Teacher leaders working on curriculum

A six-year program piloted by Auburn School District could serve as a model for developing teacher leaders who build stronger schools across the state, University of Washington College of Education researchers show in a new study.

The Auburn Teacher Leadership Academy (ATLA) focused on developing collaborative teacher leadership skills to support improved instructional practice according to UW researchers Margaret Plecki and Ana Elfers. The study examined the school and district impact of the program in developing teachers’ leadership skills, and the ways in which teachers subsequently engaged in school and district leadership activities. The program is a partnership between the Center for Strengthening the Teaching Profession (CSTP) and the Auburn School District.

“ATLA provided opportunities for teachers to develop their leadership skills over a sustained period of time, and was designed to support teacher leaders in every school across the district,” said Elfers, a research associate professor of education. “One way the impact of the ATLA training could be seen was in the fact that nearly all teachers in the program could call to mind specific activities and leadership practices they had learned in ATLA, in some cases five years after the initial training. How many of us remember professional development training with great clarity after 5 years?”

In 2010, CSTP began working with Auburn to provide specialized training with an initial cohort of teachers. Since then, five additional cohorts have been added, representing more than 400 Auburn elementary, middle and high school teachers. ATLA begins with a two-day summer academy to develop teacher leadership skills in a collaborative setting and a deep focus on the CSTP Teacher Leadership Framework. Throughout the year, teachers meet for additional training and support, reflecting on their work, revising their leadership goals and honing their leadership skills.

The UW study, which examined the district’s first five years of teacher leadership work supported by ATLA, reflects a combination of individual interviews, surveys and focus groups. All told, 48 staff from 19 of Auburn’s 22 schools were represented in interviews or focus groups. An online survey conducted in the fall of 2015 included 102 certificated staff from 21 schools, and 28 school and district administrators.

“ATLA has transformed our professional development process in the Auburn School District, which has directly benefited the students we serve,” said Doug Gonzalez, assistant director of instructional technology for the Auburn School District. “We look forward to building this program out and continuing our work to create more teacher leaders for Auburn.”

UW research said Auburn’s willingness to invest time and resources into developing teacher leadership over an extended period provides evidence of how other school districts could benefit from similar efforts. 

“Some of the strongest evidence of the impact of the program came from building administrators who described how ATLA had improved their teachers’ ability to collaborate, use assessments to inform instructional practice, use systems-level thinking in decision making, and communicate more effectively with colleagues,” said Plecki, a professor of education. “This kind of investment in teacher leadership can build long-term capacity to sustain improvement efforts.”

An examination of data collected by UW researchers supported several key findings.

For teachers, ATLA:

  • Built confidence to lead and encouraged them to step out of their comfort zone and engage in new ways.
  • Improved their ability to work effectively with adult learners.
  • Reinforced the use of systems-level thinking in their decision making.
  • Expanded teacher networks both within their buildings and across the district.
  • Provided high quality training that was directly applicable to their work.

For schools and districts, the study found that ATLA:

  • Supported formal and informal leadership roles and led them to make changes in their teaching.
  • Enhanced teachers’ capacity to engage in school or district improvement initiatives.
  • Encouraged teachers’ leadership and instructional coaching skills.
  • Increased collaboration in their building and across the district.


Ana Elfers, Research Associate Professor of Education
206-221-3475, aelfers@uw.edu

Margaret Plecki, Professor of Education
206-221-3430, mplecki@uw.edu

Dustin Wunderlich, Director for Marketing and Communications
206-543-1035, dwunder@uw.edu