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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

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?

Comments (53)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Catherine's picture

Thank you so much for your encouragement. I'm from a small rural county and so it is sometimes hard to find encouragement to go on and do bigger and better things.

Was the 'School Improvement Coach' a position that existed or one that you created?

In reply to the National boards--they definitely taught me a lot about myself and my classroom. I was able to see areas that needed improvement and areas that I could excel in even more.

Frank J. Hagen's picture

Teacher leaders are the core to school improvement. Even when a school has an effective principal, it is a given that he/she cannot do it alone. So, it is critical for teachers to share the leadership role with the principal to begin/continue the school's journey to the next level.

Frank J. Hagen's picture

Teacher leaders are the core to school improvement. Even when a school has an effective principal, it is a given that he/she cannot do it alone. So, it is critical for teachers to share the leadership role with the principal to begin/continue the school's journey to the next level.

Elena Aguilar's picture
Elena Aguilar
Transformational Leadership Coach from Oakland, California
Blogger 2014

Frank: Thank you for your comment! You make a critical point.

Catherine: Given that you're from a "small rural county" I wonder what options the internet holds for your leadership? There's a whole world here that you can plug into and play a role in. In fact, there's such a disconnect between us city folk and you rural people - seems like there's a huge need to bridge that gap and learn from each other. Many of the students who end up in our big cities have rural roots - what you know could really help us connect with and understand their parents and early learning experiences that our students had. (For example, there are many recent immigrants in my area from rural Mexico and Central America). But I imagine there's a lot we could learn from you and your experience...Maybe just start sharing? That's a way of taking leadership - sharing what you know and have experienced. Share stories. Build connections, alliances. Who knows what possibilities may come out of reaching out and connecting and talking? Please stay in touch and let us know what you do, where you go, and what you learn on your journey to leadership - and more than anything, if you've got the bug, if you've the inclination and interest - pay attention to that and keep exploring!

sereen's picture

"A teacher's control, he said repeatedly, should be 'an exercise in purpose, not in power.'" a good teacher is when he or she cares about students not just do their job and thats it

Dr. Mike Todd's picture
Dr. Mike Todd
Chief Learning Officer

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.

nanette thomas's picture
nanette thomas
Currently, Special Education Teacher 3-5 year olds, San Jose, Ca.

Unfortunately, I have witnessed administrators and coordinators ask me about curriculum and resources and later have used them for their own gain. They refuse to allow a teacher with the same qualifications and education (or more) to be hired into an administrative role. One particular individual had been let go in our Admin Offices but was spiteful to the end. The past 4 years I trained new staff on certain elements of teaching and class structure but was refused employment for this summer school session. I beleieve that I may have a legal case of discrimination and unfair labor practices.

Steve Owens's picture
Steve Owens
Pre-K - 6 music, Calais VT, Sharon VT

Mike, teacher leaders are where you find them. My wife did her MPA at UVM and introduced me to the concept of "boundary spanners." These are people who can move gracefully from domain to domain. They tend to acquire considerable power within an organization. I have discovered, through no fault of my own, that I have taken on the characteristics of a boundary spanner. The result is I am president of my union local, I am president of my regional professional development organization, and I have been offered a Classroom Teaching Ambassador Fellowship with the US DOE.

As union president I am in a unique position to see who is a natural leader. These folks are attracted to the energy of the union like moths to a light bulb. They are attracted by the presence of dynamic individuals like themselves, and the association gives rich opportunities for self actualization. I think any such nexus of energy in the education enterprise will attract those with the will and desire to go "above and beyond." You don't need to develop leadership, but merely identify the places it happens, and once there encourage its natural unfolding.

Linda Martin's picture
Linda Martin
Advanced Academics Resource Teacher from Reston, VA

Elena, I read with interest your blog on teacher leadership. I work in one of the largest school districts in the country. It's exciting to be in this county and in this field at this time and place. So much potential for growth and development! In my practice, I approach everything I do with a willingness to learn and to share. As soon as I go to a workshop, I want to try it out. After a time, I'm sharing it. I ask for opportunities to give workshops, to write for district newsletters, and to blog about it. I love experimenting and finding things out from other people. One of my passions is girls' equity so I started a STEM club for girls, which became a conference, which has become a series of workshops, which became a website, which has enabled me to write for national publications on the topic. Yet, I am a teacher with students working in a school. I have no desire to leave the classroom or working with children. That is my true passion and my blank canvas. Enthusiasm and the spirit of exploration is contagious. Deep down I believe my true legacy is the impact I make on individual students, but if I can impact the lives of other students, some I may never know, or never meet, I can celebrate that as a take my role as teacher leader. I don't wait for an invitation-- I CREATE them.

Ofelia Lopez's picture

Teacher leadership involves the proactive involvement of teachers in impacting, enhancing, and preparing the greater community through the focus on education. Teacher leaders encourage others an influence practice and policies, mentor new teachers, assist in improving instructional practices and help develop capacity of other teachers. They lead within and beyond the classroom; identify with and contribute to a community of teacher learners and leaders; influence others toward improved educational practice; and accept responsibility for achieving the outcomes of their leadership. I believe all teachers can be leaders. Teacher Leadership develops naturally amongst teachers who learn, share and address problems together.

Furthermore, teachers can be leaders of change beyond their classrooms by accepting more responsibility for helping colleagues to achieve success for all of the students and for the total school program. Working collaboratively with each other and providing assistance and guidance when needed is a great way to bring the school community together. Last year at my school we held two professional learning community meetings. Furthermore, we began implementing the Teacher Fellow Program, which consisted of twelve teachers and was a huge success. I am sure that more teachers will be part of this program the upcoming year. Through this program, I have learned that teacher leaders encourage other teachers and support them by sharing resources; facilitating Professional Development and having other teachers visit their classrooms.

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