Teacher leaders must have support, financial incentives

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Gina Caneva, Lindblom teacher and Teach Plus policy fellow

Gina Caneva, Lindblom teacher and Teach Plus policy fellow

With students back to school for the new academic year, the Chicago Teachers’ Union (CTU) and the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) have begun negotiations for the upcoming 2015 teacher contract. As these progress, it is imperative that both sides discuss teacher leadership in our schools.  Teacher leadership roles vary widely across the city, and teacher leaders receive little to no incentive to become or remain in these positions.  This is in stark contrast to the suburbs where teachers who take on leadership positions like department chairs receive increased salaries and classes off to accommodate their heightened responsibilities.

Over the last 11 years, I have taught in three CPS high schools.  At my first high school, a large neighborhood high school in Roseland, department chairs would often teach five classes; they received no financial assistance and only occasionally got a class off to enable them to take care of their department-wide duties.  This led to a revolving-door at the school.  I left to become an English department chair at a small school in Englewood.  There, I was lucky to have a principal who had a high regard for teacher leaders.  She prioritized teacher leadership in a way I have not seen in other CPS schools: She compensated teachers for it. 

We received money on a per-student basis, and she set aside money from her budget to pay department chairs for their additional responsibilities– around $3,000 that year.  When the budget situation changed, she gave us classes off.  We used this time to design curriculum, observe other teachers and create and provide professional development. I stayed at the school for five years.

This system of rewarding teacher leaders was incredibly effective.  There was not a revolving door of teacher leaders at that school.  I felt valued and was not overworked or under-compensated, the two characteristics most department chairs feel across the city.

Take a cue from suburban unions

I fear that our union will miss a great opportunity to champion and reward teacher leaders if the problem of teacher leadership is not confronted head on during the current contract negotiations.  This should be easy to do when there is a great model just around the corner: Unions in Chicago’s suburbs draw up contracts that reward teacher leaders financially and reduce their class loads to preserve their time for their additional duties.

Take Chicago’s largest suburb, Aurora, which is comprised of two districts.  In Aurora, separate pay scales have been written into the contract for department chairs.  Experience and size of department are taken into consideration for the stipend, and department chairs are classified in the same category as extra-curricular coaches for additional salary, which amounts on average to a $5,000 increase annually.

Other suburban district contracts have leadership-based salary increases and give department chairs classes off in order to complete additional duties.  If the CTU wants to remain competitive in retaining teacher leaders, they should look at neighboring suburban contracts.

Often when discussing leadership, we compare the education and business worlds.  In corporations, there is typically a hierarchy of roles and responsibilities. As workers get promoted into leadership roles, they are compensated appropriately and their daily duties shift.  This is also true of the CTU, where the hierarchy includes president, vice president, secretary and treasurer.  As a union member, I am glad that this is in place.  Otherwise, I don’t think our union would run as effectively.  In the same vein, I believe schools aren’t as effective for our students if we don’t utilize, support, and compensate our teachers as they move up the ladder of leadership responsibility.

Chicago needs to invest in teacher leaders.  Our students need master teachers to remain in the classroom and help train the new teaching workforce.  Leadership roles and incentives can inspire teachers to stay in a profession that currently has extremely high turnover.  In these contract negotiations, the CTU needs to fight for funding to train, support and reward teacher leaders at the school level.  Otherwise, great teacher leaders will end up leaving the district for a more progressive one. Their departure will surely be a disservice to Chicago’s students.

Gina Caneva is an English teacher, Instructional Leadership Team Lead and librarian at Lindblom Math and Science Academy. She is a National Board Certified teacher and Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellowship alum.