Schools of Thought

My View: Calling all 'teacher leaders'

By 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.