After several years of diligent research, careful planning, and the legal creation, structuring, and funding of an entity known as the NJEA Teacher Leadership Academy, those seeking a teacher-leader endorsement met for their first session on Jan. 23 at NJEA headquarters in Trenton. These candidates for the endorsement were joined by those who will assist them in attaining the endorsement: the NJEA Teacher Leader Consultants, Teacher Leader Academy Coordinator Richard Wilson, and external consultant Stefani Hite.

NJEA President Marie Blistan, NJEA Vice President Sean M. Spiller, NJEA Executive Director Steve Swetsky and NJEA Director of Professional Development and Instructional Issues Michael Cohan attended the first session to congratulate the first participants. Blistan, who took a lead role in advocating for the legislation that created the endorsement in 2015, traced the history of the endorsement and the role NJEA plays as a leader in the profession.

“I’m proud of this union for standing up and leading the way, and I am proud of you as the very first class of the NJEA Teacher Leader Academy,” Blistan said.

NJEA did more than advocate for the creation of the teacher leader endorsement, it committed itself to be an approved provider of a program of study leading to it. In that light, Spiller reflected on the impact the first academy class will have on the endorsement and on the future of the NJEA Teacher Leader Academy.

“You are going to be an example of what this endorsement means and what it and the Teacher Leader Academy will become,” Spiller said.

Swetsky noted the dual roles that NJEA fills: as an advocacy organization that seeks to advance and protect the rights, benefits, and interests of members and as a professional organization that seeks to promote a quality system of public education for all students.

“We don’t talk enough about what we do as a union for the profession,” Swetsky said. “I urge you to talk to your colleagues about NJEA’s status as a leader in public education.

While the evening began with a brief celebration of the launch of the first class of the Teacher Leader Academy, the candidates for the endorsement quickly moved on to the work of their first day as a class. The candidates and consultants will meet as a whole on nine Saturdays throughout the year. They will meet weekly as smaller regional study groups with their Teacher Leader Consultants. The course of study leading to the endorsement is divided into four modules and takes a full calendar year to complete.

A paradigm shift in leadership

Teacher leadership offers a paradigm shift that not only allows teachers to support their peers from a nonevaluative position, but also to influence the entire system. Teacher leadership gives educators a voice at the decision-making table on instructional issues at the school and district level.

At its core, the work of teacher leaders is to build the capacity of their peers. Using that concept as a starting point, the NJEA Teacher Leader Academy prepares teacher leader candidates to effectively be their own faculty, with the support of their regional teacher leader consultant.

Candidates for the endorsement will identify their own strengths and areas where they want to challenge themselves. Each candidate will then lead the learning of small groups of other teachers working with them on the endorsement. The study groups are designed to use feedback from other participants to create an incubator for leadership.

There will be an emphasis on candidates developing the ability to walk the challenging line of acting as both peer and expert with their colleagues. Other components of the program will include occasional meetings of the full cohort of participants in Trenton, as well as a clinical experience designed to meet the individual goals of each candidate.

The academy will run on an annual schedule with new classes beginning each January. The program is currently being evaluated by Thomas Edison State University for credit eligibility. If you are interested in applying to be a candidate in the cycle beginning in January 2021, watch for application information this fall.

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