When teachers lead, students – and schools – succeed | GUEST OP

By Nasue Nishida and Douglas Gonzales

For the Auburn Reporter

For years, educators have touted the positive impacts of a strong classroom teacher on student achievement.

Now, researchers from the University of Washington have found that groups of “teacher leaders”— teachers who can serve as instructional leaders with students and with other educators — could also pay big dividends for schools and districts.

That’s the finding of a new study of the Auburn Teacher Leadership Academy or ATLA, hosted for the past six years by the Auburn School District in partnership with the Center for Strengthening the Teaching Profession (CSTP).

Since 2010, more than 400 Auburn elementary, middle and high school teachers have participated in ATLA’s specialized training, focused on developing an array of leadership skills ranging from working with other teacher-colleagues to facilitating collaborative work with their peers, principals and district administrators. Each ATLA group begins with a two-day summer academy to develop teacher leadership skills and a deep focus on CSTP Teacher Leadership Framework. Then throughout the year, teachers meet for additional training and support.

Through a series of in-depth interviews, focus groups and surveys, University of Washington researchers found strong support among teachers and principals for ATLA’s training and its effects on instruction and professional collaboration. Most telling: The vast majority of teachers (86 percent) and administrators (92 percent) indicated that ATLA helped improve the overall quality of instruction.

This matters because our schools are being asked to do more, in different ways. Balancing time for collaboration with classroom instruction remains an ongoing challenge. The notion that ATLA supported collaboration with other teachers across the district was one of the items teachers most strongly agreed with in the study. Most principals also agreed that ATLA had broadened collegial networks for teachers.

“In ATLA … you are working with a team of teachers from across the district as well. … You’re hearing other opinions (other than) just your math team at your school,” said one middle school teacher.

The perceived quality of ATLA training was also noteworthy. Ninety-four percent of ATLA teachers surveyed agreed strongly or somewhat that ATLA training recognized and built on individual teachers’ knowledge and experience; 90 percent agreed it helped them communicate more effectively with colleagues. Still another 89 percent felt it was directly applicable to their work as teachers. “Every little thing seemed to have value and I could apply it,” said one high school teacher. “I could see a way instantly of how I could either use it with my kids or use it with my colleagues.”

The real question, of course, is what is the impact on student achievement? While the study did not explicitly examine that correlation, 80 percent of teachers and 92 percent of administrators said ATLA positively impacted the achievement of students in their classes.

While most of the research yielded positive findings, it also highlighted opportunities for improvement. Teacher and principal concerns largely focused on time away from classrooms during the school year and the shortage of teacher substitutes for ATLA teachers. The majority of ATLA teachers felt supported and were encouraged to pursue other leadership opportunities, but believed more could be done to help principals utilize their teacher leadership skills.

Auburn is evolving ATLA to address these concerns, and over the last six years, continues to change and adapt it to meet the needs of its district.

Our hope is that ATLA can serve as a model for other districts, so that all students in Washington can benefit from teacher leaders and the knowledge they bring to our schools.

Nasue Nishida is the executive director for the Center for Strengthening the Teaching Profession. Douglas Gonzales is the assistant director of instructional technology for the Auburn School District.