Teacher Prep

Teacher Leadership Works. Just Look at New Mexico.

Ask any parent what’s most important to her about her child’s school. Aside from fundamentals like safety, she’ll tell you: What matters most is the quality of her child’s teacher. Then, ask great teachers—and teachers with the potential to be great—what makes teaching an attractive profession. One of the most common answers: a chance to lead, in their profession and in policy, without giving up the thing they love—teaching. Once upon a time, it was a choice. You could teach in a classroom pretty much all the time, or you could leave daily teaching to be a principal or administrator. Today, blessedly, that oversimplified choice is rapidly changing. The past seven years in particular have seen a blossoming of different career paths for those who want to teach and lead. It’s a shift driven, appropriately, by the most effective teachers, and strongly supported by the nation’s boldest-thinking state and district chiefs, with whom I work at Chiefs for Change. Our members are enthusiastic partners in the drive for teacher leadership because they see it as essential to serving their students well—in part by ensuring teaching remains a profession that will draw and keep the strongest candidates. To build schools that better serve students, they know we need to empower teachers so they have time and space to exercise greater creativity, innovation and inquiry in their own classrooms. This week, we’ve released a guide that should be helpful to any school system seeking to bolster teacher leadership. It’s based on a deep look into the work of the state of New Mexico, which followed a thoughtful process that began with hiring a teacher liaison at the state, and ended up creating a teacher policy fellowship and an annual teacher summit—and in the process built a cohort of statewide teacher leaders. Our new report lays out the five stages New Mexico followed, in ways that aim to be useful to any school system.

I've Seen It With My Own Eyes

It’s a process that I know matters, because I’ve witnessed it up close. As a teacher, the words “teacher leadership” created the trajectory for my life, signaling a chance to bridge the unknown and uncomfortable world between my classroom and the oblivion that came between there and my district office. As a former New York City teacher who became assistant commissioner in New York State, the words meant a chance to pour my energy into efforts to modernize and elevate the teaching profession in one of the largest states in the country so that millions of students would be able to come to school knowing there was someone who truly saw them and was fighting on their behalf. What I see now in New Mexico reflects a long overdue understanding of the central importance of supporting teacher leadership—and it is nothing short of exhilarating. The work there did not happen overnight, and it certainly will not expand overnight, but it was reliably doable, and it is through the networks we are creating across our members at Chiefs for Change that we will see transformational change happen in a multiplier effect for teacher leaders across the country. It is when we focus our efforts on empowering the most effective educators that we will finally see what is possible—when those closest to kids are the ones with a say in policy. Likewise, the changes of the past several years reflect progress I was delighted to support in New York, where the Board of Regents unanimously approved our recommendations for career ladders that would ensure all educators would have pathways that let the most outstanding take on new responsibilities and build new schools without having to give up teaching. I was so proud of the work we did to bring educators together—to enable these teacher leaders to bring bold ideas to fruition and to redefine the conversation around the power of teacher leadership and advocacy. Now, as chief operating officer of Chiefs for Change, I see the impact that the last seven years of efforts around modernizing and elevating the teaching profession has had around the country—from Louisiana, where teacher leaders are working relentlessly in every school across the state on efforts to raise the rigor of curriculum and assessment; to Tennessee, where teacher leader networks have helped make it the fastest improving state on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, often called “the nation’s report card.”

Change Is There For The Taking

Teacher leadership efforts are reliably doable, and they are the best chance we have to help teachers rapidly learn from the most exceptional mentors—their peers. But as every teacher knows, it’ll take more than good words and good intentions to modernize and elevate the teaching profession. It will take well thought-out plans. The five stages from New Mexico can help show the way.
Julia Rafal-Baer is the chief operating officer of Chiefs for Change, a bipartisan network of state and district education chiefs. A former assistant commissioner at the New York State Education Department, Rafal-Baer earned a Ph.D. in education policy ...

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