George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Teacher Leadership

6 Paths to Better Leadership

School leaders can undertake these six key tasks to make a difference in the lives of their students and improve school communities. 
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Leadership in education is more important now than ever. Demands on instructional time are escalating, and accountability pressures are increasing. The historically neglected areas of social-emotional and civic competence are emerging as essentials. For leaders who know what direction they want to head, there are six key tasks that must be undertaken.

Based on a combination of interviews with educational leaders by Mark Goldberg, and the observations of David Gergen after serving in the White House under several presidents from both political parties (Eyewitness to Power, 2000), here are the six tasks:

1. Believe and Envision

Leaders must have a core belief that can be communicated with clarity, concision, and passion. This is referred to as a bedrock belief (Goldberg) and a compelling vision (Gergen).

2. Start Strong and Simple

Leaders must get off to a quick, sure start. This is especially true for those new to the leadership role: leaders must inspire confidence. Rather than take on the most challenging problems, it's best to start with a small, potentially solvable challenge. This gives everyone a chance to see how the leader will work, and for those more directly involved, a chance to experience the new leadership style together. When efforts flounder, much will be learned from how setbacks are handled.

3. Persuade and Inspire

Leaders must have skills to persuade and inspire. They must be able to articulate a realistic and clear vision of how the organization will look in the future, and help others see the vision as congruent with their own concerns, goals, or deep beliefs. They must communicate and model their strong convictions so that they inspire others to sustained action, even when the leader is "not looking." Others with leadership roles or responsibilities also must embrace and articulate the vision.

4. Lead Morally

Leaders must have a strong moral compass. To follow any leader, others must be convinced of that leader's dedication to equity, fairness, overcoming disadvantage, and giving voice. It's fair to say that not everyone will perceive these attributes on the part of the leaders, but his or her core followers definitely must.

5. Demonstrate Courage and Compromise

Leaders must have the courage to swim upstream. Because leadership ultimately is a moral commitment, leaders must be prepared to take risks, buck trends, show courage, persist, embolden others, and use a nuanced sense of compromise. (In an instructional setting, these are qualities that teachers ultimately want to transfer to their students so that their educational default is not passive compliance.)

6. Optimize Any Situation

Leaders must excel at situational mastery and emotional intelligence. According to Goldberg (June 2001, Phi Delta Kappan, p.760), "I do not believe that any of the people I interviewed could have exchanged positions and had the same success." Ultimately, leaders must have the emotional intelligence skills to optimize the situation in which they find themselves and the resources at hand, and inspire others to undertake maximal efforts. Even more than technical training, the leader must help members of the organization and constituents have a deep understanding of the mission and vision and a commitment to collaborate in pursuit of that shared understanding. What the leader can accomplish directly is limited, especially in large and complex educational settings. Hence, distributed leadership is essential for sustainability.

One need not be a principal, superintendent, or school board president to be a school leader. Leaders are those who step up to help their organizations succeed. They take a larger measure of responsibility for keeping track of the big picture. Consider the areas where your involvement can help make your school or district a better place. Let this year be your own personal leadership year.

About the Author
  • Maurice J. Elias Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab (www.secdlab.org), Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service (engage.rutgers.edu) @SELinSchools
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Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT's picture
Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT
Middle school English/Digital Design/Broadcast Media teacher

My favorite: Leaders must have the courage to swim upstream. One of my best principals was one who had the courage to push for what she knew to be right for her staff and students. She wasn't afraid of what the district would say or do -- she acted on her own convictions. We teachers need to do the same, as often we are the ones who know what's best for our kids!

Dr. Jacek Polubiec's picture

In order to be effective leaders should focus on supporting intrinsic motivation in teachers be providing them with opportunities to experience autonomy and competency as well as connectedness to those with whom they have a strong emotional connection. Teacher motivation affects student motivation(Deci & Ryan, 1985), moreover, a case can be made that the lack of discourse about motivation undermines our efforts to address the issue of teacher attrition which negatively impacts our schools.

Becky S.'s picture

Hi Maurice,

Great post! I have been teaching for several years now but I am just beginning to dive into the idea of serving as a teacher leader. You've come up with a terrific breakdown for teachers looking to "amp up" their leadership abilities. I think if we take a look at anybody we consider to be a great leader, we'd be able to identify examples from each of your points.

I particularly appreciated one of your closing sentences: "Leaders are those who step up to help their organizations succeed". So true! Anybody, regardless of official position or title, can be a leader. By thinking about the steps we are taking to help build student and educator success, we can establish our stance as leaders.

I am blogging about this very topic this semester -- I am looking forward to reading more of your writing about leadership!

vstubstad's picture

Hey Maurice,

I really agree with your first path in teacher leadership. A word that struck a cord with me is passion. I think that some people lose a little of their passion when they are out of the classroom. In order to be a great leader, passion and enthusiasm are absolutely necessary.

I eventually want to be in more of a leadership role at my school and you had some great information that I should keep in mind. I like the transition that is going on in schools where teachers have an opportunity to become a leader without holding a specific position. Do you think that schools are going to have a specific label for teacher leaders and require an amount of teacher leaders? I think the more the merrier because everyone has the ability to lead depending on the topic.

Overall, this was a great blog and it was helpful for me in regards to teacher leadership. Thanks for sharing your ideas!

ecoury's picture

Hello! I think this post is inspiring and helpful to educators that are wanting to improve their leadership skills and understand how to do so. It is so important for teachers to find passion in their fields in order to develop. I think what stood out to me in this article was the last paragraph where you talked about how leadership does not=high ranking/position. Do you have any advice on how future educators to learn these behaviors?

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