Why K-12 Funders Are Excited About Helping Teachers Become Leaders

The traditional understanding of public schools goes something like this: Teachers lead classrooms of students, while principals lead the teachers. In this model, the principal is an instructional leader, helping teachers become better through a combination of observation, coaching and feedback. Unfortunately, a principal can be spread thinly among multiple teachers. For novice teachers, this limited support is especially critical.

One solution involves transforming experienced and talented teachers into teacher leaders, who provide coaching and mentorship to their less-experienced colleagues. That, briefly stated, is how Leading Educators approaches teacher leadership.

A New Orleans-based nonprofit, Leading Educators partners with schools and districts to help effective classroom instructors extend their reach beyond their own classrooms, equipping them to coach and mentor their peers. The organization hopes this approach will better leverage the talents of effective teachers, further driving student performance and closing achievement gaps.

Funders have taken notice. Supporters of Leading Educators include the Gates, Walton, Schusterman, and Arnold foundations. Now, Boston-based venture philanthropy firm New Profit has joined in, awarding $1 million to Leading Educators over the next four years.

New Profit is all about identifying individuals and groups with potentially transformative ideas in education, public policy, health, and economic empowerment, and providing them the needed support to solve an array of pressing social problems. With this $1 million award, Leading Educators will become part of one of New Profit's leading investment vehicles: the New Profit Innovation Fund (NPIF). NPIF is a kind of learning lab composed of organizations identified as innovative by New Profit. Leading Educators will join other NPIF organizations, such as Educators 4 Excellence, College Possible, and KIPP.

Many schools have dozens of teachers, but only one principal and one assistant principal, which often means only limited coaching and mentorship for novice teachers. What's more, the principal not only has to provide instructional leadership, but oversee virtually all aspects of school operations, from food service and transportation to building maintenance.

Teacher leaders can provide regular mentorship for their peers and ease the burden on principals. This mentorship can take multiple forms. In some districts, teacher leaders may partner with less-experienced colleagues to co-teach classes. In other settings, teacher leaders may spend half their time in classrooms teaching their students and the other half of the day coaching and mentoring colleagues.

With many new teachers leaving the profession within a few years, coaching and mentorship can make a big difference in retaining top classroom talent. Leading Educators hopes its approach will help retain top teachers and enable them to expand their influence more broadly. This is a welcome change in school systems, especially urban districts that often lose out to better-funded suburban districts in the race to attract the best talent.

The bigger picture in this story is that funders are continuing to invest in a wider range of approaches aimed at training and nurturing good teachers. This is an area with a lot activity right now, as money flows to a growing number of players. Strikingly, while the push to bolster teachers is moving front and center, we're seeing less focus by funders on systemic efforts to improve accountability of teachers. 

We've been arguing that education philanthropy is slowly becoming less polarized, as some existing reform funders broaden their scope beyond choice and accountability, and new funders forge electic paths. What's happening around funding related to teachers underscores that trend.