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BACKBONE TEACHERS: A STRATEGY FOR DEVELOPING LEADERSHIP IN THE TEACHING PROFESSION

By Nicole Gillespie
Executive Director, Knowles Science Teaching Foundation

August 8, 2013

In 1999, KSTF was formed with the mission of increasing the number of high-quality mathematics and science teachers in United States high schools.  We were not then, nor are we now, unique in that mission.  Although we have never wavered from that original idea, over the past few years we have refined our work to focus on a very specific strategy for accomplishing our mission: developing and supporting what we’re calling “backbone teachers”.  So it seemed appropriate to use the first KSTF blog post on our new website to introduce the idea of backbone teachers and why we’re focusing our time and effort on them.

We’ve borrowed the term backbone teachers from China, where it is used as a title for members of the teaching force who have been given the responsibility and training  to develop, support, and retain excellent teachers in schools.  We recognize the need for teachers to fulfill similar  and other kinds of leadership roles within the U.S. education system, but we also recognize the need for a stable, sustainable core to the teaching profession, that is, teachers who remain in and strengthen the profession.  Hence the term “backbone” seemed like a good metaphor, on a number of levels, for what the KSTF community is all about.

KSTF defines backbone teachers by four characteristics: they are outstanding teachers, they are leaders, they have both the capacity and inclination to generate knowledge of and for teaching and they are part of a networked community.  I will be writing about each of these characteristics in future posts, and how KSTF is working to support the development of each through our three programs.  Other members of the KSTF community will also be writing about these and other topics relevant and related to backbone teachers, but I do want to expand on the notion of teachers as leaders since it is the driver behind everything we do.

In the U.S., leadership in education often gets equated with administration; i.e., no longer teaching.  But we envision backbone teachers engaging in a very different kind of leadership; leadership from within and for the teaching profession and, importantly, from the classroom.  This version of leadership doesn’t necessarily mean being “in charge” (although it might), nor does it require formal recognition, such as a department chair position, or curriculum specialist designation (although it might.)  However, the “strategy” seems to be waiting for such leaders to emerge serendipitously from an often-broken educational system rather than intentionally and systematically supporting their development.  By contrast, our goal at KSTF is to identify, select, and support early-career teachers who show the potential to become backbone teachers, rather than waiting for them to “just happen,” and then support and advocate for the work they do as teacher leaders.

Check back in the coming weeks to view the second post in our Backbone Teachers blog series.

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