Where Are They Going?

We are seeing a growing trend of mid-career teachers leaving the profession. According to the National Education Association, approximately 17 percent of teachers are leaving every year. While that number is substantially higher in the first five years, the dramatic increase in those leaving the profession with eight to 12 years of experience should be sounding a siren!

While I am sure we can all debate the many reasons teachers offer for leaving the profession including increased emphasis on standardized test scores, the shifting focus of the annual professional performance review and the lack of funding for education at the state and national level, there is a growing stream of awareness that the core of the frustration is the lack of shared decision-making roles and opportunities for teachers in the majority of our schools today. The concept of positional authority remains a consistent theme in education. In order to move up in education and have formal authority over changes in education, one must move out of the classroom. Yet, the most impactful changes for students happen in the classroom. This is a true irony.

How Can We Stop or at Least Slow the Exodus?

As a result, teacher leadership is no longer optional. Teachers in formalized teacher leadership roles are able to articulate the impact of their work on their students and colleagues. They are risk takers and still today for the most part are forging a new path for our profession. While the desire to lead is not limited to mid-career teachers, the marriage of the skills and the craft of teaching are often well balanced for most teachers by the time they have been in the profession for eight to 12 years. Many mid-career teachers crave the opportunity to expand and extend their knowledge and practices beyond their own classroom but are still fully committed to engaging closely with student learning by staying either within the teacher classroom role or engaging directly with other teachers daily on improving pedagogical practices.

Failing to engage in the development of teacher leaders within our school systems can create high turnover rates and/or make for frustrated teachers who want to do more, share more, be more, but aren’t allowed. Teaching is the only profession that I can think of that “forces” you out of your core practice in order to provide an enhanced sphere of influence. While there is certainly a need for some of our best teachers to become administrators, the core of our business still is learning in classrooms.

Over my 30 years in public education I continue to be amazed at how the role of teacher leaders remains an under-utilized and under-supported role. Yes, there are department leaders/chairs, mentors and teachers on special assignment that are utilized within schools to impact certain areas of instruction, but in general, they have a limited role and limited impact. This is NOT the teacher leaders fault. There are also many teachers who lead more informally in the schools as well. These informal teacher leaders have some of the greatest impact on shaping and changing instruction. These teacher leaders drive instructional changes by facilitating professional learning community conversations that focus on common planning and common instructional delivery. They visit others’ classrooms, sometimes almost secretively, and provide a shared feedback loop that truly impacts instruction. These teacher leaders are often the “go to” teachers in a building for the principal. They are the sounding board for the conceptual framework of instructional improvements in a building. The principal “runs ideas by them” to ensure it makes instructional sense and will resonate in the building. They are often the early adopters of changes and get others to join with them.

What Can YOU Do?

Yet, the idea of truly training teacher leaders and providing them a network of support remains almost non-existent in schools across the country. This has to change. We must empower our teacher leaders, provide them with support, and encourage them to help us move instructional change within schools. We have all types of professional membership based groups for content areas, interests, administrators but it’s almost impossible to find a professional membership organization for teacher leaders.

It doesn’t have to be this way. As teachers and leaders, we must demand a more formalized approach to developing and supporting teacher leaders. We need to engage in offering our potential teacher leaders professional development opportunities that allow them to grow, lead, innovate, impact and create the schools we want for our students.

Resources on Teacher Leadership

They are the true believers in this can “get fixed” and “we can get it done.” There are some supports out there such as The Center for Strengthening the Teaching Profession which offers a teacher leadership skills framework including vignettes which are a great guide to getting started. Yet, it seems that for the most part, teacher leadership development is an isolated task to be learned on the job.

The Teacher Leadership Competencies (Center for Teaching Quality) offer a great guide for defining and developing teacher leaders. First and foremost, teacher leaders must be engaged in reflective practice, understand the principals of teacher effectiveness, have developed communication skills, are life-long learners, understand group and system theories and be willing to share without imposing!

ASCD is also engaged in work around developing and nurturing teacher leaders through a grant from the U.S. Department of Education. Yet, the most recent summit they hosted could only accommodate 25 teams from across the country.

The time is now. The development of a national teacher leader network has never been needed more. Let’s get the conversation going. Let’s join together and create a national teacher leader network!

Dr. Jones-Carey has been a public school educator for more than 30 years. She has held the titles of teacher, Coordinator of Technology, Director of Technology and Curriculum Integration, Principal, Assistant Superintendent, Associate Superintendent, and Chief Academic Officer. Dr. Jones-Carey is currently the Senior Vice-President for Professional Growth at PLS 3rd Learning, an adjunct professor in the Education Leadership program at St. Bonaventure University and the President of Learning Forward NY. She is actively involved in promoting the idea of personalized learning for teachers and developing teacher leaders.

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