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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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Jaime Halka's picture

Sarah Stromberg said, "We are trying to implement RtI, get Title I rolling in our school, and trying to improve overall. The problem is, the movement is VERY slow and I'm starting to feel as though my enthusiasm for educational reform is depleting the more I hear people complain about change in my school." This is something that I am dealing with at my school as well. I want to be part of leadership teams because I am so excited to try new things in the classroom and want to show my colleagues what is new in education, but it becomes so frustrating when all I hear is complaining from teachers and staff about the changes. It seems like every year that I have been in my school district there have been many changes, from implementing new reading programs, new school board members, a new superintendent, and staff changes. Even though there has been so many changes, our school district has gotten better over the 5 years, with these changes. So obviously, the changes that we are making are good for the school, even though many people may not agree with them. In response to Sarah's comment I would offer her the advice to go into technology leadership. Technology is becoming such a huge part of teaching and learning, that many school districts are EXCITED to learn about it. I have noticed there is less complaining from staff because of technology changes then any other topic.

In my school I would consider myself a leader for technology. I almost have my technology in education masters degree, and have learned many new ideas to incorporate in my classroom. For my masters' project I launched a classroom wiki for reading comprehension. I had a third grade team district meeting last week and shared the idea with the other third grade teachers, and they loved it. They were so impressed and excited that they wrote it on their "to-do" list for summer projects. I have also given ideas to teachers in my building who want to incorporate technology into their teaching. i shared a resource website that gives teachers lesson ideas for web 2.0 tools, open source programs, and interactive games and skills for third-fourth grade students. Eventually, I would like to be the technology rep at our school, but it is a lot of work, so it is something I would like to do after I get my masters. I also have lead students in a computer club to learn more about technology and the students that are in my club have went back to their teacher and shared project ideas for them to integrate in their classroom. If I can get students to learn these things, they can be "helpers" in the classroom for the teachers who want to launch different technology projects. I had a parent email me the other day that her son is loving our new reading homework wiki. She said they he went home and showed her exactly what to do, how to do it, and she was impressed how much he could do! It makes me feel good as a teacher and a colleague to teach students and adults how to use technology to make teaching and learning fun!

Lisa's picture

Somehow I have slowly and almost unknowingly became a teacher leader at my school. As Elena Aguilar mentions in her article she had people nudging her along the way. Now that I think back, I too have had the French teacher, an English teacher, and the high school principal nudging me along, encouraging me to learn and try new things. They, like Elena's colleagues, saw/see potential in me. I have taken the initiative to be on my school's Race to the Top team where I along with the team members decide which direction our school will head in the next 3-5 years. It is a huge responsibility to understand the future of education and cooperatively move our school towards future goals. The team only consists of nine teachers (high school and elementary) which are representing the entire teaching staff of 50. As Frank Hagen posted previously, teacher leaders are the "core to school improvement." I definitely agree with this statement in many ways. Many times when administration wants to try something new, teachers resist but when a couple of teachers try something, reflect, and collaborate with others teachers the idea or concept spreads much quicker. Also, teacher leaders should want to improve their school and try new ideas and techniques. Who wants to learn the same way their parents did? Education is always changing and there is always room for improvement - teacher leaders are usually paving that path and I'm proud to be considered one!

As a leader I can share my expertise while taking a stand and a risk something Catherine feels is essential to being a teacher leader. If I were to lead a PLC on technology I would be sure my group practices hands-on with the technology first. I think in order to create great lessons that teach those all important 21st century skills a teacher should know and understand the technology first. I am a kinesthetic learner and I do better when I actually get to play or mess around with technology. My PLC would have plenty of on-hands time to discover the many possibilities technology offers for education. Who wants to read the instruction manual? The teacher doesn't have to know everything but a basic understanding is important. I would also remind my PLC to integrate technology slowly - it doesn't all have to been learned in one day.

Carrie's picture
9th grade Global Studies teacher from Oregon, Ohio

I agree with Amber! I am always thinking what is next? In my previous position, I felt like everyone already had a station in a position of leadership, and there would not be room for more. This year I am teaching in a new building with new staff. It was made known early on that I am pretty tech savvy. I tried to keep this hidden in my old position fearing that I would be overwhelmed by questions. But now I feel like I am needed, and play an important leadership role. I have to say that I really like being the leader. I am even considering implementing a technology program, and piloting that for the high school. I have had teacher nudging me to step up and take that position. I was nervous at first, but now embrace it.

Rhea V's picture
Rhea V
Second Grade Teacher, Port Lavaca, TX

What a very thought provoking and interesting post. I am currently working on my Master's Degree in Teacher Leadership. I had never considered myself to be a leader, until I stepped into the classroom and realized that teachers are leaders. As I think back, there were also those people who nudged me along and enticed me to seek more responsibility. Defining the Role and Accepting the Calling are both very powerful messages to anyone pursuing a leadership position.
In response to your questions: 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?
I believe being a teacher leader can happen serve in a variety of ways. To be a leader, you have to be willing to take risks and learn from successes and failures. You must be empathetic and understand that everyone's contribution to decision-making is important. I believe that leaders develop, they aren't just created. Teacher Leadership is very important in a school society. It creates a communication line between teachers and administrators, which is so often neglected. It can also help others to see their potiential as leaders. I am just beginning my journey into this exciting world of leadership, and I am so thankful to have experienced leaders who will post and blog information that is helpful to me in my future. Thank you.

Buena F. Lacno's picture

To start off, this is my first time blogging on an educational website. I really am having fun with this form of learning and interaction with fellow educators. Thank goodness I decided to pursue my Master's Degree with University of Phoenix. I'm also stoked that George Lucas is the founder of this website!

My school administrator has been very supportive with teachers who were embarking on their journey toward leadership roles. He allowed them to participate on walk-through observations. They also attended leadership conferences. I admired how the current teacher leaders were mentoring prospective teacher leaders. There was a lot of support and encouragement. I also noticed that teacher leaders were meeting with my administrator as early as five o'clock in the morning to have video conferences with off-island professionals. I thought it was great opportunity for them to get a fresh perspective on educational issues specifically in our school district in regards to improving school behavior modifications.

Just as Elena Aguilar, I too craved the intellectual stimulation of higher education. Twelve years ago I was certain that I wanted to get my Master's Degree in Education. I wanted to take the modern approach of learning through online class. With my new husband and baby boy, the dream was put on hold. Seven years down the road, I took my very first online class. It was a great experience and I was excited for my next course. Unforeseen circumstances interrupted the plan. This year, I gave birth to my baby girl, my husband has a secure job, and my son is healthy and active in school activities. I took the blessings as a sign that it is my time to flourish in my personal and professional life. I am ready for the challenge, to do what it takes to become a "Teacher Leader."

Kristen Pate's picture
Kristen Pate
2nd Grade teacher from New Orleans, Louisiana

I totally related to this post! I am one of those teachers who have been "nudged" into leadership. I am currently teaching second grade, but I have been craving a role with more impact. I wasn't really sure what direction I wanted to go in. I knew that whatever I decided to do, I wanted to get my Masters to do it. So I searched and happened upon the MAED-Teacher Leadership program at University of Phoenix. I know for sure that I don't want to be a principal, but I definitely want to serve my school in a larger capacity. I am no stranger to having leadership roles so I am confident that this is what I am suppose to be doing. Even now, as a classroom teacher, I am leading projects, chairing committees, and creating a rapport with my administration in hopes that as our school continues to grow that I will be someone who they would consider for a leadership role in the school. I know it takes guts, patients, persistence, and stamina to be a great leader and I am eagerly awaiting the opportunity to prove myself to my colleagues, administration, and myself.

Doreen Franklin's picture
Doreen Franklin
Special Education Teacher, Augusta Maine

In my opinion, a teacher leader is someone who takes the initiative to make changes in education, either at the school level, district level, or beyond. I personally want to be able to initiate change within my district and help others see new ways of thinking and doing.
I think that some people set out to become leaders from the beginning and others (like the author) are nudged into it. I am being nudged into this position as well. I have been asked over the years to take initiative on projects that have led me into a leadership role, a role that I never really had an interest in. Based on what others saw in me, they felt I should become a wing coordinator, teacher mentor, district trainer in behavior, and most recently, a CIPS ( Continuous Improvement Priority School) team member. Having gone into these roles reluctantly, I am now embracing this role and making a conscious effort to become a Teacher Leader. I always have considered myself a life long learner and have moved around in different teaching disciplines. I have found my home in special education for the time being and pursing a teacher leadership role is helping me in my process continued learning. Being a special education teacher, my desire to help others has led me along the path of teacher leadership. I see things happening in the special education world that I know could benefit the general education world and want to be able to share these strategies and ideas. I have a genuine desire to help my district become an exemplar to other districts and I feel that pursuing my role as a teacher leader will help accomplish this goal.

Michael Fowler's picture

There is a real need for teacher leaders in education. I became a teacher after serving 23 years in the US Army. I have found that a lot of teachers are content with staying in the classroom and have no desire to take on leadership roles. I am not saying that's always a bad thing we need experienced teachers in the classroom and the ones I know are dedicated and are truly concerned about educating their students. However, I feel some of our best teachers that would make excellent administrators don't want to take the next step. This often leads to administrators that aren't the very best making decisions for a lot of our students. Leadership in our education system is paramount and will help produce the most educated student possible. I want to encourage teachers to take the next step and take on new challenging leadership roles. You will be a more effective teacher for doing it and one day leading a school or a district.

Ryan E's picture
Ryan E
K-6 Physical Education Teacher

To me, a teacher leader is someone that other teachers and staff members can turn to for advice and ideas. They are willing to assist others with anything they may need to facilitate their effectiveness as an educator. A teacher leader is also a person that an administrator can turn to for assistance with guiding and mentoring new teachers. Along with the principal, a teacher leader should be the face of the school.

Becoming a teacher leader usually begins with your skills being noticed by an administrator or fellow teacher and them advising you to take on the role. My principal asked me to join the leadership committee at my school 3 years ago, and I have served on it every year since then. The leadership committee is composed of an individual from each grade level and we meet once a month after school for an hour and a half. We are then responsible for sharing everything from the meeting with our teammates.
In my last online class (which was also my first ever), the person who had originally volunteered to lead the group decided she did not have the time and energy to take on that responsibility after a week and a half. She asked me to take the role because she thought I was the best candidate based on my posts and contributions to the team even though I was inexperienced.

These are a couple of ways that teachers can take leadership at their schools. Other great ways are to be chairpersons of committees, attend after school events whenever possible even if you are not directly involved, and take opportunities to voice ideas at staff meetings. I attend math nights and parent information evenings even though I am a P.E. teacher, just to support my principal and school. Interacting with families and the community is a great way of showing your commitment to your school and setting an example for other teachers.

KasandraS's picture

Every teacher has the capacity and ability within to be a leader. However I feel that many times there are many factors that play a huge role in preventing them from "taking those risks" as you described. At times there is inadequate support from surrounding teachers when a novice teacher has new ideas or a drive for implementing them. In my school I was very much filled with enthusiasm and drive but the teachers in my school seemed to be very much intimidated, perhaps even jealous of my burning flame. It is important to note that for someone to be a leader, to come out on top of all the challenges presented to them, they must be strong enough to pull through it all. No matter what teachers said to me, or when they refused to work along with new ideas I presented I did not let it get to me and I forged ahead. The downfall is truly theirs because they are not open to change or new ideas - how will they impact an ever changing society of students as the world continues to turn? Something for them to work on.

I believe that a leader in education is someone who continues to finish that last leg of a relay until they reach the finish line - a person whom is strong willed and is determined to positively impact student learning and achievement - no obstacle is to great to defeat their determination. At the end of everything as teachers it is our duty to lead our students to success we must be open-minded and willing to make adjustments so that we can be effective in the education of students.

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