Give them power and they will stay

By Les Harrison • Dec 05, 2023

An educator’s perspective on teacher-powered schools

Students on the water at Terra Nova, an environmental science focused teacher-powered school

The vast majority of teachers go into education because they want to postively impact young people’s lives. This enthusiasm is often dampened by unrealistic expectations, little opportunity for growth, a lack of support, and no real opportunity for educators to be engaged in the decision-making processes that impact the daily lives of their students. 

There have also been countless reports about the lack of respect teachers feel after the Covid era of teaching. This has created unbearable stress that, when coupled with low pay for such a demanding profession, leads to an increased number of educators leaving—or considering leaving—their calling.

My experience in education began traditionally. I attended semi-rural public schools that did not serve me well. Nonetheless, a few teachers imbued me with a love for learning. This led me to teaching, to exploring charter schools, project-based learning, and progressive educational methods. I still served my time within traditional public school education. I loved working with students but was frustrated by all of the stresses listed above. 

The highlights of my teaching experience—outside of the classroom—came when I was collaborating with my colleagues to truly serve our students and when I had a voice in the life of the school. Those opportunities were few and far between.

In my first years of teaching, I was exposed to more innovative ideas, which were generally being executed by charter schools. Student-driven, teacher-powered schools intrigued me. I was excited when my previous school considered this model of governance after a director change. We took slow steps toward a teacher-powered model. However, a major life move led to my becoming a member of Terra Nova—a different, dedicated, student-driven, teacher-powered school. 

I’m in the midst of my fifth year as an advisor (teacher) within this model and I cannot imagine teaching at a different type of school. We embrace and champion this approach because it allows us to serve our students in ways that put project-based and relationship-focused learning at the forefront, it allows us to truly live our mission (“Out of the Classroom, Into the World™”), and we are valued as professionals in countless ways.

Teacher-powered shifts the paradigm that otherwise drives teachers out of the profession.

The decisions we make as a school are made at our weekly Team Professional Practice (TPP) meeting. We vote on recommendations made by our various committees. Every staff member is on at least three committees. Committees research, investigate, explore, learn, debate, and prepare recommendations for everything from dealing with individual students to running the entire school. 

As a result, we are all engaged in the processes that impact our students and our staff. This reduces unrealistic expectations and focuses on ideas that will serve our students. This also leads to refining best practices that embody our schoolwide norms rather than ever-changing initiatives. 

Teachers, and especially charter school teachers at small organizations, wear numerous hats. This is certainly true at Terra Nova. Playing multiple roles, filling in for coworkers, and figuring out how to do things as a team could potentially feel burdensome. However, teacher-powered schools shift this paradigm because the teachers are invested and have a voice in their school’s decisions. 

There are constantly opportunities to learn and grow professionally by serving on our committees:

  • Our Curriculum Committee focuses on how we can provide opportunities, experiences, and materials that serve our student-driven projects. 
  • Members of our Operations and Communications Committee ensure that the physical aspects of the school are functioning, from building maintenance to determining snow days and communicating to our families and larger community initiatives that are happening. 
  • Our Finance Committee creates the operating budget for the school; approves and makes purchases; seeks grants and other funding; and works with the state Department of Education, our authorizer, and auditor to ensure that the school is financially sound. 
  • The Staff Development Committee strives to provide ongoing professional education for our colleagues. 
  • Finally, our Building Committee researched and executed acquiring a permanent property for our school. We worked closely with a project manager, financial professionals, construction contractors, and others to complete this process and renovate our new home. We are engaged in the PBL process just as much as our students.

Everything we do in committees means giving more of our time, but this is ultimately an investment in the school, our community, and our students. We approach difficult experiences as opportunities to grow and see them as part of the process of lifelong learning. Our actions directly influence the lives of our students and ourselves.

Teacher-powered Terra Nova thrives as a community.  

Our school cannot function without our students’ families. Most families support our school because they see tangible results in their children. A recent comment from a parent whose student has attended our school for several years testified to this: “I appreciate the positive environment the staff have created. My kids feel safe and empowered to be themselves at school. I also love the flexibility that project-based learning offers. Two of my kids have ADHD and it is so wonderful that they can seek out subject matter that they are interested in.”

A natural love of learning develops when children are accepted where they are and encouraged to follow their own interests. Families recognize the work we are doing and the changes they see in their children as a result of our model. 

Terra Nova recognizes that valuable educators may not always be the traditionally trained professionals. Many people can share time and talents that students need.  

Our school has several young alumni support staff members. They returned to us because they valued their unique educational experience, are interested in learning, and know that they possess talents to support our student body. 

One non-traditional student sought us out for their practicum and student teaching. They were hired as a full-time staff member and will soon become an advisor. Two other support staff are also on track to become advisors. 

It is difficult to retain support staff, however, when we cannot pay them a wage comparable to local fast food restaurants. We have raised their wages and search for other incentives to keep them. 

On the other hand, Terra Nova’s rate of retention for professional staff members is extremely high.  While our pay is slightly lower than most public schools, it is competitive with other charter schools. In a perfect world, teachers everywhere would be lavishly compensated, but for me, being part of a teacher-powered school is worth the financial sacrifices. The benefits of being a leader with my peers and making the decisions that directly impact our students are priceless.

Give teachers power and they will stay in the profession.


Les Harrsion is an advisor and proud member of Terra Nova School (formerly Jane Goodall Environmental Sciences Academy in Maple Lake, MN), a teacher-powered and student-driven free public charter school in Buffalo, MN.