Fostering Leadership Through Teacher Networks

Sarah Burns

In the landmark book The Power of Teacher Networks, Ellen Meyers describes teacher networks as a force that breaks teachers out of isolation, improves their practice, advocates for students and schools, and keeps our best teachers teaching. Networks bring teachers together in powerful ways, working toward the ultimate goal of improving students’ learning experience.

In my research and my experience, I have identified four attributes of strong teacher networks that illustrate their importance. First, teacher networks are a forum for teachers to share resources and to support each other, avoiding the isolation of solo teaching that can lead to weary teachers and stagnant teaching. Second, teacher networks provide opportunities for ongoing professional development. Third, teacher networks foster teacher leaders. Networks strive to develop teachers’ voices so they can affect change on local and global levels. Finally, under ideal circumstances where administrators and colleagues are receptive, teacher networks have a ripple effect, where an individual member’s growth can positively impact her whole school. The result is a group that is greater than the sum of its parts.

One such teacher network is the DeLeT Alumni Network (DAN). DeLeT is a masters-level Jewish day school teacher preparation program, generously funded by the Jim Joseph Foundation, with sites at Brandeis University in Massachusetts and Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles. While DeLeT gives its participants strong initial preparation, its graduates face challenges that are common throughout the field. Some DeLeT alumni have struggled with lack of support and coaching during their first few years in the classroom. Others have sought a safe place to work on problems of teaching in their classrooms and schools, but didn’t know where to find like-minded colleagues. Still others have taken on a range of informal and formal leadership positions in their schools, but there was no structure in place to critically examine the skills needed to be a teacher leader or to share examples of teacher leadership in action.

At the first DeLeT alumni conference in 2009, alumni agreed on the need to organize to support each other, share successes, and develop leadership skills. With generous support from the Laura and Gary Lauder Foundation, the DeLeT Alumni Network was born. DAN now offers a variety of professional learning events, resources for teaching and teacher leadership, and social networking for DeLeT alumni across North America and beyond.

Teacher networks build community. Networks connect people and encourage collaboration, which helps reduce common feelings of being isolated and overwhelmed. Participation in a network can be as simple as reading an article on a Facebook page or as notable as presenting at a national conference. The key is for teachers to participate. Sometimes, a faculty meeting or team meeting is dominated by items of immediate concern, like schedules and logistics. It can be refreshing to have a community of colleagues who are outside of those day-to-day matters and who make space for important conversations about teaching and learning. By connecting with other teachers and sharing their work and experiences, teachers stay grounded in their commitment to student learning.

Teacher networks are meaningful for teachers. DAN believes it’s important to provide multiple entry points to our network, making resources and events accessible and inclusive, without sacrificing substance. This way, members of the network can find their involvement worthwhile at all stages of their career. Sharon Feiman-Nemser, DeLeT’s founder at Brandeis, conceptualized a continuum of teacher learning across three career stages: initial preparation, new teacher induction and continuing professional development. Networks can guide their members through that continuum by creating learning opportunities designed for different career stages.

Depending on where they are in the continuum of professional development, network members might take advantage of the network’s resources on a variety of levels, and some might take on leadership roles and contribute to those resources. For example, this year, DAN is launching the DAN Curriculum Bank, where members of our network can digitally share teaching materials. This initiative will include a social networking component where members can comment on each other’s work and share successes and pitfalls in teaching the posted lessons. Experienced teachers will contribute lessons and projects shaped by the practices fostered by DeLeT. Newer teachers will access the Curriculum Bank to build up their repertoire, while more experienced teachers will use it to add something new to materials they already use. First year teachers and veterans alike can post materials and pose questions to the group, and peers can become informal mentors as they offer constructive criticism. This ebb and flow of offering and receiving support of different types as people move through their careers is what keeps teacher networks vibrant and relevant to a cadre of professionals in an ever-evolving field.

Teacher networks offer opportunities to foster leadership: experienced teachers mentoring novices, developing a new curriculum, giving a colleague useful critical feedback or facilitating a discussion about teaching and learning. Teacher leaders work for change, whether by helping another teacher, transforming school culture or advocating for broader educational policy. If we want to affect real change in schools, we need to include teachers in the conversations that are shaping our schools. Teacher networks can keep these conversations focused through rich programming, and, through a network’s size, status or connections, they can make teachers’ voices heard.

Networks also offer opportunities for members to develop leadership skills. Just because a teacher has experience or some good ideas doesn’t mean she knows how to be an effective leader. Teacher leadership has its own unique skill set. Although the skills are often assumed to be innate in only a few special people, or naturally acquired over time, on the contrary, teacher leadership skills can be identified and taught. Learning and applying leadership skills are important components of continuing professional development, as teachers expand their responsibilities and contribute to their school, the profession and teacher networks in new ways.

Making a commitment to leadership doesn’t necessarily mean that teachers are hoping to become administrators. In fact, the majority of DeLeT alumni involved in DAN are classroom teachers working toward mastery of their craft while simultaneously working to transform their schools. Our members have started professional learning communities and study groups in their schools, initiated new programs and earned multiple advanced degrees. Some alumni have become DeLeT mentor teachers, sharing their experience and wisdom in a more structured way. Through all of their actions, our members have proven an important point: strong teaching informs leadership, and vice versa.

Administrators should still take note. Embrace the power of teacher networks, and encourage your whole school to take advantage of them. Involvement in teacher networks and professional learning groups should be a recognized value of your school, emphasizing ongoing development of teachers’ practice and leadership skills. I acknowledge that this commitment takes time and effort, both from administrators and teachers. But in my experience, it is a worthwhile commitment because the return is so high. You’ll find that individual teachers’ involvement in networks that are relevant to them will strengthen the collaborative culture among all of your teachers and will enhance student learning for all students. When we raise the bar for the intellectual work of teaching, we all benefit. Unfortunately, teachers can’t do it all on their own. There are specific things administrators can do to facilitate the ripple effect of teacher networks so that each individual’s impact is magnified.

First, teachers need administrators to advocate for teacher participation in networks. Explicitly encourage your teachers to participate in teacher networks and professional learning communities, within your school or on the outside. Give teachers time and incentives to attend conferences, take a course, or collaborate with other teachers. Seek out teachers who are members of strong professional networks when making hiring decisions. A teacher (even a new teacher) with outside mentors, role models of outstanding teacher leaders, connections with other schools, and a commitment to ongoing learning just might bring more to your community than a teacher (even with experience) who has spent his or her career solo teaching behind closed doors.

Second, follow up! Be an active partner with your teachers in sharing the content they learn from their network with others. Often teachers leave conferences and workshops rejuvenated and inspired, but the enthusiasm fades away if it’s not sustained in their practice.

Finally, remember that teachers are already busy with the daily tasks of teaching. If enhancing their practice and taking on leadership roles is simply added to teachers’ regular workload, teachers will perceive it as a burden. This ultimately drains their time and energy to the detriment of their teaching. Give teachers room to grow by making dedicated time in teachers’ schedules for professional development and involvement in networks so their participation can become a tool for enhancing their practice, rather than a hardship.

Day schools across the continent are full of intelligent, creative, courageous, innovative teachers who are doing great things. But how far is their reach if they are isolated behind the closed door of their classroom or within the walls of their school? When teachers make their practice public, everyone grows. I’ve found that in addition to making individual teachers stronger, teacher networks like DAN promote an ongoing conversation, normalizing the radical idea that teachers can and should be leaders and agents of change advancing education in Jewish day schools.♦

Sarah Burns is the senior director of the DeLeT Alumni Network. She can be reached at

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HaYidion Networking Autumn 2012
Fall 2012