Teachers are alternately characterized in modern culture as “those who can’t do” and as indispensable key players in the building of a better America. In the days of one-room schoolhouses teachers were viewed as not only educational leaders, but also the cornerstones of every neighborhood and community. As schools grew into school systems the role of the teacher changed. Where teachers were once considered unquestioned educational experts, they have become a piece of a much larger institutional puzzle. In 1986 the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching recommended that schools identify “lead teachers” who would model high-yield teaching strategies that could be modeled for their colleagues. Over the last 30 years schools have gradually embraced more opportunities for teachers to have formal and informal leadership positions. Whether they have the title of Department Chair, Instructional Coach, Lead Teacher, Model Teacher, Mentor Teacher, or provide leadership by example, every school has teachers who step forward to provide leadership for their peers. While the idea of shared leadership between administrators and teacher leaders is noble, it is not without challenges. Sharing the responsibilities of professional learning, creating accountability, and making critical institutional decisions is not always the easiest way to run a school or school system, but it does create the conditions for more ownership of the work that is being done. Shared leadership also puts more responsibility for action in the hands of those who are actually interacting with students each and every day. Any teacher who steps forward to lead is taking a risk. Below are five tips for teachers engaging in leadership to consider as they tackle the challenges of teacher leadership.
1) Flatten hierarchies at every opportunity.
The goal of a quality formalized teacher leadership program is to flatten hierarchies; unfortunately they are often perceived as simply creating a new layer of hierarchy within a school or system. The work of teacher leaders must be to lift up their colleagues. Many times the most important work a teacher leader can do is to be a connector. If we can help connect our colleagues with materials, resources, and available support we are doing our jobs well. The job of a teacher leader isn’t to know more than their peers, but it is to act as a resource. It is important for teacher leaders to listen to their colleagues and to be sure their system is doing all it can to put the necessary resources in the appropriate hands. If the role of a teacher leader is to simply transmit information from administrators to teachers, the teacher leader is bound for failure.
2) Be transparent.
As new teacher leadership roles are developed it can be a challenge to define them. It is important for teacher leaders to be empowered to create roles that address the real needs of their schools. With the power to define these roles comes the responsibility for teacher leaders to be transparent in their work. Leaders must make their work as public and visible as possible. One of the most common complaints teachers have of administrators is that they don’t get out of their offices to see what’s happening in classrooms. Teacher leaders have to recognize that the strength of their roles should be that they are actively engaged in the work of teaching and learning.
3) Build a network.
In many schools there may be only one Instructional Coach, Lead Teacher, or any other role. It is easy for a teacher leader to feel isolated in one of these roles. It is critical that teacher leaders develop a network of support within their schools, districts, and beyond. Social networks like Twitter can provide an excellent source of support for teachers. Most importantly, find colleagues in your area that have a similar role and get together; share the challenges and rewards of the work that you are doing.
4) Take risks.
Schools aren’t going to see growth if they don’t take risks. It is important for teachers who consider themselves to be leaders to model a willingness to be early adopters of new ideas and innovative practices. Inherent in being a risk-taker is a willingness to fail. Maybe more important than a willingness to fail is a willingness to be transparent when an initiative or idea fails. Real leaders understand that not everything that they try will work, but they model resilience in the face of failure and never give up.
5) Recognize all of the leaders around you.
Every teacher is a leader, whether they recognize it or not. Collective teacher efficacy (the collective belief that our work as teachers makes a difference in the ability of our students to grow) is considered by researcher John Hattie to be the number one factor in influencing student achievement. The act of supporting student learning in our schools is an act of leadership. Teacher leaders must know that the greatest talent in any room is the collective talent of those in the room. The work of teacher leadership must be to empower our profession. Not only should teacher leaders help build the capacity of their colleagues, but true teacher leaders should be relying on our colleagues to build our capacity as well.
Whether you are a teacher leader with a title and a clearly defined role or a teacher who leads in any other capacity, know that your work is important. Teachers are the key to great schools and the more invested all of us become in being partners in providing leadership, the better our schools are going to be.