Opinion: Invest in teacher leadership to fix Michigan educator shortage

Randy Speck

Recently, I had the opportunity to hear the Detroit Youth Choir and was reminded how it captivated the nation and made Michigan proud by advancing through the America’s Got Talent competition and finishing in the finals. As I listened, I thought of the careers these young people will have and wondered how many would want to become teachers. But then I wondered, what will the teaching profession look like in 20 years? Or 10 years? Or five?

For too long, educators have had very few opportunities for career advancement. The decades-long practice has been to take the best teachers out of the classroom and turn them into school principals. The theory goes that if they were good teachers, they'll be equally good administrators. While that may be the case, many teachers looking for leadership opportunities are not interested in becoming administrators.

4th grade teacher Roberta Lusk, left, helps Toyoko Collins,10, with her writers workshop assignment.

Teachers — especially young teachers — want opportunities to grow and develop into leaders. According to one survey, half of all teachers are interested in teaching in the classroom part-time while taking on additional roles or responsibilities in their school or district. At the same time, schools need teachers to take on leadership roles to support instructional improvement. The combination of higher academic standards and a long overdue commitment to ensuring all students reach these standards places higher demands on classroom teaching. Who better to help their peers to improve classroom instruction than highly skilled teachers trained and supported to lead ongoing, collaborative and school-based professional learning?

Providing skilled teachers the opportunity to serve in formal teacher leader roles while offering additional compensation for providing high levels of support to classroom teachers is a powerful investment. As a former superintendent, I know that when instruction is stronger, student achievement grows. And the opportunity for peer-to-peer instruction creates within a school a new sense of ownership. Creating roles and responsibilities for teacher leaders also allows teachers a greater voice to work with administrators in designing strategies for student learning and school improvement.

Leaders in Michigan are increasingly focused on improving our K-12 system, and diverse voices from across our state are calling for significant new investments in education funding. This is a positive and urgently needed change. To make the most effective use of new funding, district and school leaders need effective strategies to drive equitable change for all students. Teacher leadership offers the potential to bridge the gap between our goals for educational improvement and the very real challenges teachers face every day in their classrooms.  

There are reasons to be optimistic regarding K-12 education in Michigan. Currently, there’s a cacophonous chorus emphasizing the need for strategic education funding. There will only be harmony, however, when we realize that teachers are the greatest in-school factor impacting student success. When we invest in the careers of our teachers and then empower and support them in leading learning, we invest in the success of all our students. In the end, Michigan students will win.

Randy Speck is a former local superintendent in Michigan and is an executive-in-residence with the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching.