This month marked the first National Summit on Teacher Leadership, a joint effort of the AFT, the Council of Chief State School Officers, the National Education Association and the U.S. Department of Education. The organizations brought together delegations from 19 states—each made up of state, union and teacher leaders, to discuss the policies and supports needed to expand genuine teacher leadership in America's public schools.
The Feb. 6 event in Washington, D.C., was initiated as a result of a commitment made by the four national education organizations that served as the official U.S. delegation to the International Summit on the Teaching Profession last March in Canada. Acting Secretary of Education John King kicked off a discussion about the importance of teacher leadership in elevating the teaching profession and contributing to broader education policy development. CCSSO Executive Director Chris Minnich highlighted the policies and supports necessary at the state level to promote the transition to effective teacher leadership in schools.
AFT President Randi Weingarten and NEA President Lily Eskelsen García, drawing on their experiences as teacher leaders in and out of the classroom, discussed the need to propel the growth of teacher leadership by creating an infrastructure for authentic teacher voice to be heard and revered.
AFT teacher leaders came from Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Mississippi, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Texas and Utah as well as from AFT locals overseas. They moderated and participated in working group discussions—diving deep into such questions as what systemic changes are required to create a culture of authentic teacher leadership. The frank comments and exchange of information around the tables bodes well for the work that will continue in the months ahead, reports Kiragu Beauttah (pictured with Randi Weingarten), a Baltimore middle school science and special education teacher who served as a session moderator and participates in the AFT Teacher Leaders Program through the Baltimore Teachers Union.
"It could have turned into pontification, but you could see people listening intently and taking notes on what was going on in other states," says Beauttah. "There was a lot of discussion about what kind of commitments are needed, financial and structural, to make teacher leadership a reality in schools."
That work is well underway at the AFT, Weingarten told one audience, and she pointed to the AFT Teacher Leaders Program as a prime example. The program brings together a select group of teachers throughout the school year to learn how to take active leadership roles in their schools, unions and communities. It promotes the goals of the local unions and provides, among other things, a strong tie to the community, an informed teacher voice, and a vehicle for positive messaging about public schools and unions. Roughly 400 educators have participated over the four years the AFT Teacher Leaders Program has been running, and 14 AFT affiliates are participating in 2015-16.
"My concept of unionism is that we have to create a way to develop infrastructure that gives you power," Weingarten said. "How do we create the infrastructure and capacity so that your authentic voice can not just be spoken, can not just be listened to but revered and heard?"
That brand of unionism bodes well for schools and children, Beauttah says. "In the end, strong unions are about what's best for kids, and I think that really came through at this meeting."