The AFT Teacher Leaders Program started six years ago with five locals and 60 activists, all keen on bringing the voice and perspective of frontline educators to vital school decisions. Today, that startup number seems small—dwarfed by the number of teacher leaders and program facilitators who packed a Friday TEACH conference breakfast to hear updates on the program, along with expressions of thanks and continued commitment from AFT President Randi Weingarten.
The breakfast crowd, in fact, was only a fraction of the full Teacher Leaders contingent. In 2017, the program had soared to 800 members, and next year will grow to 24 locals. Joined by officers of participating affiliates, the group shared quick updates on work underway in Baltimore; Boston; Cincinnati; Corpus Christi, Texas; Jefferson Parish, La.; Miami; New York City; North Syracuse, N.Y.; Pittsburgh; Toledo, Ohio; Volusia, Fla.; and Washington, D.C. These efforts address a range of public school priorities—from strengthening district policies to retain teachers and promoting an inclusive environment for English language learners and students of color to examining the positive effects of community schools on student attendance rates.
The common thread in each story was that the work was teacher conceived and teacher driven. Through the program, "you're able to step out of yourself" and do work on a larger scale that makes school "happier for children," said Tina Whitaker of Miami, a program facilitator (pictured below).
Teacher Leaders is built on a simple, powerful premise: Classroom teachers can become formal, recognized leaders within their schools and communities while still maintaining their in-the-classroom status. It brings together a select group of teachers and supports and, through participants' work on action-research projects, empowers them to assume active leadership roles in their schools, unions and communities.
"You're telling the story about who teachers are and what they want to do," Weingarten told the crowd. The program takes aim at the notion that teachers "are to be seen and not heard" in major school decisions, she said. Continue to "seize that spark, and we will keep on funding and expanding it."