Defining the “Pipeline” in “Teacher and Leader Pipelines”

This post is part of a week-long series about educator and leader pipelines. Read the rest of the series here.

Talk of teacher and leader pipelines has been a mainstay in our field. “We need to grow high-quality, diverse pipelines of new teachers.” “We need to build a pipeline of future leaders from our current pool of teachers.” But what exactly is a pipeline? Where does it start, and where does it end? Our Bellwether team set out to find a simple visual answer to these questions and didn’t find a comprehensive solution, so we created our own. If you’ve seen something great and are willing to share, please email me.

As we see it, a teacher pipeline begins with supply: new teachers entering the field, prepared through both traditional and alternative programs. Once teachers are “in,” they head into the development stage, as they are recruited and selected into schools and systems, onboarded to ensure at least basic proficiency in the classroom, and then continuously developed to deepen effectiveness and enable retention.

While not every teacher is a “lifer,” many can be with the right supports, coaching, and encouragement. Teachers who stay in education need opportunities to advance and lead. We see teacher-leadership as a critical inflection point in the pipeline. Teacher-leaders can serve as:

  • Exemplars of excellent classroom practice (and aspire to stay in the classroom)
  • Domain experts who split time between instruction and peer coaching and development (and aspire to continue serving students and developing adults in the building)
  • Advocates who raise their voice toward a systemic goal by championing teacher perspectives in relation to policy or practice
  • Developing administrators who focus on adult leadership (and aspire to step into coaching and/or school or network administrative roles)

Teacher-leaders who do choose to make the leap to the administrative track — where they can join professionals entering education from other walks of life — then move into the final phase of development. They are supported and developed as emerging school leaders, onboarded as they enter new positions, and coached once they are in those roles. For those who choose to continue beyond school leadership, there is the ongoing development of managers and coaches of school leaders, with the ultimate pit stop at the Superintendency.

It’s important not to see the pipeline as hanging in mid-air, but connected to a couple of other important spigots: policy and community. Policy feeds the air quality around the pipeline, and includes compensation, retention incentives, career ladders and opportunities, evaluation systems, diversity, equitable distribution of effective teachers, and more. Community is the pipeline’s foundation, defining the local ecosystem and conditions for teachers. It includes things like livability, amenities (like affordable housing), and resources and supports (like access to higher education and credentialing). Both policy and community can have a profound impact on the inflow and outflow of teachers and leaders in the pipeline, and help clarify the priorities that a particular district, region, or state have made around education.

At Bellwether, we believe in the importance of developing great educators at every stage in the pipeline, and see particular opportunity where the need is greatest: where the numbers are largest, the problems most ambiguous, and the barriers most significant. We are proud of our work in this domain: 25+ projects over the past three years that marry innovative policy and field-building research with on-the-ground strategic planning and implementation support. For more information, please visit our website.