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How Teachers Can Cultivate Their Leadership Abilities

April 22, 2018

All teachers are leaders. It would be difficult to argue with that assertion, since teachers are people who design and execute on a vision for a classroom experience and guide students through it.

At the same time, to leave it at that implies a certain flatness in the teaching profession and ignores the fact that, more and more, a subset of teachers are taking on collaborative roles with administrations and other forms of leadership within the education system. An evolving education system is resulting in the need—and opportunity—for classroom teachers to take on a variety of new leadership roles.

“What happens in schools is more complex than ever and cannot be accomplished with strict division between administrators and teachers,” said Judy Seltz, formerly an executive director of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD).

According to Teacher Leadership: The What, Why, and How of Teachers as Leaders, a 2014 ASCD report, teachers today are claiming roles that used to be exclusively within the purview of principals and other administrators. Some of these responsibilities include mentoring their peers, heading up teams to determine curricula, and modeling best practices in instruction.

The results of a Center for Teaching Quality survey suggest that many teachers are eager to step into the informal leadership roles the evolving system is affording them. According to the results, 1 in 4 of the country’s teachers are “extremely” or “very interested” in serving in hybrid roles where they are both teachers and leaders of reform.

For teachers interested in leading outside of the classroom, what are the best steps to take toward embracing the new roles available to them? Here are a few suggestions.

1. Work to see past the hierarchies.

The ASCD report cites The Time Is Ripe (Again), a 2013 article by Roland Barth, to help explain why some teachers have been primed to distrust “one of their own” as they take on new leadership roles: “It’s just a very leveling profession. … Anyone who bumps above the level is subject to condemnation: ‘Who the heck do you think you are?!’ I’m not talking about trends—I’m talking about people impeding teacher leadership. Some of the people are called principals, and some are called teachers.”

The Center for Teaching Quality report posits a “new kind of school accountability” wherein teachers work with principals and other administrators to design and score the assessments that they believe will truly measure learning in their classrooms.

2. Find the administrators in your school or district who are enthusiastic about the idea of teacher-leaders, and seek ways to collaborate with them.

Not all administrators will be open to collaborating with teachers, but the most insightful, big-picture-thinking ones will. Your job as a future teacher-leader is to seek out the latter. Discuss school improvement projects that you can work on together, and let the partnership take shape from there.

3. Find other teachers who want to build networks to collectively support teachers as leaders.

The internet can be a powerful tool in building these networks, especially if you’re not finding like-minded coworkers in your own school. Online networks of teacher-leaders can give one another advice, pass around practices and ideas that have worked in their own schools, and foster mentorship opportunities. It’s possible that even geographically distant teachers who meet through online platforms can collaborate on projects on the national level, such as those that impact federal education policy.

4. Demand education policy that supports and prepares teachers to collaboratively lead alongside the administrators in their schools.

There is a role for policy makers to enter the discussion about teacher leadership and find ways to drive the discussion forward. Teachers who are interested in taking on these leadership roles, and seeing their colleagues do the same, need to demand action from policy makers.

As the ASCD report states, “More purposeful pathways to teacher leadership, such as a specific training process or certification, will help more teachers enter into these roles and provide them with necessary support along the way.” The report goes on to warn against any policies that would too strictly standardize or determine the shapes of teacher leadership and training, leaving room to schools and teachers to define much of this for themselves.

Teacher-leaders are on the rise, and teachers who are excited about this trend can and should find ways to collaboratively take on new roles. They’re already leaders in the classroom—our education system needs them to lead elsewhere, too.