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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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Amber's picture

I am always thinking "what's next?" Can't put my finger on what it is that doesn't satisfy me about being a classroom teacher. I've been teaching 5th grade for four years. I'm considering graduate school after next year. But your blog has got me thinking. There's an older teacher who is always telling me I should take different leadership roles but I always thought I wasn't qualified. I appreciate you sharing your experience and advice. Maybe I'll consider this next year. I would love to stay working within my district and community, but I have to find something else. Thanks.

Catherine's picture

I have just completed my Masters and National Boards this past year.
I think of a teacher leader as someone that is willing to step up and take a risk for the betterment of their class, school, or district. This person is also someone that is trying new and innovative things in the classroom and takes a stand what he/she believes in.

Even having completed this two major accomplishments I still find myself thinking "what is next?" I find myself holding back on and not taking that leap to the unknown. After reading your blog, I find new confidence in reaching out the the unknown and taking a risk for a new leadership role. What is your title? Do you work for a district or what?

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

Thanks for sharing your two big accomplishments! I'm so glad you mentioned National Board certification. I think you might be able to find many avenues into teacher leadership through that fantastic path. Just get out there and try a whole bunch of things - accept any and all opportunities. It'll help you get a sense of what you like, who you like working with, how you like to share what you know, etc. Start talking to people about what you do, what you know, what you've done with students and you'll find an audience.

I work for the Oakland Unified School District and my title is "School Improvement coach." It's leadership and whole school coaching - primarily with principals and groups of teacher-leaders. It took me about six years of dabbling in this and that kind of leadership/ coaching/ to find this position and it finally feels exactly right.

Look around you and see if there's anyone doing work that you think you might want to do. Read blogs, ed articles, you'll get more ideas about what people are doing as an extension of what they're doing in the classroom. Think about other things you've done in your life or enjoy doing and how they might be used with or in teaching. I have always liked to write - so here's a venue for that passion. I like talking to groups, so I've done that too. Just keep poking around, listening, asking questions, and taking opportunities and you'll find some fun paths to travel! Good luck, and thanks for commenting.

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