Instead of complaining about changes they want to see in their school, the teachers at Stone Creek Elementary have been able to do something about it this year. As a pilot school for the new Teacher Leadership initiative in Georgia, these teachers have worked collaboratively to make those changes happen.

At its core, Teacher Leadership is about creating a culture where teachers feel empowered to continually improve their teaching and learning process so that the students achieve more. Envisioned as a way to increase teacher retention, Teacher Leadership has dramatically changed Stone Creek.

“It’s a completely different environment,” noted first-grade teacher Sydnee Thornberg. “In some schools, it’s constant competition between teachers, but here it’s not like that at all. It’s more of a constant learning environment.”

That learning curve began pretty steeply, though, with a group of teachers tasked to create the school budget this year. Susanne Honeycutt, third-fifth lead teacher, recalled that “[Principal Brandon Mosgrove] had us allocate the money so that we saw the why. We saw where the money goes and what we really need and that helped us prioritize.”

Through this process, the teachers involved realized that “when you understand the why, you can make better decisions” said Honeycutt, and better decisions make for better schools.

Honeycutt, along with Jami Ballew, serve as lead teachers for the school. After two years in that role, they will again have a homeroom and other teachers will rotate in as lead teachers. This allows the lead teachers to be better connected with how a classroom functions.

Leslie Gray, fifth-grade teacher, said, “We have the teacher leaders, but they are also creating others.” This is a key to Teacher Leadership — all the teachers at the school are in the business of empowering other teachers to step up and lead with their strengths.

This mindset change has had a big impact on the culture of the whole school. “Teacher Leadership has made [teaching] easier and more exciting because you feel like ‘I’m not alone’,” noted Assistant Principal Leigh Davis.

Thornberg elaborated, “Even first-year teachers feel like they have something to bring to the table. One teacher isn’t better than the other, because we all have strengths and weaknesses.”

Part of sharing strengths involves what Thornberg referred to as “an open-door policy. When someone walks into my classroom, I know they are there to watch and learn.” Every teacher has a planning period every day, and they are able to go into other classrooms to see how other teachers do things.

This is because, noted Ashley Townes, second-grade teacher, “the whole school has bought in. If I want to go into a class and see something at any time, it would be supported by the administration.”

Through this open door policy, Gray has definitely felt more empowerment as a teacher this year. “I can watch another teacher do something and ask questions,” she noted. “It gives me the push to step out of my comfort zone.”

Third-grade teacher Lisa Matheny knows the benefits of this firsthand. As a veteran teacher, she noted, “I love young teacher’s ideas — I’ve learned more from my student teacher than she learned from me.” In any other school environment, that would not be the norm, but at Stone Creek, it is.

Teachers aren’t the only ones that benefit from this collaborative culture. Students gain as well. From encouraging older students to mentor younger students to placing different grade levels in classrooms next to one another, students are learning about the benefit of working with others toward a better school. “Teacher Leadership has opened the door to student leadership,” said Thornberg. “We are making connections between the students and utilizing the students as leaders.”

Students aren’t only growing in their leadership skills, but behavior throughout the school has improved. “I have fewer behavior problems because I am able to meet the needs of my students,” noted Thornberg. “I can differentiate their environment as well as their learning.” When the teachers have freedom to grow and try new things, the students grow too.

It seems that with all of the benefits of Teacher Leadership, it would be easy to get other schools to try it. That isn’t necessarily the case though. Matheny said that “the hardest part to sell is that there’s not a script.” Without a program, it’s difficult to get schools on board.

“A program is ‘here’s what you have to do” without a why,” noted Thornberg. “Teacher Leadership is what works for [each school] — it may look completely different on the other end of the county. Student needs, staff, and goals are all different. This is made to fit your school.”

Townes noted that “a lot of schools try programs, and it’s hard to get the teachers to buy in.” Teacher Leadership is different because “it isn’t adding something for teachers to do. It’s taking a load off and benefiting us and the students.” And the key to getting other schools to embrace Teacher Leadership is helping others understand how it helps schools become better for the students and teachers.

The effect of this culture shift, according to the teachers, have been amazing. Davis noted, “we are seeing results of how our school has improved and changed,” but she also realizes that “our stories are what speak for themselves.” Throughout the year, other schools visited Stone Creek to learn how Teacher Leadership works and take those stories back to their schools. Stone Creek teachers have also presented their stories in schools and conferences in Georgia, South Carolina, and Tennessee.

At the end of the day, Teacher Leadership is all about retaining teachers in our schools and, according to Thornberg, it’s working. “I couldn’t imagine going into another school,” she said. “When you’re at a school like this, you never want to leave.”

Carrie Chandler is a reporter for the Walker County Messenger in LaFayette, Ga., and The Catoosa County News in Ringgold, Ga.