George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Last school year, Barnett Berry, CEO of the Center for Teaching Quality, interviewed me for a book called Teacherpreneurs: Innovative Teachers Who Lead But Don't Leave. In it, he focused on how I worked with others in my school to develop their leadership and continue the spirit of collegiality across all subject areas. While my title was "math coach," I saw myself more as someone filling in a few of the gaps that the school needed filled, a "solutions maven," if you will.

Since then, I've gotten more opportunities to spread the word about teacher leadership for the 21st century, including my Edutopia blog post on the subject. Of course, with much of the praise I received, I also heard a deluge of critiques from all sorts of key stakeholders. For instance, I have advocated that teachers spend some percentage of their time outside the classroom to find solutions for the school. Some principals wonder if this is the best use of their (most effective) teachers' time. Other teachers wonder if this idea of teacherpreneur is a bridge toward relinquishing the roles (and salaries) of teachers to the whims of an undulating market. Still others take issue with the way teacher leaders get chosen, which we can all agree has been a problem since the 20th century.

With that, we must set a new path. We need a way of looking at teacher leadership which assures that we value expertise while spreading the idea of teacher-as-thought-leader to the rest of the country. That starts locally. In many schools, the idea of 21st century leadership may radically change the paradigm in the school. For others, it might be a smaller adjustment. I'll try to address those and more in a few simple steps.

1. Know Your Stuff

My advice to any teacher leader, new or old: know what you're talking about. Teachers respect leaders who have expertise and demonstrate confidence in that expertise. Having classroom experience goes a long way, but if our message doesn't sound classroom-based or substantive, it won't ring true to your colleagues. For instance, if you're asked a question about the Common Core State Standards, you should know about the shifts in English, the practices in math or the integrations in science, even if you disagree with the standards. In other words, know your stuff. Nothing inspires confidence like reading up on important policy and having a good sense of how that applies to the classroom.

2. Create Something New

In the beginning, new teacher leaders have a hard time adjusting. It can be a strange position to be in now that your role distances you from other colleagues. One of the best solutions to that is using your position to create something new. For instance, in my school, I saw the need for us to create a better presence on the web. I also saw that our tools at the time didn't let us advance our work as effectively as we could have. I replaced our outdated website with a Wordpress-based website and a Google Apps suite for the entire school, and encouraged our staff to use Engrade or any other web-based app for grading. Over the years, even the nonbelievers wanted to start using blogs and communicating with parents via Gmail. We don't need to have our name on things in order to leave an indelible mark on the schools we help lead.

3. Structure Your Role

If your administrator assigns you the role of teacher leader, you can only hope that you got a list of responsibilities from the outset. If not, this step makes sense: define your role. After a few weeks in your new role, your administrator might ask you to take on a little more than you can chew, or you might want to ask for a little more autonomy in how you meet expectations. Either way, make sure you find your boundaries and stay within that proximal zone. Teacher leaders often burn out (sometimes in flames!) when they're unclear about their roles or didn’t start with an understanding of what their role entailed. In the worst scenarios, teacher leaders get asked to take on the roles of other administrators, and this makes for even more unease. Know your role. Identify your strengths. Work within those, and people will respond accordingly.

4. Keep the Energy Going

By October, the going does get tough. The honeymoon period is over by then, and teachers are getting a sense of their classes. Administrators begin stressing over interim tests and the first marking period. Thanksgiving can't come soon enough. Despite yourself, you as the teacher leader might have to start doing the cheerleading and clapping when teacher morale starts dropping. If you're the high-energy leader, teachers will look to you to pat them on the back or give them positive stories about your small successes in the classroom. If you're the "lead by example" leader, this means you will have to open up your classroom door a lot, and listen to your colleagues while leaning in to give advice.

These characteristics fall in line with what I've seen the most effective teacher leaders do. Teacher leadership doesn't necessitate teachers leaving the classroom for a principalship. Teacher leadership doesn't mean you were chosen or assigned as the absolute best person for the job, as biases abound in our school systems. Teacher leadership doesn't require one specific temperament or "look."

However, the best teacher leaders understand that instructional and pedagogical knowledge comes first. They don't need to tell others what to do, and often find themselves doing with others. They frequently answer the questions they asked themselves when they were just "regular" teachers. They know what they're doing and, when everyone's down, they pick themselves and others up. Once we have these common understandings, the conversation around teacher leadership goes from the humdrum to the transformative.

How are you gearing up to lead more effectively this year?

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Comments (12) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

chris ceci-macgillis's picture

I am pleased to read your advice and comments. I think it is useful advice. Especially the piece about keeping the energy going. Clicking on the link to your blog was also helpful. The do's and don'ts were interesting. Some generalizations, but good advice all the same.

Dixie Keyes's picture

Thanks Jose, for your realistic and challenging work for teachers who are thought-leaders in their local districts and communities! I will share your blog with groups of teachers I visit throughout the year. We must advocate for a shift in the work teachers do so they can more easily influence curriculum in schools!

Ryan's picture
Student Success Facilitator (Dropout Prevention)

Thanks for the great article!
In my position I am not a classroom teacher but am always working in the classroom with my students on my case load who have been targeted as "at risk" for dropping out. A problem that I often face is when asking for extra help or support for my students from the classroom teachers they often say there doing all they can for the student and are not willing to do more because many of these students do not try in their class.
What would be a good way for me to approach these teachers about how these students needing extra help from the classroom teachers?

José Vilson's picture
José Vilson
Middle school math teacher and coach

Another approach might be to help the student learn how to study, and giving them self-sufficiency and empowerment. In other words, they learn how to ask questions, take notes, work well, and ask for help after class. The student might have to do some of the legwork themselves if the colleagues won't help. In the meantime, you might want to share progress with how you're doing with that particular student and strategies for how to approach the student.

School Bears's picture
School Bears
School fundraising

Sadly, most heads need to be good business managers and fundraisers to help draw in the much needed funds to fill the void left by ever decreasing budgets.

Whitney Hoffman's picture
Whitney Hoffman
Producer LD Podcast, Digital Media Consultant, Author

Hi Ryan!

I think it's important to drill down into the questions and phrases people use. For example:
"They won't try." What does that mean?
Are the students afraid of looking dumb in front of their peers? Kids who are not good readers shouldn't be forced to read aloud to a whole group, but should be helped in smaller or one on one sessions until they feel comfortable. Teens who are having problems mastering material don;t want to be called out and found out in front of everyone else, and will often prefer to be disruptive than humiliated.

Are you asking them to share something that they don't or won't share with the whole class? Has the teacher earned the right to this knowledge? Often we give assignments like "Tell me about your family" in order to give kids something to write about, but that's also potentially intimate information kids might not want to share with the class. Maybe a grandparent is sick, or parents are fighting. That's not something that the teacher or other students need to know and may not have earned the trust needed in order to hear that sort of information.
What do we mean by try? Can they tell us exactly what they want the student to do in order to evaluate what "trying" means? Sometimes getting to school in the morning IS trying for a kid. Soemtimes not skipping class is trying. That doesn't mean you can't and shouldn't shoot for more, but putting smaller, more achievable, specific steps for kids to follow might make it easier for them to get to the goal line.
I think the thing we forget to teach most often are things like basic memory and study skills, and presentation skills. I see teachers all the time ask kids to put together a poster, for example, and then ding kids on things like neatness and poor organization, when they have never been taught those skills specifically- that's a catch 22 for kids, as you punish them for something you never taught or gave them an example so they have a benchmark to shoot for.
Likewise, we have to make asking for help as easy as possible for kids, since it means admitting they can't do it themselves alone. That's really hard for many of us, teachers included, and we should not make kids feel less than for needing or asking for additional support, ever.

Pamela Mecca Seymour LPC's picture
Pamela Mecca Seymour LPC
School Counselor, therapist and ADHD coach

@ Ryan - Often kids are not trying because they are overwhelmed with life circumstances, disabilities, undiagnosed learning issues, etc. Sometimes teachers have a difficult time seeing that. Students may need to take baby steps towards re-engagement which can be hard in high school where time is of the essence. Focusing on making one change at a time is one way to approach the problem and show teachers that effort is being made.

Veronica's picture
Elementary school ESOL teacher

Hi Jose,
You made some great points on teacher leadership. As you stated the "knowing your stuff" will make you credible. So be familiar with your leadership role. The other important pont that would be a way to set your self apart is by "creating something". i think this is definitely very good advice because you as a teacher leader you have to work hard and this would be the beginning of the leadership. I have never taken on a leadership role because I have always been afraid ot failing, and have insecurities of heading project. This does not mean I can't apply my ideas, and work with others. What do you recommend I do to try to overcome these feelings.

Angela's picture

I really enjoyed your blog and it really confirmed some of my decisions as I try to define the role I will play in my school community. I was on medical leave from September 29th-November 10th. Upon my return I found the majority of my colleagues in the middle of burn out experiences. They are definitely on the search for Thanksgiving. I felt compelled to meet with my administrators to see what type of support needs to be in place to re-energize teachers and boost morale.In the process I found out that there are two seats on the school board for teachers. These seats have not been filled in over a year. I am seriously considering it. I know how hard we work. I want us to have a voice. It is easy to succumb to the mindset "what's the point , nothing is going to change." I just feel motivated to try to improve school climate because while it directly affects teachers it will ultimately have a negative impact on our students. What will happen when teachers are to worn out to care and students can feel it?

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