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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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What does it mean to be a teacher leader? How does one become a teacher leader? What are the ways in which teachers can take leadership?

I've been contemplating these questions for a few weeks now following my brief involvement in the Teachers' Letters to Obama Project phone call with Arne Duncan. Several of my colleagues have written about this (read Heather Wolpert-Gawron's post here, and Anthony Cody's here) so I won't rehash the details. The purpose of this campaign is to provide venues through which teachers can give the U.S. Department of Education input on policy matters.

Clearly, this is one way in which teachers can play leadership roles, no only by engaging in conversations with decision-makers, but by becoming informed in these areas. In order to prepare for the phone call, I read a ton of articles on policy -- past, present, process, and key players. I learned an incredible amount. It's kind of scary how much of what goes on in a classroom is decided, either directly or indirectly, by people far away from classrooms who have never taught and may never have even attended a public school. But I also learned that I can't sustain an interest in reading, writing, or talking policy for longer than a few weeks.

Defining the Role

My passion on the topic of teacher leadership is around what happens within a school. My work includes supporting principals to develop teachers as leaders. Sometimes this happens within an instructional leadership team, sometimes it happens less formally. We look for attributes of leadership: teachers who are thinking outside of their classrooms, teachers who take risks within their classroom, teachers who aren't afraid to say that they don't know something, or who aren't afraid to share what they do know. We look for those teachers and we plan around how to develop their skills further so that they can lead their colleagues in refining practice and collaborating more effectively.

Some teachers know they want to move into leadership roles. I was not that teacher. In my first five years in the classroom I always felt like I had no idea what I was doing, but around me were experienced teachers and instructional coaches who nudged me into leadership roles. I wasn't confident in those roles either, but they kept nudging me along. I now acknowledge that I had the capacity to lead, and I did, and I'm so grateful to those who recognized that potential in me and supported me.

Accept the Calling

I know that if I hadn't had those opportunities to lead, I would have left teaching. For the first few years that I taught, every year, usually in the fall and again at the end of the school year, I always considered what was next: Graduate school? Research? Administration?

Maybe I'm just restless and enjoy new challenges every few years, but I also recognize that when I was a classroom teacher I craved the intellectual stimulation of higher education, I missed opportunities to feel like I was constantly learning, and I wanted to do something that would make a difference in education. Impacting one class of kids each year didn't feel like enough.

It's been the many opportunities I've had for leadership that have satisfied these cravings and kept me working in public schools for fifteen years. As a classroom teacher, I led my grade level or department, I supported teachers in doing classroom-based inquiry, I participated in summer professional development, and conducted workshops throughout the year.

I also mentored new teachers, and received grants, and launched programs that integrated art and music into the core curriculum. In addition, I wrote articles, presented my research and was paid to deliver workshops. Eventually I had to start saying no to leadership opportunities and getting very picky about what I did.

Now I work in leadership development with principals, teams of teachers, and organizations. I love my work. I really, really love my work. My daydreams about "what's next" have subsided and it's a relief. I'm very satisfied and know that I'm making a positive and substantial impact in education. When I look back and trace how I got here, I see that I followed all the opportunities towards leadership; there were very challenging moments, but also key people who supported me and pushed me along.

And for those who are interested in assuming leadership, my advice is to try all the opportunities presented, listen up for colleagues who are nudging you along, and don't be afraid to take risks -- that's what it's all about.

To our readers: What does it mean to you to be a teacher leader? How does one become a teacher leader? What are the ways in which teachers can take leadership?

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Lora Villalpando's picture

I am also thinking, "what's next"? No matter what profession I am in, I want to take my knowledge to the next step. I get bored of things very quickly, and always need something to look forward to. That's what I think is nice about being an educator. The possiblities are endless. I enjoyed your blog. I'm happy to know that I am not alone on this.

Chuck's picture

It is good to be a leader provided that you are leading in a good direction. (No one wants to end up as the first lemming off the cliff.)I plan on creating an informal PLC this year as we have no formal PLC structure.I'm doing this, not with altruism, but as a vehicle to efficiently pick the brains of others and share what I have found that works well. It is tough being a beginner as you haven't the confidence and experience of your peers.

Rod McQuality's picture

As a school administrator I find it extremely important to give leadership roles to teachers. We are a MS that operates in teams with team leaders that guide decision making for their grade level teams. A building leadership team discusses issues affecting the entire building. An RTi leadership team plans and implements RTi for the building. As a retiring administrator this year, I have also developed a consulting company to assist educators in understanding key components of MS and differentiated instruction. These PD topics are offered online to keep teachers in the classroom, where they need to be and to allow districts to get the most PD for the $$. Up to 75 teachers receive 15 hrs of PD for only 4K. Schools also receive a free "Kindle" for staff members to use while participating in the book studies. All from the convenience of the home/school computer. More info at

Lisa J. Cooley's picture
Lisa J. Cooley
School Board member, parent of 2 public school students.

In all my researches about teaching and learning (I am a school board member in rural Maine), in all my reading about PBL, giving children education choices, incorporating "deep practice" in classroom activities, I have also been trying to sort through the notion of what kids remember about their teachers, what kind of teacher makes a difference, and the answer is, love. Caring. The teacher who does not have to remember to be caring of all the children in his or her charge can do well with almost any teaching method.

Of course, caring teachers will think constantly about how to connect all their students with their dreams and hopes, which, IMHO, leads to methods like PBL. But it's the caring that comes first.

I have had contact with too many teachers in direct contact with my own children who simply cannot care about their students in any detectable way. Kids have very good radar for that. And I don't know if you can teach it.

How do you model it? How to you teach teachers to care?

Lisa Cooley

Susan Murrell Castaneda MS, NBCT's picture
Susan Murrell Castaneda MS, NBCT
Founder: Teacher Leadership Academy™ A New Model of Leading and Learning

As a recently retired district level Administrator, I asked myself many of the same questions I see posted here. Those questions served as the impetus to create a very unique and intensive professional development experience for teachers and educational leaders that approaches leadership through relationship.
Before I "officially" entered administration, I viewed my options in black and white....either I am a teacher or I am an administrator. Once I took the Admin step,I began to hear the deepest needs of the teachers with whom I was working. In my supervisory capacity for K-12 Instructional Coaches, I began tweaking what was emerging as a new way of leading.
Instructional Coaches found that establishing relationship was critical to inspiring and supporting teachers as they conceptualized leadership as occurring in the classroom, among their peers and within the community. Along the way, the IC team began to see startling changes when teachers could reframe leadership as "sharing what each knew and experienced, building connections and forming alliances."(as Elena quoted above) Perhaps most striking were the "aha" moments teachers experienced when they embraced Personal Leadership; Leading Yourself Before You Lead Others.
The Teacher Leadership Academy was born out of this experience. The instructors are the same Instructional Coaches who were crafting a teacher leadership model based on relationship and who passionately believe in its efficacy. As you can see, I am quite jazzed about the results we teaching, in learning and in student outcomes!!
If you would like to know more, I'd be happy to share. It's a passionate undertaking and one that is about serving and supporting the possibilities.

Julie O's picture

I have been placed in a position as a PLC coach. I understand the importance in building relationships among staff. Trust and focusing on student learning has been difficult to establish. What particular strategies do you recommend in creating unity among the teachers and allowing them to merge as teacher leaders?

Rachael's picture

Being a teacher leader to me means being a leader in the classroom as a role model for students, and outside of the classroom with fellow teachers. I am currently working through my master's program and am always learning new, creative ways to engage my students. A teacher leader never stops learning.

Robin Ruiz's picture
Robin Ruiz
Seventh Grade Inclusion Teacher from Central Florida

Or some stay because the real reason they are there is for student achievement. Dr. Todd you brought up a common scenario within some of our schools. The climate is one of "Top Down" leadership management,
"we know who is in charged!" I think of it like this, You might have a genius running the school, but if he/she does not have an energetic staff needed to support 21 Century Learning who share the same vision, to follow the mission. The Top Down leadership style or the " Good Ole Boy system is the show boat. Maybe that is why some schools have such a large turnover.

LeAnn Risch's picture

[quote]Can a teacher just take a leadership role without the administrator or department head granting or giving the opportunity? We cannot assume that all schools are collaborative and have administrative heads that are willing to give up "power". When we see this type of climate in schools, we see less teacher leadership. Teachers find that they are stifled and either stay under the radar and lose passion to be innovative or they move on to a more healthy professional community.[/quote]I don't think that giving teachers opportunties to be leaders on campus mean that administrators give up power

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