What Is a Teacher Leader? What Should It Be?

Teachers have long wanted a say in how schools operate, but the system as a whole hasn't been prepared to accommodate their voices. But more often than not, these teacher leader roles have developed by osmosis rather than intent or planning.
This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.

In launching the U.S. Department of Education's Teach to Lead initiative, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan called out the need for teachers' voices to be heard, and more than that, to be listened to. In Secretary Duncan's March 14th remarks at the National Board on Professional Teaching Standards' Teaching & Learning Conference, he stated, "Teacher leadership means having a voice in the policies and decisions that affect your students, your daily work, and the shape of your profession."

Teacher Leadership by Osmosis

The truth is that there have always been teacher leaders -- teachers who take charge, mentor those new to the profession, and develop climates for continuous learning and improvement. But more often than not, these teacher leader roles have developed by osmosis rather than intent or planning. Teachers have long wanted a say in how schools operate, but the system as a whole hasn't been prepared to accommodate their voices.

"And one of the things that troubles me most is that in the midst of these huge changes, you -- the people who are carrying out that change -- haven't felt like you've had a voice. Or -- just as concerning -- that the only way to have a say in the direction of education, was to stop teaching children -- stop doing what you love most and move out of the classroom and into administration.

According to a new poll, 69 percent of teachers feel their voices are heard in their school, but only a third feel heard in their district, 5 percent in their state, and 2 percent at the national level. That's unacceptable -- and it's time to change that." -- U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

The only way teachers for a long time have been listened to is by leaving the classroom and becoming administrators. It's been by osmosis -- organic, movement, transfer -- where one has to leave one environment for another. Surely we can do better and keep master teachers, experienced educators, continuing to utilize the skills they have honed over years of practice and via countless professional development hours.

What is needed is what has been missing -- planning, purpose and intent.

10,000 Hour Rule

For a while now, many educators and reformers have been discussing Malcolm Gladwell's 10,000 hour rule (from his book Outliers: The Story of Success), which states that it takes approximately 10,000 hours of practice at something before one can develop mastery.

"In fact, researchers have settled on what they believe is the magic number for true expertise: ten thousand hours." -- Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers: The Story of Success

Gladwell's intent with this rule was to highlight the amount of time and drive needed to hone a high-level skill or set of skills. It has been used it to justify expanding the school day and doubling down on everything from sports, to engineering to math tutoring. Regardless of how we justify the use of the 10,000 rule as a viable explanation for skill development in childhood and adolescence, then the same formula should apply to how master teachers have honed their craft: 10,000 hours = 1,000 hours of teaching per year x 10 years of teaching

Now while I may have some issues with the oversimplified 10,000 hour concept -- mainly that 10,000 hours of practice may not be 10,000 hours of effective practice or correct practice -- the premise is still the same. The same rationale and logic should apply whether we are adults or children.

But what do we do? Or rather what have we done up to now? We move experienced teachers out of the classroom and replace them with new novice teachers. The experienced teacher who has developed their craft is forced to move into administration which in many schools and districts can equate to a non-teaching position and one based around logistics not pedagogy.

The role of teachers as leaders has potential to boost both the processes of teaching-learning and also the teaching profession. There is widespread agreement about the great value of teacher leaders and the importance of recognizing and even cultivating this role, however there are also a myriad of definitions and examples of what a teacher leader is. The concept of teacher leader has different meanings to different people and goes by a variety of names, including but not limited to specialist, instructional coach, mentor, peer colleague, and team leader. Added to this ambiguity is the feeling of many who view themselves as teacher leaders that they are on their own in terms of preparation, support and even development. Such teacher leaders are seeking guidance about the definition and parameters of their role, and to know how best they can be utilized.

So maybe we do know what a teacher leader is -- but do we know what a teacher leader should be? Or do we agree on how to get them there?

These and other questions were discussed at the recent ASCD Whole Child Symposium on Teacher Leadership held at the Newseum in Washington DC. The event which included NEA Vice President Becky Pringle, America's Promise Vice President Tanya Tucker, the U.S. Department of Education Teaching Fellow Maddie Fennell, along with authors Robyn Jackson, Peter DeWitt, and Emerging Leader Jennifer Orr.

Popular in the Community


What's Hot