Driving policy change from the classroom

March 15, 2017

For far too long, teachers have been forced to choose between doing the job they love and leaving the classroom to pursue a leadership role with greater recognition and a broader impact.

No longer.

A rising generation of teachers is reversing that trend by driving change from the classroom up. Fortunately, forward-looking district and state Chiefs are recognizing teacher leadership as a key strategy for empowering great educators and improving schools. Whether they are thriving in new roles and responsibilities or developing state plans to address key equity issues, teacher leaders are forging a new path for their profession from the classroom.

The opportunity to advance teacher leadership is rooted in the fact that great teachers love the work that they do, but feel stifled by their workloads and limited opportunities for collaboration and broader impact. In one survey of highly effective teachers, 91 percent were satisfied or very satisfied with teaching as a career, but many reported burnout, isolation, and little compensation as the top reasons they might leave the profession. The notion that students are missing out on learning from the most talented educators because of limited opportunities to elevate and maximize their impact is unacceptable.

This topic has always been personal for me. Growing up, I wasn’t the happy student whizzing by with A’s. Not by a long shot. I was a student with disabilities that impacted my learning. I was that square peg, and our system was the round hole. School was a really tough place for me. I was the kid who got suspended a lot, kicked out of a school, and could have ended up in a very different place than helping to lead a national education nonprofit.

I became a special education teacher in New York City so that I could work more intensively to help students like me through education. As a teacher, I was deeply frustrated by the policies and structures that impacted my students. It felt as though we worked within systems with a vast disconnect between the reality of student needs and the solutions available to teachers to help them.

Today, more and more teachers, on the front lines connecting with students, get to have a say in policy. To truly advocate. It is these efforts that will push us to modernize and elevate the teaching profession in a way that is shaped by the vision of teachers. And I’m thrilled that in my daily work, I see visionary leaders recognizing the need to support those efforts. At Chiefs for Change, we want to accelerate that.

To explore what it takes to empower successful teacher leaders, our team at Chiefs for Change launched a new working group with our members. This spring, we will publish some of the initial learning from this workgroup in briefs that outline a framework for teachers to build on their knowledge and desire to be advocates for students across different stages of the policy spectrum from development to implementation. Moving forward, we will publish regular updates about how our Chiefs are supporting teacher leaders in their unique contexts.

In New Mexico, Education Secretary and Chiefs for Change member Hanna Skandera is leading the way. Through a teacher advisory committee, teacher-in-residence program, and a teacher policy fellowship, New Mexico is expanding the number of ways teachers can contribute beyond their immediate responsibilities with students. These types of opportunities improve teacher retention, and just as importantly, improve the policies that shape students’ trajectories over time.

Research has shown that Louisiana’s approach, led by State Superintendent and Chiefs for Change member John White, which includes teacher leaders, is improving instruction. Louisiana’s Teacher Leader group was born out of three core beliefs: (1) Those closest to students are best positioned to make instructional decisions; (2) The state has a role in providing resources and training directly to teachers; and (3) Teacher leaders are a powerful voice in training fellow teachers. The state has two networks of teacher leaders — a core group selected at the state level, and a larger statewide network selected by districts and schools. The core group of over 100 Teacher Leader Advisors serves as an extension of the state education agency to assist with testing and create tools and resources for teachers across the state. They also help lead statewide and regional trainings and provide support for a larger group of over 5,000 teacher leaders, about three educators per school. These teachers receive high-quality professional development, turn-key it to other teachers, and advocate for more high-quality professional development in their schools.

Empowering teacher leaders can also support the turnaround of struggling schools. At School 107 in Indianapolis, the principal is piloting an “opportunity culture program” that offers veteran teachers an additional $18,000 to support other classrooms. Under the model, a small number of experienced teachers support teachers and students in struggling classrooms by helping plan lessons and working with students directly. Although the work is still in its early phases, last year School 107 jumped from a D to a B in the state’s accountability system. School 107 is one of six Indianapolis schools piloting the program. Next year, it will expand to 10 more schools in the district, which is led by Superintendent Lewis Ferebee, a Chiefs for Change member.

Another important aspect of supporting teacher leaders is acknowledging areas where teacher voice has not always been a part of the process. This year, the organizers of New Mexico’s newly launched Teacher Leader Network began their summit by recognizing past mistakes that led some teachers to feel underappreciated and undervalued. Their transparency helped restore trust with Dawn Bilbrey, a 16-year teaching veteran who was accustomed to professional learning days that made her feel “teacher-tired.” This year’s conference, on the other hand, helped “grow and build a mutual trust and respect between New Mexico teachers” and the state department of education, to borrow Bilbrey’s own words.

States and districts can also foster teacher leadership using federal funding under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). Louisiana and San Antonio Independent School District were awarded Teacher Incentive Fund (TIF) grants, now referred to as the Teacher and School Leader (TSL) grants under ESSA. Whether through professional development or new types of roles and responsibilities for the most effective educators, one of the goals of these efforts has to be filtering the best ideas from the classroom into local and state policy debates. The questions that states are wrestling with about how to design accountability systems and create plans for school transformation are too important to move forward without the input of authentic educator experiences. States and districts can also utilize Teach to Lead, a joint initiative of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, ASCD, and the U.S. Department of Education, to expand opportunities for teacher leadership.

The idea that teaching and leading cannot coexist is simply outdated. As Denver Superintendent and Chiefs for Change member Tom Boasberg puts it, “You don’t tell architects, ‘If you want to lead a team of architects, you can’t design houses anymore.’ But that’s what the system told teachers.” That is not just rhetoric. Denver has made expanding teacher leadership one of its top priorities for this school year, and has established a Teacher Leadership Collaboration model in the majority of its public schools. The model, which is part of the district’s strategic plan, allows the best teachers to coach and grow other teachers in their schools while remaining classroom teachers themselves.

If we want a public education system that truly works for all students — students like I was, students like the ones I taught in New York, students with diverse needs and experiences from around the country — then we need at least as many solutions coming from the classroom as from the central office. Delivering on the change our students deserve depends on empowering more teachers to lead from the front of the class.

— Julia Rafal-Baer, Ph.D. | COO, Chiefs for Change

As Chief Operating Officer of Chiefs for Change, Julia Rafal-Baer, Ph.D., develops our organizational capacity for sustained growth, strengthens our decision-making processes and goal-setting, and drives the strategic direction of the organization. Prior to joining Chiefs for Change, Julia was Assistant Commissioner of the New York State Education Department where she was responsible for the strategy, management, and implementation of teacher and leader initiatives under the state’s Race to the Top grant, Teacher Incentive Fund grant, and other state-wide initiatives, managing more than $150 million in federal funds. Julia directed, coordinated, and recommended policies and programs designed to raise the achievement of students and improve the quality and diversity of the education workforce. Previously, Julia served as Manager at New Profit, Inc., where she helped lead the design and implementation of the organization’s city-level initiatives. She began her career as a special education teacher in the Bronx. Julia holds a Ph.D. in Comparative Education Policy and a Master’s in Philosophy in Education Research from the University of Cambridge where she was a Marshall Scholar, a dual Master’s from CUNY: Lehman College in Special Education and Childhood Education, and a Bachelor’s in Psychology from The George Washington University.