What Is Teacher Leadership?
CHALKING THE LINE | BY DEB MEYER | 9 MIN READ
Across the United States as well as internationally, the term “teacher leadership” is used to label a variety of different teacher roles and teaching assignments.
Teacher leadership is a process. Teacher leaders are the professionals who carry through with this process to lead change in their schools for the benefit of all students. Teacher leaders step outside their classroom doors and accept the challenges to improve their practice through working with colleagues, school administration and professional staff—as well as students and their families.
One of the confusions in defining teacher leadership and identifying teacher leaders is that “leadership” is not found in a position or title. In most schools there are teachers who are the designated leaders of their grade level teams or departments, but being named a “team leader” is not the same as being a teacher leader.
Teacher leaders exemplify certain defining characteristics. While all teachers possess several of these traits, only teacher leaders consistently and simultaneously integrate them into teacher leadership.
Six Teacher Leader Traits
Teacher leaders share their expertise. Expertise may come in the form of knowledge and skills about specific content (e.g., mathematics, social-emotional learning) or teaching skills (e.g., teaching with technology, questioning strategies). Their expertise may also come in the form of leadership skills (e.g., helping teams build consensus, making data-driven decisions).
At the same time they are sharing their expertise, teacher leaders are acquiring expertise as they pursue professional development to help them solve problems their teams have identified. They seek to learn from their colleagues—believing that the collective knowledge of the group is essential to successful teaching and student learning—further building on their knowledge and skills.
Expert teachers are not always teacher leaders. However, building expertise is essential to becoming a teacher leader. The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards supports teachers working to improve their instructional prowess. For many teachers, National Board certification is an important step in becoming a teacher leader.
Teacher leaders are excellent communicators. A key teacher leadership skill is the ability to prioritize listening over speaking and seeking to understand different perspectives. Teacher leaders clarify, probe and synthesize ideas and questions to understand the concerns and leverage the expertise of others. They also strive to establish open communication, where all ideas are heard and all possibilities explored. Teacher leaders want to solve problems by getting a group to think outside of the box.
One of the essential qualities of their communication is honesty. Teacher leaders communicate in ways that are professional and truthful, reflecting what is working and what isn’t. They acknowledge where mistakes have occurred and where changes are needed rather than avoid difficult conversations. The Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) is a professional resource for leadership. ASCD dedicated an entire issue of its flagship magazine, Educational Leadership, to communications skills for leaders, which I recommend exploring. (Note: Some of the articles can only be read with a subscription.)
While most teachers are experts and have effective communication skills, teacher leaders differentiate themselves by being change agents. They take up initiatives and work to make them successful. Education is a professional field that is constantly being “reformed” and reacting to social, economic and political changes. This continuous change makes being a teacher exciting and exhausting, and it is why teacher leadership is so important—every school needs teachers who will “lean in” when change happens.
Changes may stem from a school district’s administration (the principal, the superintendent, the school board), or from a state mandate, such as new state or federal law. Change also may be needed within a grade-level team or a department and be focused on helping a particular group of students. Teacher leaders themselves might initiate change based on evidence that things need to be done in a different way. When teachers are change agents, they are leading a transformation in their schools or their local and professional communities by supporting (and inspiring—up next) others to make changes that will have a meaningful and positive impact for students.
The Collaborative for Teaching Quality (CTQ) is an online collaborative that supports teacher leadership. One of the recent blog posts on this site—by Tiffany Osborne, a National Board-certified teacher and Middle School assistant principal—delves into “harnessing your change agent superpower.”
People in educational leadership are familiar with the concept of the transformational leader. Transformational leaders work with others to problem-solve and implement and monitor strategic initiatives. They inspire everyone to be their very best because a transformational leader believes that everyone has important contributions to make and that everyone needs to be involved.
Inspiration is at the core of transformational leadership—and it is not easy to master.
One of the resources I like to use to explore leadership models is MindTools. Although this website is for business leaders, many of the models apply to education. Read this brief overview of transformational leadership to see an example.
A word of caution: the phrases transformational teaching and transformational teacher leadership are not the same. Transformational teachers inspire within their classrooms and transformational teacher leaders inspire outside their classroom doors. Inspirational teacher leaders get their colleagues to step up, not because they feel they have to but because they want to. They take risks, solve complex problems, and position change as possible and worthwhile.
This inspirational role of teacher leaders is critical and often overlooked. Because teacher leaders are colleagues—not supervisors—successful leadership depends on other teachers wanting to follow their lead.
To be a teacher leader, others must trust you enough to follow your lead. Teacher leaders build trust through what they do and say—as well as what they don’t. Megan Tschannen-Moran and Anita Woolfolk Hoy explained that trust between teachers involves five core qualities:
- Benevolence. They share their confidence that others will act with goodwill.
- Competence. They share their belief that the group has the ability to be successful.
- Honesty. They communicate and act in authentic and equitable ways.
- Openness. They share information, even if it shows their personal vulnerabilities.
- Reliability. They always do what they say they will do.
Trustworthiness is important across all aspects of teacher leadership, and engendering confidence in others is key to being a transformational leader. Competence is part of shared expertise. Honesty is essential in effective communication. Openness is seen in the willingness and ability to explore new possibilities. Reliability is essential to all these parts of the teacher leadership process because no one follows an unreliable leader.
Learningforward is a professional learning association that offers many freely accessible resources on teacher leadership. On this website, high school instructional coach Jill Kind shared how she builds trust with other teachers.
Teacher leaders are trailblazers. They are first adopters, willing to try out new ideas and discover the unseen “potholes” in new initiatives. They volunteer for pilot projects and pursue professional development opportunities to learn more so they can improve their practice, share their experiences, and collaborate with others to solve problems and reach team goals.
An important part of this explorer quality is that teacher leaders—because they are willing to go first—share their vulnerabilities by being open about their successes and failures.
They demonstrate honesty, an important part of building trust, by sharing their mistakes and “hard lessons” with their colleagues as they encourage them to take the trail they have begun to blaze.
All teachers need to explore more, and this can begin with new teachers. As Christopher Bronke, a principal, wrote in a recent post on the TeachingChannel, he tells new teachers:
“You were hired for a reason; because you are a rock star. When you’re in PLCs and department meetings, your voice matters just as much as everyone else’s. Go be you!”
Teacher Leadership is a Professional Process
Teacher leaders reflect all of these qualities (and many more) in their teacher leadership through everyday interactions with students, colleagues and the school community. Teacher leadership is a “package” of attitudes, knowledge and skills that are continually developed.
Teacher leaders are cautiously excited about change. They are ready to pursue new ideas that will result in more meaningful learning experiences and more positive and inclusive spaces for all students. They care not only about the students who share their classrooms but also about the students in their colleagues’ classrooms and throughout the school.
Teacher leaders believe that meaningful and sustained change happens when teachers work with administrators, staff, families, students, and the community to do what is best based on evidence about what students need.
What is teacher leadership? It is a set of roles bundled with the motivation to inspire educational change and move beyond the status quo in collaborative ways. Teacher leaders lead alongside others, not from the front. They have their feet firmly planted in the classroom and their eyes on what is possible for all.
Every school needs a cadre of teacher leaders. When administrative leadership changes in a school, there should be a network of teacher leadership that will sustain that change in a productive way. And every teacher needs to understand the pathways to teacher leadership. Teacher leaders are critical in establishing school cultures that ensure change is always meaningful and relevant.
About the Author
Deb Meyer is a professor of education at Elmhurst University and a former classroom teacher in Mesa, Arizona. She teaches undergraduate courses to prospective teachers in educational psychology and upper elementary/middle school literacy methods and graduate courses in teacher leadership.
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