How we define 'Teacher Leaders'
Leadership can occur as an element of each of the other phases of a teacher’s career rather than being a sequential element of a continuum. It is most often experienced (and largely discussed here) as a means for the professional and/or accomplished teachers to broaden their impact on student learning and to contribute to their school, district, and the larger profession. Leadership should not be discouraged, however, at earlier points of a career, as long as it is appropriately balanced with other professional responsibilities.
Teacher leadership is at the heart of transformation in any school. Teachers create the norms of practice, character of communication, and sense of values that form the culture of a school. Empowerment for teacher leadership is not an act of assigning roles or conferring authority, but is rather a state of mind — teacher leaders embrace greater responsibility for the culture and work of their school and profession.
Teacher leaders are champions for social justice — through professional development for culturally responsive teaching, as advocates and activists for the needs of students and communities, and as leaders of their professional union in fulfilling its vision for public schools and for the success of each student. Teacher leaders seek to solve problems; they initiate actions, and are enthusiastic adopters of positive change, thus encouraging colleagues to join the effort. They push their profession, communities, and PreK-12 schools towards excellence.
Teacher leadership provides a highly motivational career path so that individuals can continue to pursue their passion for working with students while expanding their influence and engaging in new professional challenges.
For a school to achieve the vision for performance requires a significant cadre of professional and accomplished teachers who have the knowledge, skills, and dispositions to fulfill varied teacher leadership responsibilities.
Teachers — throughout all phases, but particularly in professional and accomplished career phases — are frequently engaged in professional learning to develop their leadership skills.
Some of the roles for which teacher leaders will be in high demand include:
Advocate for schools and for the needs of students
Leader of professional association/union
Cooperating teacher, clinical supervisor, mentor, coach, peer assistant, peer reviewer
Instructional designer, assessment designer, curriculum planner
Action researcher, data analyst
Facilitator of building PLCs, committees, study groups
Facilitator of district and school-community committees, task forces, projects
Professional development facilitator, adjunct instructor
Member of professional standards board, teacher advisory council, etc.
Program evaluator, accreditation team member, etc.
Policy analyst, policymaker
In some instances, teacher leader roles are part of hybrid job assignments, or embedded in or in addition to a traditional assignment.
On occasion, a teacher may take on a leadership role for an extended time with full-time release from traditional teaching duties. In any case, teacher leadership is not seen as a pathway out of the classroom, but an enhancement to the work of teaching and learning.
Teacher leaders are engaged in continuous professional growth that includes increasing their skills and expanding their capacity for action.
Schools, districts, and teacher unions intentionally foster development of teacher leaders and seek to identify individuals with leadership potential.
The teacher leader embodies a humility and passion that transcends and mitigates resentment among peers.
Teacher leaders build organizational commitment and instill a belief that the leader genuinely cares for the well-being and success of students and colleagues. The caring and compassion of teacher leaders is crucial to their ability to help colleagues and communities engage in deep discussions about culture, social justice, culturally responsive teaching, and positive discipline in the classroom. They are able to facilitate growth as they model personal reflection and growth.
School and district administrators foster teacher leadership by offering a culture where new ideas are welcomed, individual initiative is seen as an asset, and the talents of others are valued.
Schools and districts recognize the power of distributed leadership with both formal as well as informal roles and opportunities for teachers to lead. Teacher leaders and administrators in both formal and informal roles recognize the power and synergy that arises from a spirit of genuine collaboration — a culture in which the contribution of each person is valued and respected.
Teacher leaders create and promote opportunities for new leaders to develop and serve, particularly encouraging and mentoring diverse peers within the school, community, and union.
They systematically support the growth of other leaders to add to the strength of the organization and eventually, to take on responsibilities as they move on to other duties.
The Current Landscape
Teacher leadership is a largely underdeveloped and untapped resource in schools. Organizations frequently attempt to compartmentalize teacher leadership with narrowly defined areas of responsibility and limits on actions. These organizational limits cannot, however, diminish the impact of a respected colleague on culture and action within a school.
Teacher leadership is a largely underdeveloped and untapped resource in schools.
Even as teacher leadership holds tremendous potential for positive transformation of schools, it may also carry negative perceptions that must be addressed. For instance, teacher leadership duties within school structures are sometimes perceived as negatively impacting teaching and student learning. Formally recognized teacher leaders sometimes are perceived as recipients of favoritism in their school or district. Teacher leaders within unions may be perceived as focused on adult needs at the expense of student needs.
Here are some additional observations about the landscape:
While widely accepted as an important element to achieve excellent schools, “teacher leadership has not taken hold in either a strategic or a systemic way.” (Five Goals for Teacher Leadership, Coggins & McGovern, 2014)
In some cases, teacher leadership may become an indirect pathway out of the classroom, possibly to the detriment of the perception of “teacher leader” in general, and to the loss of an excellent teacher’s impact in a classroom.
Programs such as the Teacher Leadership Initiative/Institute have found ways to empower teachers as change agents and problem solvers with profound impact on their schools and communities, even though they have no formal titles or system-conferred authority.
Teacher unions, schools, and districts are often perceived as seeking to limit pathways to leadership development and responsibilities rather than facilitating growth and opportunity.
The frequency of articles about teacher leadership in many publications for PreK-12 educators is evidence that this is still a new concept that the field is learning how to use effectively and, at times, a concept for which a certain amount of trepidation and turf defense must be overcome.
Over time, teachers working in schools with strong professional environments improved significantly more than those working in weak environments.
International examples can be found for teacher leadership as part of career ladders within the teaching profession and, if appropriately bargained to ensure positive support of teachers within the system, may prove useful as one way to ensure opportunities and appropriate recognition for teacher leadership.
In addition to acting as an important resource for implementing programs that enhance student learning and improve professional growth, teacher leadership can have a profound impact on overall school culture.
Transforming the Landscape
Passion for Learning
Teacher leadership is nurtured through ongoing professional growth opportunities for teachers at all phases of their careers, as leadership is needed within groups and settings throughout the professional’s career. Professional growth focuses on building skills and fostering openness to the collaboration and distributed responsibilities that characterize the most effective organizational structures. Models such as the Teacher Leadership Competencies (2014) provide a framework to help teachers envision ways they can positively impact student learning beyond their own classroom, as well as the quality of their school and profession.
Teacher leaders need to exercise their own creativity and initiative to tackle the problems that match their area of focus.
Teacher leaders understand their crucial role as change agents, helping to broaden the use of culturally responsive teaching and positive classroom management. Their efforts result in support for increased learning for PreK-12 students, professional learning of colleagues, and greater connections to community resources and authentic project opportunities.
Assessment for Excellence
Teacher leaders recognize the importance of meaningful data in guiding decision making and evaluating progress for students, for their own skills and actions, and for schools and organizations. They enhance their ability to craft effective measures of growth, their skills for analyzing data, and their creativity in using data to guide strategic planning. Teacher leaders foster the use of meaningful data sources by colleagues in their pursuit of improved student learning. They use student learning data to support their advocacy for ample and equitable resources and greater learning opportunities for every student.
Culture of Collaboration
Teacher leaders recognize that the key to successful transformation is the shared vision and commitment that comes from genuine collaboration. Teacher leaders actively seek to incorporate the vision and values of colleagues, their community, and students in developing and implementing any strategy to improve their school and profession. Teacher leaders assume pivotal responsibility for creating a culture of collegiality and acceptance of all — a culture that embraces diversity as an invaluable asset.
Teacher leaders bring their own priorities and skills to their informal and formal leadership roles. As a result, they must have the opportunity to tap their particular gifts, pursue their particular passion for how to make schools better, and to systemically improve student learning. Teacher leaders need to exercise their own creativity and initiative to tackle the problems that match their area of focus.
By expanding the skills and opportunities for greater numbers of teacher leaders, the full landscape of school transformation becomes possible even as individuals exercise autonomy in the areas of emphasis they choose.
Worth of Persons and Communities
The teacher leader has a heightened responsibility to the profession, colleagues, their students, and their communities to move professional practice — even in areas where change is uncomfortable. Teacher leaders will demonstrate caring and respect for each of their colleagues while also helping them challenge long-held beliefs and practices that may fall short of culturally responsive teaching and may even reinforce institutional racism. There may be no one better than a respected colleague to speak frankly and confidentially about their own journey of awareness to support others in making genuine progress toward a culture of social justice.