Teacher leaders grow their impact

Schools and districts are calling on teachers to step into a growing number of informal leadership roles that play a vital role in improving student learning.


“Teachers are the ones in the classrooms, who have the best understanding of what their students need. When administrators and districts are willing to share leadership and listen to teachers as stakeholders, it can truly enhance an entire school—and an entire district.”

–Sylvia Bagley, Director, Teacher Leadership Programs

When Susan Jarnot-Benthem—now assistant principal at Interlake High School—was starting her work in the Bellevue School District as a teacher and instructional mentor, she noticed a troubling phenomenon.

Student teachers would do a great job. They’d get hired based in part on their good performance—then struggle and flounder as first-year teachers.

“It really bothered me to see first-year teachers put on a plan of improvement,” she said. “I asked myself, ‘What are we doing to support teachers so they can make it in this profession?’”

That was when Jarnot-Benthem learned about the UW College of Education’s Master in Instructional Leadership (MIL) program. What she heard—about its goal to empower teachers to elevate their practice by working together as informal instructional leaders—led her to believe it might provide the answer to her question. But her boss disagreed.

“She asked me, ‘Why would anyone want to do that?’ Because in that old school way of thinking, you’re either a teacher or an administrator,” Jarnot-Benthem said. Despite the discouragement, she persisted—and graduated with the second MIL cohort.

“It’s been life changing, professionally. The experience helped me realized there’s a third role, beyond teacher and administrator. It’s a boundary-spanner role. The teacher-leader is able to connect what teachers are experiencing with what districts are asking them to do.”

Teacher leadership in action

The UW’s Director of Teacher Leadership Programs Sylvia Bagley and Andrea Slack, who teaches in Bellevue’s Odle Middle School, comment on how teacher leaders elevate teaching quality and student success.

Supporting the boundary spanners

Developing these “boundary spanner” roles can be challenging, Bagley said. In part, that’s because many schools don’t have structures in place to support them—or a basic understanding of how instructional leadership by teachers works.

“Teacher leadership is often really about more informal leadership by colleagues—which is surprisingly challenging because of power dynamics and other things like that,” Bagley said. “So a big part of what we spend time talking about is how to help teachers to rock the boat just enough.”

However, “rocking the boat” in positive ways only works well when a school has supportive administrative leaders like Jarnot-Benthem, Bagley said.

“The best way to support professional learning is to give teachers enough time and training to do it—to bring them together in professional learning communities where they can learn from and with each other,” Bagley said.

“I feel really fortunate that the conditions for teacher leadership were already present in my district,” Jarnot-Benthem said. “There was an understanding of the idea of informal leadership positions and working on teams. And after going through MIL, I now look at each and every one of my teachers as a teacher leader. I look at their strengths and think about where to apply those strengths, and make it a point to connect teachers who are working on similar problems.”

"Being a teacher leader is being willing to be the guinea pig in the really messy process of experimenting around best practices in teaching.”

—Andrea Slack, ELL instructor and facilitator, Bellevue School District

Preparing teacher leaders for action

Bagley said one unique aspect of the UW’s instructional leadership program is that candidates are challenged to tackle real problems they encounter in their work in schools—and, in the case of master’s students, to choose one as the subject of an “action research” project.

Action research gave Jarnot-Benthem a chance to dig into the reasons novice teachers in her district were struggling—and develop practical strategies for improving the situation.

“I loved how I was able to pick something that was perfectly embedded in the work I was doing,” Jarnot-Benthem said. “I felt like in other programs maybe they do that big thesis—but it’s never shared. I felt I had an obligation to share it. The whole point is about taking things in real classrooms out to the larger community.”

“What our students are doing is very much based on peer-reviewed research,” Bagley said. “But they’re taking it, applying it, seeing how it’s working or not working, modifying it as needed, keeping track of data, and sharing with all the stakeholders about how it’s going. That’s what teachers do both in the master’s program, and also through our teacher leadership certificate work out in the districts, doing smaller teacher leadership projects.”

The power of sharing

In Jarnot-Benthem’s case, the sharing has gone far beyond presenting her research findings to Bellevue’s leadership. Since graduating in 2011, she’s also shared her enthusiasm for instructional leadership, in the form of encouraging colleagues to enroll in MIL. So far, six teachers she’s encouraged have earned their master’s degrees through the program.

One of them, Andrea Slack, an ELL instructor and facilitator at Bellevue’s Odle Middle School, remembers being intrigued by Jarnot-Benthem’s description of how teacher leaders could have real impact in their schools.

Slack had noticed that English learner (EL) students in her school would enter the program—and then never leave it, even after they had a good command of the language.

By the end of her action research project, Slack had worked with teachers in her school to make meaningful changes to their instruction—and she had evidence those changes were doing a better job for EL students. Slack’s research was so compelling that Bagley asked her and another MIL student to present it at the Washington Educational Research Conference in 2016.

“Being a teacher leader is being willing to be the guinea pig in the really messy process of experimenting around best practices in teaching,” Slack said. “So you’re not saying ‘I know everything and I’m going to help you learn everything.’ You’re saying ‘We’re all in this together and there’s still a lot more to learn; I’m willing to open up my classroom and try something new and I want feedback from you—you can help me improve.’”

Bagley agrees. “Teachers isolated in their egg-crate classrooms can only do so much,” she said. “But when they’re allowed to come together in a safe and collegial environment? Then things can really blossom.”

Sylvia Bagley

Expanding reach

Multiple programs put UW at forefront of developing teacher leaders for Washington and beyond

Since the UW launched its master in instructional leadership program in 2007, nearly 70 teachers have earned the degree. Today, there are always two cohorts (years one and two) of 7 to 11 teachers enrolled in MIL.

But beyond its master’s degree offering, the College of Education has also instituted other innovative efforts—like its year-long certificate programs—to help more teachers become instructional leaders.

Nationally, we’re at the forefront of this work. We’re passionate about it!

Sylvia Bagley


Since 2012, nearly 50 teachers from five districts have participated in MIL’s cohort-based certificate programs. Bellingham’s Meridian School District, for instance, sent 22 teachers through the program in 2015.

“The program definitely changed my teaching practice,” said Sara Kurishige, a teacher at Meridian’s MP3 School. “It helped focus my skills to truly benefit both my own practice and my colleagues. One of the first things we did was to open up our own classrooms. This definitely benefited student learning.”

In 2014, MIL Director Sylvia Bagley expanded the certificate program to make core classes available to districts on an individual basis. Since then, districts including Northshore and Kent have taken advantage of the partial certificate offerings.

And in March 2017, MIL participated in the nation’s first-ever teacher leadership conference at the University of Miami, with Bagley bringing together and facilitating a panel of teacher leaders from rural Washington who presented on their work.

  • Teacher leaders help connect what teachers are experiencing to what districts are asking them to do.

    side view, profile
  • Andrea Slack works with fellow teachers at Bellevue's Odle Middle School.

    talking, gesturing and smiling
  • Teacher leaders help fellow teachers experiment with and advance their practice.

    Talking about teacher leadership

Action research, real results

Here are a few examples of recent MIL students’ action research capstones—and how they’re making a difference in their schools.  

Amanda Mattocks (MIL 2017), Mercer Island High School, Washington

Measuring Distributed Teacher Leadership Networks Through Social Networking Analysis

“Based on my data, the instructional coaches collaborated and decided to focus on integrating new faculty as well as working with departments that had fewer reported connections between colleagues. This study … helped formfal teacher leaders become more effective agents of change.”  

Samantha Arce (MIL 2017), Second Grade, Phoenix Charter School, Arizona

Exploring Parent and Teacher Perceptions of Family Engagement

“I chose this topic because our school community sought ways to improve family involvement, and encourage at least 80 percent participation at school events. I used [my findings] to propose a series of action steps.”  

Erika Klein (MIL 2017), Second Grade, Renton School District, Washington

Developing a Culturally Responsive Lens: Diversifying Read-Aloud Texts in an Elementary School Setting 

“Through … examining the role of race and equity in my literacy curriculum’s read-aloud texts I monitored impact on myself, Professional Learning Communities (PLCs), and students. Three major findings emerged: increased agency in my practice, increased awareness of the role of race and equity in teachers’ personal practice, and a student preference for texts that related to … their cultural background.”