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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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michelle lopez's picture

Teacher leadership signifies educators who are activist, role models, and promoters in the field of education. They not only assume responsibility for their own teaching, but work cooperatively for reform on school-wide issues. Teacher leadership and school reform undoubtedly, go hand in hand. Without the power of teacher leaders, reform is highly unlikely to occur. Additionally, teacher leadership allows for teachers to have a voice. This voice may be heard through a multitude of approaches such as: conducting classroom inquiries, sharing your findings, Professional Learning Communities, and designing, as well as enhancing the curriculum. By assuming this role, educators can truly make a difference in their profession and ensure a successful future for our students. Beginning with teacher leaders, we can pave the way for change and reinvent the way that we view ourselves as educators.

Marie Jewett-Meilan's picture
Marie Jewett-Meilan
Library Media Specialist for Miami Dade County Public Schools

I don't think that a title makes any one a leader.  I believe a leader is someone who is consistantly ecouraging others, promoting themselves, and sharing information.  I'd like to think that we are all leaders in one way or another.  I think that as we move more towards a project based learning environment the formal leadership will take a back seat to a more informal and friendlier way of leadership within a school community.

Jennifer D.'s picture

Hi all, I have just been asked to be up the position of teacher leader during Extended Learning. As I read through the blog I felt a lot better about myself. Of all teachers I was selected, that is a huge honor for me. I did not realize what other saw in me, my teaching, and leadership skills. I believe that teacher leaders are a strong voice in our schools.

Jennifer D.'s picture

I totally agree Marie, a teacher leader is not necessarily above anyone else, at least I do not see it that way. I see a teacher leader as one who helps out and facilitate other peer teachers. I think you nailed it...we are all leaders in many differnt ways. It is a form of PLC.

Dane Maness's picture

A teacher leader, more so than any other teacher in the profession, needs to be a role model. This doesn't simply mean sitting back in your classroom and teaching from 8-3 and acting as a true professional for those limited hours. A teacher leader needs to take it upon himself to become an active member of society and model what is desired of not only students but also parents and the communities that influence students. A true leader leads by example. This means that our work is not simply done when the last bell rings at the end of the day. We must take it upon ourselves to make sure that we are constantly educating ourselves and keeping up on current events and ways of improving our practices both as educators and humans. How can we expect our students to be passionate about learning and spend their own time outside of school to increase their knowledge and understanding of a subject if the person encouraging this action does not do it himself? Part of this is done by showing a genuine interest in the students and their communities along with exhibiting a true desire to see them succeed. If we want our students to become productive members of society it must be modeled to them that their is a reason to act in a way that encourages and helps those around you instead of simply making decisions that only benefit themselves. As we all know this is not how all educators are so it is important for an special few to take on the role of teacher leader to be this type of role model to their colleagues. As it was stated before this does not mean that a teacher leader is any better or higher up than their colleagues, this simply means a teacher leader has the ability to be a positive influence on their peers.

Elena, thank you for this blog. I have just finished my first year of teaching and I have a great desire to be a teacher leader. This blog has been very inspirational and informational in helping me take steps in the right direction.

Casey Daugherty's picture
Casey Daugherty
Teacher, Republic, Missouri

Thanks, Elena, for this reminder of Teacher Leadership. Web20Classroom tweeted it out this morning, and I couldn't help but read it. We had a good discussion at our Summer Institute (Ozarks Writing Project, Springfield, MO)one afternoon about this topic. My principal was there and talked about how schools (admins) do a terrible job of training teachers to be leaders, and how often teachers are placed into leadership positions because no one else will fill the role, or possibly because they have the most experience (after I left my last school, a teacher in her 2nd year of teaching took my place as the Department Chair because she had seniority/longevity over the others in the department.) This I know isn't uncommon.

I do want to mention that being a Teacher Leader isn't always about "doing" new things, taking new steps, and looking for new opportunities. We have powerful teacher leaders in many schools who are the agents of change simply by listening, being present, and offering advice to fellow teachers when asked. Don't get me wrong. I consider myself a Teacher Leader because I try to be innovative in my classroom, I take initiative to present at conferences and share my expertise, I'm active politically in education at the local and national level, and I'm constantly pursuing learning. But, here's why I view myself as a teacher leader: last week I was working in my classroom on a day when the English II teachers decided to meet and work on their curriculum together (which was a first, too, and a giant step toward teacher leadership and collaboration!). At the end of their work, they bounced into my room and shared their ideas. They were so proud of the work they had accomplished together, they couldn't wait to share it with someone who cared just as much as they did, and I don't teach English II. I spent 10 minutes listening to brilliant and excited teachers share goals for each quarter, and what assessment would look like, and how they came to see the end result and the pathway that would take them there. Our true teacher leaders are the teachers down the hall from you and you just can't wait to share with them because you know they will listen, and you also know they might have some expertise to share back.

Maybe building that teacher leader does come from all of this "doing" outside of the classroom that builds reputation and leverage, but I can't help but think of those passionate teachers who are respected because of what happens inside of their classrooms and how they treat their colleagues next to their classrooms.

Obviously, I'm a little passionate about this topic and naturally, I write too much. :) But, I must add, because I noticed in the previous comments about rural and urban connections, that teachers from the Greater Kansas City Writing Project and the Ozarks Writing Project are collaborating this coming school year on lessons and online learning. Rural and Urban--working together. Maybe they would be willing to share some of their work on connecting these two. It was fun to read their tweets a few weeks ago at their first network meeting...especially when they were writing about assumptions each had about the other. Powerful stuff when teachers work and learn together.

Thank you for sharing your powerful thoughts on Teacher Leadership. I enjoyed the read and responding with my own thoughts. :)

Chuck's picture

I'm a first year teacher and was placed in a leadership role by the sink or swim method. Our grade level needed some new ideas in science and a set of common assessments including a final exam.My mentor more or less grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and tossed me in head first to produce these assessments which were to shape our science curriculum. I had to paddle very fast to keep my head above water but I learned quickly to collaborate and when this was not possible due to time, to forge ahead anyway. At the end of this project my mentor and principal asked me how it all went. I was surprised to realize that it went very well and the collaborative efforts were well received and appreciated (they merely smirked and told me that they had expected this all along). Sometimes it is good to be dragged out of our zone of comfort and shoved headlong into a leadership role.

Megan's picture

I work in an urban charter school. Prior to beginning my job there I worked 2 years as a long term sub. Each year my current school begins with new teachers spending one week learning school policies, working on curriculum and so on. During my own new teacher week one of my administrators asked me to take on a leader role within my group of newbies. I was reluctant to do this, but not wanting to disappoint my new boss I did it anyway. Ever since I have been seen as a leader at my school. Whether in team meetings or small group chat sessions in the hall after school, I am seen as a go-to person for ideas and advice from both colleagues and administrators. It is awesome for me to see how a role I was reluctant to accept has defined me as a teacher.

Roy Gutscher's picture
Roy Gutscher
8th Grade Reading/Language Arts Teacher

I am currently a teacher in San Bernardino,California and can relate to this article. This is my sixth year as a 8th grade teacher. In my first four years, I felt just like Elena that I was overwhelmed and did not know as much as other teachers around me. Last year, I read everything I could and would try anything to help students improve themselves. Many of my colleagues begin to ask when I would get my Administrative degree. At the end of year I decided to begin my Masters Degree in Educational Technology. This summer I got little time off because of professional developments that I attended. I really believe that this will help in the future. This was an excellent article and I am going to take the advice that was given by the author.

Bryana Birkrem's picture

I think being a teacher leader is a person that gets involved in the schools and classrooms. One that is focused not only on their classroom but willing to help others too. A teacher leader is a expert teacher always on top of things.

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