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Why Backbone Teachers


What is a Backbone Teacher?

A small but growing group of educators* argue that meaningful education reform requires leadership from within the teaching profession, by teachers who take responsibility for their own development and for educational improvement. In China, such teachers are known as backbone teachers. They are identified early in their careers and nurtured to become leaders who model effective practices, mentor novice teachers, and conduct inquiry into classroom teaching and learning.

* e.g., Berry, 2011; Cochran Smith & Lytle, 1999

Three Reasons Why The United States Needs Backbone Teachers

No matter how much we improve initial teacher preparation, classroom experience will always be essential to a teacher’s effectiveness. We need teachers who last longer than their early years and develop expertise over time. The corps of backbone teachers that we argue for are highly effective teachers who have — through a combination of teaching experience and well-designed, purposeful learning opportunities — developed considerable knowledge, skills and dispositions. Because it takes time, will and effort to develop instructional expertise, these backbone teachers are not only experienced but also have the commitment and propensity to pursue teaching as a career, rather than a short-term service opportunity or a stepping stone to an educational position outside the classroom.

Teaching quality is not simply a matter of an individual teacher’s characteristics. It also depends on the quality of a school, its leadership and community (Bryk & Schneider, 2002; NAE, 2009). For a school to have high teaching quality, the staff must include some teachers with experience and expertise who can serve as collaborators and models for newer teachers. Models of inquiry into teaching and learning problems involve collaboration, with teachers working together in a professional learning community or teachers working with researchers or other education professionals in strategic partnerships. A stable corps of backbone teachers is essential to sustaining such knowledge-producing activities. These teachers not only improve learning for their own students, but also inspire other teachers. While backbone teachers have the ability to improve teaching and learning within existing systems, they also drive demand for — and have the capacity to help create and sustain — more innovative and effective schools and systems.

The teaching profession needs lead teachers who can take on roles over and above instruction, including:

  • Mentoring new teachers
  • Piloting and testing curricular resources
  • Collaborating on inquiry to produce new knowledge
  • Serving as teacher educators in residency and university-based programs
  • Leading professional development
  • Observing and evaluating colleagues
  • Collaborating with principals and teachers in school improvement plans
  • Supporting colleagues who need additional assistance


KSTF Is Taking Action

While the United States already has many lead teachers, our educational system lacks the infrastructure and strategies to collectively pool these resources. In addition, the very best teachers are often “lone rangers,” hungrily pursuing professional learning opportunities on their own, spending their own money, and using their vacation time. Their students — and sometimes their colleagues — benefit from their deep commitment to continued learning. But their schools, districts, and states have no means to harness that human capital for the greater good. This lack of capacity suggests the need for a national network of professional teacher leaders who are capable of contributing to national and local efforts to improve education.

KSTF works to strengthen the teaching profession and increase the U.S. education system’s capacity to continually improve STEM education by creating a networked community of teachers who:

  • Mentor and sustain new teachers,
  • Set and meet high standards for student learning, and
  • Create and uphold benchmarks of teacher professionalism grounded in a deep and nuanced understanding of the work of teaching.

Rather than waiting for leaders to emerge from within the educational system, KSTF identifies and selects beginning teachers who show the potential to develop into master teachers and teacher leaders. In addition, KSTF seeks to understand and provide the kinds of sustained support, professional development, and learning opportunities these promising individuals need to reach their potential as teachers and leaders.