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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LeAnn Risch's picture

I don't think that teachers having opportunties to be leaders on their campus means that administration gives up power. I do think that teacher leaders and administration can and should coexist. The norm may not be schools that are collaborative in nature, but the collaboration comes from the administration and the teaching staff making collaboration a requirement, making it necessary in order to improve the overall program at the classroom and campus level.

If am currently frustratetd as I am looking for opportunties to grow in my professional and on my current campus. The administration is not supporting me in these efforts and continually looks past me for opportunities. I am a teacher who steps up (repeatedly) both inside and outside of the classroom. I am looking for avenues outside of my school for these opportunties, but that is proving to be equally difficult. I fully agree with Ms. Aguilar, that teachers need to be offered leadership opportunties to continue to offer their students the best of themselves.

Rod McQuality's picture

As a school administrator I find it extremely important to give leadership roles to teachers. We are a MS that operates in teams with team leaders that guide decision making for their grade level teams. A building leadership team discusses issues affecting the entire building. An RTi leadership team plans and implements RTi for the building. As a retiring administrator this year, I have also developed a consulting company to assist educators in understanding key components of MS and differentiated instruction. These PD topics are offered online to keep teachers in the classroom, where they need to be and to allow districts to get the most PD for the $$. Up to 75 teachers receive 15 hrs of PD for only 4K. Schools also receive a free "Kindle" for staff members to use while participating in the book studies. All from the convenience of the home/school computer. More info at

Sarah Stromberg's picture
Sarah Stromberg
Middle School Counselor

I'm in a major slump right now and feeling like I'm spinning my wheels at my current position. I've been a school counselor for three and a half years now and I'm definitely in leadership positions in the district. 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.
I'm still a newbie, but is there a graduate program for educational leadership? Or should I pursue administrative training? The idea of coaching schools to improve because they WANT to is an exciting concept to me... Do you work for your state department of instruction? A specific district?


aradhna's picture

Leadership is solving problems. The day soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you have stopped leading them. They have either lost confidence that you can help or concluded you do not care. Either case is a failure of leadership.
Colin Powell
Teacher leadership is all about taking the other responsibilities beyond your teaching. In 21st century leadership is not only with the principles or the administrators, nevertheless, it also belongs to teacher and assistant teachers. Teachers decide what and how the students are going to learn and develop. I think teachers can be a leader by having a deep commitment towards the students learning and keeping themselves involve in the responsibilities beyond the classroom maybe new personal development workshop, helping other teachers in their queries, innovations inside and out of the classroom and many more.

Michelle's picture

I currently have a degree in early childhood education and can teach preschool through third grade. I am teaching preschool at a Christian daycare. At this point our center has very little technology available to educators, besides a computer with Internet access that is located in the office. I am passionate about technology and am working on my Masters in Classroom Technology. This has inspired me to be a teacher leader in the field of technology integration at the preschool level. I agree what Elena Agguilar says about teachers playing leadership roles is important and that one should become informed in these areas. In order to teach others about technology integration at the preschool level I need to learn and research all that I can in order to be informed and be able to support my decisions with research. After I began my research I then began talking to other teachers and administrative personnel to build a team who is excited to learn and implement technology at the center. The challenges we currently face is funding and being able to purchase more technology to implement within the center. I believe there are grants and other avenues for my center to receive technology to integrate with the current curriculum. The teachers would like to see virtual field trips, collaboration with other preschool students around the world, and more hands on projects with the use of technology to meet the unique learning styles of all students at this young age.

I read Ellen Moir's post: Collaboration Is at the Heart of PLCs (Professional Learning Communities Enhance Knowledge and Teamwork). She states that the goal is to implement PLCs in a meaningful, rigorous way, and to ensure that they become deeply rooted in our school cultures. In order for this to fully happen, we must then trust teachers' professional judgments that are at the center of these programs to run the show. Ellen states that effective PLCs are characterized by "visitation and review of each teacher's classroom behaviors, and results by peers, with feedback directed at individual and community improvement." That is why it is important that I spend time conducting surveys and research to find what my centers greatest need is and then focus my energy on meeting that need.

Brette's picture

I think that a teacher leader is someone who initiates collaboration and creative thinking. You become a teacher leader in technology by helping others to use it effectively. I teach fourth grade at a small elementary school. My fellow teachers are very experienced in their fields, but many of them are not very comfortable with technology. I was ecstatic to be able to share my ideas and show them how to use their websites. I expanded my Teacher Leader experience by co-facilitating professional development for Promethean Boards. These are ways that I have "accepted more responsibility for helping colleagues to achieve success," as suggested by Ofelia. I am interested in facilitating professional development for Web 2.0 tools and other technology topics.

I agree with Catherine, who said, "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." My principal has asked our fifth grade teacher and me to test out software for the school. It was a great program and I recommended to be purchased by PTO. I don't think that my school district is aware of more cost effective programs that can replace current ones. I would like to test out other software and help make funding decisions in my district. I have joined a technology committee in hopes of providing insight.

Ann Crosby's picture
Ann Crosby
High School Computer Science teacher from Ida, Michigan

Susan Murrell Castadeda said to be a teacher leader, you must lead yourself first. I couldn't agree more. Teacher leaders come from a passion to learn all they can and share all they can for the benefit of all. Also, teacher leaders must be optimistic that what they are trying will be successful and cheer on others' efforts.

The only way one can do this is to lead through example. Teachers who see and hear what you are doing will naturally be drawn to you for ideas and collaboration. When they come to you, you must be ready to offer encouragement. The passion you have must extend beyond the classroom to the whole community. Teacher leaders must be risk takers, many times I attend PD sessions and I immediately try something new out. This takes courage. I also like to share my knowledge with fellow teachers which also take courage. Teacher leaders are usually easy to spot, they may not be the loudest or the most popular, but they are the ones will to try new things, share ideas, support colleagues, and go the extra mile to improve the environment for all.

One example of taking leadership beyond the classroom took place my first year at my current school. We were having a problem with students leaving backpacks in the hallway. We are a small rural district who doesn't look at safety the same way more urban district might. I was concerned for many reasons and when it was brought up at a staff meeting, I offered my experiences in a previous school and my concern for school safety. The principal said great, put together a committee and come up with a solution. I easily found fellow staff to be on the committee and came up with a plan. I was passionate about my school's appearance and the safety of students. As other teachers found reasons for the plan to fail, I stayed optimistic that our students would step-up to the new changes. I did not matter to me that it was an extra responsibility, my passion drove my efforts

Alyssia's picture

I have always been someone who loves to learn new things. My interests have changed throughout the years, but that is a quality that I think I will always possess. I am just about to complete my fourth year as a 4th/5th grade math/science teacher, and learning new things not only increases my knowledge in a subject, but it allows me to share new information or tools with my students that they enjoy. I have found that students are much more likely to be engaged in an activity if it is new and exciting...not a surprise! Technology is something that I have really focused on the past few years, and I have found many ways of incorporating new types of technology into my lessons. Although I love to share new things I find with my students and teachers that I work with on a daily basis, I find it harder to share when it involves many different educators that I am not familiar with. Since I work in a small building, I have taken on the role of the "tech helper" and have done everything from fix small computer problems to putting on professional development workshops to share with other teachers what I do in the classroom. Recently I was asked by our curriculum director to present at a large conference with her to share what I have been doing in the classroom. After debating for several days I accepted the invitation and decided to take a chance. I actually never had to present at the conference, because we were not chosen to be speakers, but ever since then I have been given the opportunity to pilot new programs and present at several technology workshops and meetings. Best of all, I believe that my administrators view me as a teacher leader, which will continue opening the door for many opportunities in the future. I found it interesting to read Megan's blog about taking chances as a "newbie":
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.
I guess taking a chance is worth it, especially when you are a new teacher!

Merrily's picture

As Frank Hagan shares, "Teacher leaders are the core to school improvement". It seems that many teachers are natural leaders. We all have a desire to lead others. It begins with a desire to lead a classroom of students. As educators we see the importance of education and the opportunities that are opened through it. Because of our love of knowledge it is natural to continue learning ourselves. To be a teacher leader it is imperative to continue learning ourselves. There is always ways to improve instruction and learn from our past experiences. We can also learn from each other. Teacher leaders are willing to share knowledge gained from experiences with other teachers. I work in a building with many teachers willing to share lesson plans. Because I work with so many other leaders I have become a better teacher. It has also made me want to share new ideas that have worked in my own classroom.
Currently, I am working on my master's in classroom technology. The classes I have taken have given me many new ideas for lesson plans. With the completion of my master's courses coming quickly I find it important to surround myself with other teachers who are interested in using technology to support their lesson plans. I currently have a critical friends group that I would love to morph into a PLC. These teachers are accepting of my ideas and offer wonderful ideas to my own lesson plans. Creating a PLC from this group would benefit all of us greatly in our pursuit of improving our current practices.

Susan's picture

Marie Jewett-Melian describes a leader as someone who is constantly encouraging others, promoting themselves and sharing information.

I agree with this as a teacher leader you need to be open to new ideas, be willing to share and be a support to colleagues, students, and parents. If you are asking colleagues and students to try new technologies then it is necessary to provide some instruction, examples and support. As an online teacher, I have been adding Web 2.0 tools as options for my students to complete assignments. With each new tool introduced I create screen shots, videos and examples for the students. It takes some time to put everything together. But it is worth every minute, when the students send in completed assignments using these tools.

Our department has been meeting online once a week this year. This is a great opportunity for us to share ideas, tools and resources. This weekly time for collaboration has benefitted each of us greatly as we share our successes and failures. During these sessions and our formal Professional Development, I have been able to share information from my Masters in Classroom Technology program. During these meetings I plan to help my colleagues with video creation, collaboration and Web 2.0 tools.

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