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Becoming a Teacher Leader: What's Next?

There’s a certain kind of teacher we know. We may catch him staring contemplatively out the window on a Thursday afternoon, long after the kids have left for the day, thinking “What else? What else? What else?” Maybe it’s the woman at the faculty meeting who, even at 3:30, is still buzzing with energy and enthusiasm from the day.

You know the one. Why? Because it’s you.

You’re the teacher who is always passionate about the work and the possibilities that come with it. You’re constantly searching for opportunities and solutions. You are the one who knows that lessons, professional development, and the relationships with your colleagues and community members can all be improved–and you’re actively working to do so.

You’re a teacher leader. You may not realize it or even believe it yet, but it’s true. See if any of the following statements apply:

  1. I want to be the best classroom teacher I can be and I’m willing to do the work to become it.
  2. I want my school to provide kids with opportunities they don’t have now and will work to make that happen.
  3. I want my colleagues to collaborate more often and more effectively so that becoming better together is the norm, not a happy accident. I’m willing to learn how to do that.
  4. I want to ensure teachers have the best possible learning experiences so that they can learn, grow, and demonstrate excellence daily. I’d like to facilitate some of that learning.
  5. I want my community to know the wonderful and challenging things going on in schools and I’m excited to be a voice for my profession.
  6. I understand the impact district, local, and national policies have on my students and co-workers. I want to be at the table where decisions are made and I want to help make them.
  7. I want to do all of these things and still teach children each day.

If your answer isn’t “all of the above,” then we’re sure you saw yourself in at least one or two of those statements. You’re a teacher on a mission to lead, and we have some fabulous news for you. First, you’re not alone. Second, teacher leaders are more important than ever before.

There is a strong base of research to support the concept of teacher leadership–teachers leading both within and beyond the walls of their own classrooms. Katzenmeyer and Moller (2001) refer to “awakening the sleeping giant” of teacher leadership in their book of the same title as they talk about helping teachers to develop as leaders. Mark Smylie’s seminal work has shown that teacher leaders need to be trained and that the anoint-and-appoint model of teacher leadership simply doesn’t work. The work of Jennifer York-Barr and her colleagues formed a foundation for the existence of teacher leadership and they continue to explore the concept of boundary spanning. The three-part study conducted by AIR, NNSTOY, and nine other partners investigating the role and impact of teacher leaders added to this base.

Essentially, this research tells us that teacher leadership is indeed a role for educators; that it is needed to mitigate issues of teacher retention, principal overload, and the hunger of teachers to lead in policy, practice, and advocacy. Teacher leaders are vital and necessary.

Whether you’re already miles ahead on your leader journey, or just getting started, here’s some helpful advice to take with you:

Start Where You Are.

You don’t need a special title, an award, or position to begin leading in your profession. If you wait until you’ve got an official seal of approval to finally do the things you’ve wanted to do for kids or your colleagues, you’ll never begin. Start now. Gather a coalition of the willing and work with the tools in front of you. Start a club. Mentor a teacher. Bring a group together to build a school garden. March on Congress (we dare you!) If there’s something you’ve always thought would make your school, or any part of public education in general, better do it today.

Feed the hungry and don’t you dare water the rocks.

When you set out on your unique leadership pathway, you’ll notice two things. The right people will be energized by your ideas and want to jump on board immediately. Some may be hesitant at first, but once they see the tide of excitement that follows teachers who lead, they tend to climb aboard. Cherish these people. They are your people and they’ll be an endless source of ideas, cheerleading, and faithful positivity in good times and when you hit a snag (you will hit these…trust us).

You’ll just as quickly notice those who don’t want to join your adventure. They may rebuff your ideas or your enthusiasm. They may put you down to your face or talk behind your back. The haters are out there. Ignore them. Long ago, they decided it was easier (and maybe safer) to hunker down into a space that wasn’t conducive to their growth or anyone else’s. Let them stay there. Don’t spend a second of your precious energy trying to convert them or win them over.

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Stay the course.

When you are working to make change anywhere in the edu-sphere, the pace of change might drive you nuts. We are used to teaching and seeing the results with our kids in a much tighter loop, so when we’re working on larger projects or ideas, it can be frustrating to not immediately see results. That’s normal and it takes some getting used to. Remember, a ship that diverts even one degree off course will, over the course of a long journey, arrive at a completely different destination. Keep this at the front of mind as your work with teachers, administrators, community members, or your legislators. You WILL begin to see the fruits of your labor but you’ll want to celebrate the small victories along the way to sustain your passion and energy for the eventual big change ahead.

Tell our stories.

No one knows teaching and learning like teachers and no one knows the realities of our students and our work like us. The single best thing we have, besides our professional expertise, is our first-hand accounts of life inside classrooms, of life through the eyes of young people. When we bring our stories to the community and when we speak our truths, hearts and minds are moved. But too many times, we leave the narrative around education to other less noble actors. Let’s take those back and use them to make necessary and vital changes in the spaces where learning happens.

Leadership is a moment and a movement. It’s in the way you address a colleague who can be doing better and who needs to hear it. Your courage to deliver that message in a way that’s kind and comes with an offer of support makes you a leader. It’s in the way you create a space for teachers across your city to articulate around learning goals and quality student work. It’s in the way you become so frustrated by education policy being put into place in Washington that you run for Congress yourself. Leadership is collaborating with teachers around the globe to design projects your kids can do to solve the planet’s challenges. It’s everything in between.

So start wherever you are, with whatever you have. Do what you can where you’re at with the tools and the passion you already possess. Our profession–and our education system–needs folks like you who have the courage and the knowledge to make education better. All you need to do is start your adventure.

Rebecca Mieliwocki (NNSTOY Teacher of the Year 2012) and Joe Fatheree (Illinois Teacher of the Year 2007) are co-authors of Adventures in Teacher Leadership: Pathways, Strategies, and Inspiration for Every Teacher (ASCD and NNSTOY, 2019). Katherine Bassett, the founder of Tall Poppy and the former CEO of NNSTOY, wrote the book’s introduction.

Rebecca Mieliwocki
Rebecca Mieliwocki
Katherine Bassett
Katherine Bassett
Joe Fatheree
Joe Fatheree