Teachers are master problem-solvers. They learn quickly to adjust on the fly as they react boldly and deftly in a moment’s response, whether to students’ endless questions about how to and what if, to the numerous disruptions blaring from a PA system, or to adapting their lesson plans because the Internet is down…again. When it comes to their own classrooms, teachers do not hesitate to meet daily obstacles and challenges head-on. It’s their job, after all.

But solving the problem of changing and reforming the very nature of the schools they work in is a different story. For some reason, after they pack up and leave their classrooms, teachers remain largely silent on matters of school improvement that affect them the most. Ironically, the experts who have the broadest knowledge and greatest skill to make change happen in schools are holding back.

Why? Is there a kind of “do as you’re told” passivity fostered by the hierarchy of school administration? Are teachers worn down from meeting the needs of too many students throughout the day? Are they fearful of losing their jobs? Overwhelmed by the countless mundane duties added on to their teaching schedule? Why isn’t every teacher a teacher-leader?

What We Talk About When We Talk About Teacher-Leaders

I recently put this question – why isn’t every teacher a teacher-leader – in somewhat different form, to the new teachers at my school who meet weekly to discuss issues and best practices in education. I asked them, “What are the qualities of a teacher-leader?”

I shared with our new teachers several qualities cataloged in the article, “Leadership Qualities that Facilitate School Change,” from SEDL, an Austin-based non-profit dedicated to “advancing research, improving education.” SEDL questions the ways leadership has been employed in schools and shifts our attention to the latent power of teachers to bring about reform. The article relates how the research unfortunately confirms that “despite [compelling] reasons and attempts to promote teachers as leaders of change and to extend teacher leadership roles, teachers do not view themselves as leaders (Bellon & Beaudry, 1992; Wasley, 1991).”

SEDL further asserts that teachers who promote change in education demonstrate the following qualities: They possess vision, focus on student learning, value human resources, communicate and listen, are proactive, and take risks. My young colleagues and I fueled our conversation by wrestling with these qualities and adding a few others.

Do you feel a sense of purpose?

While many novice (and even more experienced) teachers may be reluctant to say they have formulated an educational vision, which implies more time-tested experience with kids, they are not so reluctant to acknowledge a sense of purpose. In some cases, teachers rely on their schools to define a sense of purpose for them, and the lack of a consistent, clear vision from the top may confuse and discourage them. One year the school may focus on achieving excellence, whatever that may mean, the next on creating a culture of kindness. These aren’t bad ideas, just vague ones that change frequently and don’t necessarily inspire leadership.

My young colleague Stephen Vrla has recently taken a course in “Teaching for a Positive Future” from the Institute for Humane Education, a course that has clarified for him that sense of purpose for his teaching. Previously, like many of us, he knew he wanted to make a difference somehow, but what this might look like was pretty fuzzy. Now he is using his new focus on ethics to inspire his sixth-graders to develop action research projects on social justice topics that include documenting homeless and mistreated animals in their communities and interviewing immigrants about their work experiences, among others. Stephen has begun blogging about his ethics approach to education at “A Single Candle” and will use his new sense of purpose to re-design our “Skills” program – incorporating life skills, study skills, and technology skills — for our middle-schoolers next year.

A sense of purpose provides direction and motivation in any teacher-leader’s professional life.

Are you focused on what matters most – students’ learning?

We struggled with this one. It was hard for some of my young educators to see how the decisions we make as teachers aren’t actually about the students’ learning but about something else. For example, we focus on making efficient use of our time when we have more on our plates than we can possibly handle. We adopt traditional schedules that accommodate parents’ custodial needs rather than take into account the biorhythms that wake up our students’ brains later in the day. We start from a prejudicial perspective about how learning works based on our own experiences as a certain kind of successful student in a teacher-driven classroom.

Once we began to grasp all the insidious ways we accommodate other needs rather than the students’, we began questioning everything from the way athletics drives the school schedule to how many questions we choose to put on a test. Teacher-leaders, we began to comprehend, never let the students’ learning out of their sight.

Do you listen to and learn from others – especially from the students?

One of my favorite scenes from the Mike Akel’s mocumentary Chalk (2006) depicts an earnest young history teacher who leaves his post at the front of the room in a fit of pique over a student prank. When the students take over the class and imitate his teaching style, the teacher finally sees himself through their eyes – he is pedantic, humorless, and boring even as he tries to share the things about history he cares most passionately about.

Teachers learn pretty quickly that they can’t pretend to be flawlessly omniscient in their classes. But it’s another step to learn to listen to their students and to view them as agents of their own learning. Students  have much to tell us, and we have much to learn, if we are to make a connection with them at all. This was a major shift for my young colleague Jeremy Goodreau, who has been working closely with a number of administrators and coaches to improve his teaching this year. He has been subjected to our sometimes conflicting advice all year, but nothing has had an impact on him that compares to his students’ feedback about why they had failed his Biology test. It was the students who taught him that teacher leadership is less about being right than it is about being open to hearing and taking in what others have to say, even if we may disagree with their interpretations.

Do you take risks? 

Here’s the thing about taking risks: It opens the door to possible failure. In fact, it stares failure in the face and says it doesn’t care. Fear of failure, to put it bluntly, is a big issue of teachers of any stripe, but particularly those who have themselves been the most successful students academically. One of our new Spanish teachers, Erika Behrends, struggles with this every day. She strives to be an A+ teacher and has studied the latest theories about curriculum design and acquisition of language. If tried and true research has been conducted, she will find it and implement it, putting to work what her research tells her is true. If it hasn’t been documented, well, she hesitates….

Yet an enormous quantity of what we do as teachers has not been researched or codified or properly studied. Or it has only been researched narrowly and may not apply to our particular population of students (ours, for the most part, come from poverty). Or the research has evolved, or it conflicts with other research. Teacher-leaders must take risks in order to innovate, yet the abhorrence of failure, sometimes driven by an over-dependence on research and sometimes driven by our focus on success as a defining factor of school, limits us even as we try to teach our students to take risks of their own in order to learn.

Do you nurture yourself physically, intellectually, and spiritually?

Teaching is enormously debilitating work. Because teachers are usually givers by nature, they tend to pour everything they’ve got into their service to their students, their schools, and their profession. In fact, this is the time of year when I most often hear teachers complain about the few who “don’t pull their weight” or “don’t contribute to the team effort.” Schools also tend to use teachers up in a kind of race from September to June that cannot possibly address all the content, skills, and ethical behavior we feel must be taught along with all the little things, like lunch duty or study hall, that fill up the school day. Teacher burn-out has been a problem at every school I’ve ever known.

Teacher-leaders know that they must take care of themselves. They take walks or work out during the school day –- and do some of their best thinking in the process. They work at eating right and spending time with people they love rather than grabbing a Coke and M&Ms for a quick sugar rush to get through a stack of papers.  Teacher-leaders take naps on the weekend. Teacher-leaders seek out the environments and opportunities that will let them reflect and honor their own spiritual needs. (I have a friend who used to frequent a local playground and swing to her heart’s content in order to do this.) Teacher-leaders challenge themselves to learn continually, to stimulate their thoughts, to engage in intellectual conversation. Teacher-leaders don’t always follow these rules (I confess, I don’t), but they know they should. They know that being selfish about their own renewal in this way is better in the long run for their students.

Do you transparently share ideas and stories of your teaching practice in a community of supportive educators?

Most teachers will acknowledge that visiting other schools or attending conferences usually opens their eyes to new perspectives. Still, we often complain that it’s just not worth it to prepare and arrange for a substitute. And even when we come back refreshed and recharged, we must dive head first into catching up with the curriculum – with no time for reflecting about how to implement something new.

Yet, I have watched several new teachers grow exponentially because they have consciously sought to reflect openly about their practice and engage with other educational practitioners outside the walls of their own schools on a daily basis. My new young colleague HollyAnne Giffin has embraced the power of Twitter to build a vibrant personal learning network. She blogs regularly about her practice at “Learning is not dead” and seeks out the best teachers she can learn from, whether in person or via online discussion. Being in touch with master educators every day keeps her focused on her students’ learning, helps her perfect her craft, and allows her to consider her successes and failures openly with the support of others. Teacher-leaders do not settle for anything less than learning constantly by engaging with other teacher-leaders.

Teacher-leaders will save us.

We must pursue teacher leadership in our profession if we want to create a groundswell of change at the most basic level. Getting to our teachers early in their careers can help, especially if we do so before they are acculturated into silence (or mere grumbling in the faculty room), before administrators shut down their conversations and turn off their questions, before the work of teaching itself ekes out all their energy. We may need to start with our new teachers, but we must empower all teachers to be teacher-leaders if we want to see positive change occur in our schools. Being a teacher-leader will save them. Creating teacher-leaders will save us.

15 COMMENTS

  1. A great post, Susan, and thanks so much for mentioning Stephen’s experience with IHE and humane education. Much of our work is about helping teachers become teacher-leaders in their classrooms and communities to help raise a generation of solutionaries.

  2. Terrific post! We just developed 18 teacher literacy leader positions in our school district to assist in the implementation of a balanced literacy initiative. They are amazing teachers, facilitators, learners. Happy to let everyone know how it goes – their personal journey and potential influence is the focus of my doctoral research!

  3. Colleen, Mark, Melanie, Marsha, Margaret:
    Thanks for your comments. It’s inspiring to me to have so many teacher-leaders as readers! Please keep me informed about your progress at your own schools.

  4. Do you nurture yourself physically, intellectually, and spiritually? This is a question in which I am thankful you adressed in your blog. We have 10 days of school left and many of my fellow teachers are barely hanging on. They are physically and mentally worn out. We work hard and we often fail to take care of ourselves. I, for the past two years, have gone to the gym early in the morning. I use this time to push myself and to focus on the day to come. The results are charisma and energy throughout my day. Fellow teachers always say, “I don’t see how you do it”. My response is always, “I don’t see how I can’t!”. Taking care of myself physically helps me stay mentally and emotionally sharp. We have to encourage eachother to take care of ourselves. ECI 509 Dr. Setser

  5. Am I a teacher leader? I am more of a teacher leader now than I was before. It seems that I have learned to fight for my mission, which is to achieve student success. I have learned to be more of a risk taker; I try to nurture myself physically, intellectually and spiritually, and I love to share ideas that can help and motivate others. I was not born a leader, but I am learning to become one. Thank you for your awesome post.

  6. This was a great read! It’s important to know that you are not crazy for actually wanting to be a teacher leader in our school and take on more responsibility to bring about change for the students we service.

  7. Excellent comments. I understand teaching leaders take time to develop. When and how do teachers find time to do this? Are there conferences in which teachers can attend to help become teacher leaders? Do you believe administration is looking to support teacher leaders, or provide the time and the money to help support teachers who want to become leaders?

  8. Thanks, all, for the supportive comments. I want to respond to Jeff’s excellent questions. Of course, there are some wonderful conferences that can help feed our own for learning and improving. This depends on the teacher of course and where he or she is in his or her growth. One aspect of being a teacher leader is to model unapologetically a growth mindset toward our profession. I have often done this at schools where there is very little financial support or where I felt essentially alone in my quest, but I have been lucky enough to find great teachers to connect with online. The biggest factor, I believe, is to make the change within yourself — to do the right thing for the kids and share when asked. (Sometimes even just being more open and transparent in faculty meetings can encourage the ones who have been hiding in their classrooms to speak up, believe in themselves, and begin to change. Believe me, others will notice, and change will begin to happen.

  9. Hi Susan! I loved this post. I am currently taking a master’s level course about issues in teacher leadership, and your thoughts really helped me identify my own leadership traits and skills — as well as some things I need to improve on in order to bring my best self to the classroom each day! Why is it so hard, as teachers, to turn off our “altruistic sides” and think about ourselves once in a while? I know I struggle to make time for myself between all the other things I do for my students and colleagues.

    I really appreciate your comment above, too, where you advocate for “doing the right thing for the kids”. How do you propose continuing to do the “right thing”, though, when there is significant push-back from colleagues? I run into challenges where it seems like I am the only one who expects certain behaviors or high quality work. I don’t plan on abandoning my expectations and I don’t think they are unreasonable! If you see this, I’d love some thoughts … in the meantime, off I go to do the best I know I can for each kid, every day!

  10. Hi Susan, I really enjoyed reading your post. I am in my first semester of a Masters program in teacher leadership, and these are the kind of thoughts that I have been pondering during the early part of my studies. There are so many questions that we can ask ourselves about the qualities of teacher leaders. Who has them, and who does not? I recently read an article that focused on teacher drive. The author focuses on motivation, and cites three themes that provide a framework for motivating teachers from Daniel Pink’s book Drive (2009). He says the three main themes are mastery, purpose, and autonomy. I felt that purpose was the most important of those three. I agree with your paragraph on teacher’s purpose, and especially like your last line of the paragraph where you say, “A sense of purpose provides direction and motivation in any teacher-leader’s professional life”. That simple statement carries a lot of value in my opinion…if you had to rank purpose, mastery, and autonomy as the top three motivational qualities of teacher leaders, what would your order be? Thanks for sharing!

    -Nick D.

  11. Hi Susan,
    Thank you so much for such a well-written and thought-provoking post! You stated that teacher leaders “possess vision, focus on student learning, value human resources, communicate and listen, are proactive, and take risks.” My first thought was, “well, that’s what ALL teachers should be doing”. I think this demonstrates the need for all teachers to become teacher leaders – preferably as soon as possible, as you mentioned. While many of your descriptions of teacher leaders were concepts with which I can identify, I started wondering about my self-nurturing. While I try to be healthy, I am not as healthy as I should be. I will be the first to admit that I do not get enough sleep. Being the giver that I am, I make sure others are fed healthy and filling meals – but often neglect to do the same when I am the only one eating. I do try to strengthen my spirituality and learn each and every day; but, as you stated, the burnout of teachers is very real and if I do not consciously take action, I can be susceptible to that issue, as well. Perhaps my biggest takeaway came from your section on risk-taking. I encourage my students to try to challenge themselves; and even encourage them to fail so they have a valuable learning experience. I teach them that taking risks leads to greater learning. However, I am one of those teachers that looks to research to guide me. What does the research say? How should I be doing this? It was not until this year that I started taking my teaching beyond the research and finding answers to questions not already researched. I hope that every teacher leader, or every teacher candidate, has the privilege of reading what you have written here. As you mentioned in your closing, we need more teacher leaders to save our profession. I feel you have taken a great step towards providing that!

    Thank you,

    Sarah Hayes

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