three to the time you graduate most of the time awake you spend is in a school. To say you did not learn is a complete lie. Teachers teach you how to read, how to problem solve in your life, how to behave in certain settings( for some) and much more.

    April 17, 2012 at 6:41 pm |
  6. Leila

    "......hybrid teachers might also serve as instructional coaches, mentors, curriculum designers, family outreach coordinators, or policy researchers."

    My AP students are conducting a research project/persuasive essay addressing the very questions surrounding teachers' roles and expectations and potential in education, especially with regard to CURRICULUM DESIGNERS. Students (good ones) have a fresh perspective on what they thing education needs in order to bring up at-risk students. Certainly, students in America recognize that their teachers are spending the bulk of the school year teaching to the state tests and LESS time teaching political current events, social issues, literature, history and its relevance to today's 21st century dynamics and a range of other meaningful concepts that have been squeezed out of our regular curricula. If America wants to see more engaged, intellectual students then teachers need to be leaders and need to be given back the freedom to teach their craft.

    April 17, 2012 at 1:39 pm |
  7. Name*tbyrd

    Yea its a nice idea but after a day of having to deal with unruly kids and administrators who care nothing but to save their own jobs there is just nothing left to gi this. Only would work in high income private schools where everyone was on the same page with what it takes to educate children

    April 17, 2012 at 11:09 am |
  8. Ice

    I find these education comments to be so interesting. Perhaps it's because I have an extensive background in sociology and anthropology or.... perhaps it's a morbid curiosity watching people troll each other on CNN here. Bottom line folks, unless everyone in the country is going to home school you need teachers – and guess what... every job in the world has people who are dedicated, hard working, and interested in what they do. By the same token, every job in the world has people who are lazy, ignorant, and are there to game the system to get as much as they can for nothing. Teaching is no different. I don't see this same sort or interest in the Administration staff, lunch staff, Paraprofessional staff, school board, custodial staff, or any other support staff.

    April 17, 2012 at 10:01 am |
  9. Rebekah Owens

    I am a teacher leader- I teach full time HS in one school, part time online for another, take graduate classes, am a county lead teacher, department chair, sponsor 4 clubs, work on state curriculum and *love* what I do. Do I make enough money? No- thus the second teaching job. There is no monetarily or time compensation for the county and state leadership- I even pay for my own expenses when going to meetings across the state- I do this because I believe that I am making a difference. At the same time it is frustrating to keep hitting the ceiling- I have 15 years experience, National Board certification, two Master's degrees....and still the same pay scale and time frame. The only way to continue to move up the financial ladder is to earn my doctorate (working on it)....and the point of all this is that I want to lead while staying *in* the classroom. Truthfully, I'd be lousy at administration- that is not my talent. A program like this one would be an excellent way to help me be all that I can be, do all that I can, without taking me away from my class but enabling success through time and resources. Excellent post, Thank-you!

    April 17, 2012 at 4:53 am |
    • WWRRD

      You can thank your union for that. The best teachers get the shaft because of collective bargaining. Because you get less allows the state to retain other average or sub-par teachers that are covered by the union.

      April 17, 2012 at 7:47 am |
    • Norrislaker

      It's very nice to hear from a teacher for whom education is a calling. I am not in the education field (although I do teach business protocols to adults) because I lack some of the basic requirements (patience), but I do believe wholeheartedly that teachers like you and Mr. Zeichner are so very necessary for our children to thrive. I struggle every day the with the teachers view their profession as 'a job'. It's refreshing to hear about your ongoing development of yourself, because that can only influence your students to develop themselves as well. Thank you. I am happy to know there are people like you in this world. Now, if only I could get my children into your classes! ;-)

      April 17, 2012 at 9:03 am |
      • Norrislaker

        Rebekah Owens, my comment was in response to your comment. I tried to reply under your comment but my response was not posted there. I hope you read my message.

        April 17, 2012 at 9:22 am |
  10. Jim

    "In my world teachers get paid more than baseball players", - 'The Light', Jefferson Starship

    April 17, 2012 at 2:19 am |
  11. the truther

    Want to be a good teacher? become atheist. Religious nutjobs only destroy society and education

    April 17, 2012 at 1:50 am |
  12. Renee / @TeachMoore

    Thank you Noah, for this timely and thoughtful post on a subject close to my heart. One of the high points of my 21-year teaching career was my period as Lead Teacher at a small, rural high school. I taught English half the day, but the other half, I helped provide and coordinate professional development for teachers. Sometimes, I was working with individual teachers on issues they had identified (sometimes based on their own reflection, sometimes at the direction of the administration), such as lesson planning, classroom management, and most often integrating technology into their teaching. Other times, I'd meet with small groups of teachers for intensive discussions around examples of actual student classroom work, curriculum development, teaching techniques or strategies, parental involvement, and other topics.

    This is not just a matter, as J. Landrum suggests of teachers being willing to sponsor a club or extracurricular activity with students; that still happens quite regularly. It is about teachers being allowed and even encouraged to share their hard-won classroom expertise in the larger matters of running an effective school.

    April 16, 2012 at 3:03 pm |
    • nzeichner

      Thanks for your comment, Renee. You are absolutely right. Many if not most teachers can be found advising clubs and serving on committees in their schools. But teachers leading their schools while still teaching kids is unfortunately less common.

      April 16, 2012 at 6:11 pm |
    • Bob

      95 percent of the teachers I had were idiots.
      I learned most of what I know from from parents and books.
      Yes, a few (maybe five) of my teachers were great, but most were not.

      I retired at the age of 46 with enough money to last two lifetimes, so I am not a tard.

      April 17, 2012 at 12:08 am |
      • Cyndi

        "...so I am not a tard." And with that one phrase, Bob, you just negated everything you said prior to that. Perhaps you could find different terminology. Your current choice is impeding, inhibiting, and hindering your intelligent remark.

        April 17, 2012 at 8:07 am |
      • Steve-Illinois

        Love how a respondont concentrates on one word and ignores the point of the post!
        That's one of the problems with "educators."

        April 18, 2012 at 4:54 pm |
  13. James Landrum

    Both my parents were teachers in the times before teacher's unions and charter schools. My father coached sports teams (several) in addition to his full-time teaching load, and my mother ran two clubs in addition to hers. And in my own high school education, every student was required to participate in at least one sport and at least one club during our years there. I guess my point is that being a "teacher" can and should be much more than running a classroom. But in these days, when even elementary school teachers can be tenured (absurd), it must be tougher to find those willing to put in the extra time and effort to actively engage with their students outside of the classroom. Your closing question, "What are we waiting for?" is a good one. What ARE you waiting for?

    April 16, 2012 at 12:23 pm |
    • First grade rocks

      What is the absurdity of elementarye teacher tenure?

      April 16, 2012 at 4:24 pm |
    • analogkid

      @james landrum,

      I do agree with your general premise that an engaged student body and teaching corps is essential to the success of any education system. However, the 10 physical science teachers in our school alone account for club mentors for Science Olympiad, Science Fair, In the Know, Spirit club, and Robotics Club as well as three head coaches in sports and an assistant coach. Add in the staff's willingness to watch wrestling matches, school plays, art exhibitions, spring concerts, etc., and a very different picture emerges from the one that you paint.

      April 16, 2012 at 8:05 pm |
    • India Berlin

      Do you work overtime without pay? Have you ever taught? Do you regularly give up your time to neglect your own family, interests, and responsibilities so that you can parent other people's kids? I didn't think so.

      April 16, 2012 at 10:06 pm |
    • Cyndi

      I'd like to know why it is absurd to be tenured in an elementary school. Is it because we're not college professors? Is it because we teach the fundamentals, the building blocks for the reminder of a child's education? Do you see us as merely babysitters? Are we not intelligent enough? Educated enough? Do we not work as hard as our peers? Maybe you don't think we "put in the extra time and effort to actively engage with their students outside of the classroom." Hm. Just wondering.

      April 17, 2012 at 8:02 am |
      • Steve-Illinois

        You shouldn't be tenured in elementary or high school. Tenure is the main reason so many teachers forget they came to school to teach! Teachers, and their unions, do nothing to weed out the poor teachers, and there is plenty of them!
        Accountability is the only way to make the system effective.

        April 18, 2012 at 4:58 pm |