Last school year, Barnett Berry, CEO of the Center for Teaching Quality, interviewed me for a book called Teacherpreneurs: Innovative Teachers Who Lead But Don’t Leave. In it, he focused on how I worked with others in my school to develop their leadership and continue the spirit of collegiality across all subject areas. While my title was «math coach,» I saw myself more as someone filling in a few of the gaps that the school needed filled, a «solutions maven,» if you will.
Since then, I’ve gotten more opportunities to spread the word about teacher leadership for the 21st century, including my Edutopia blog post on the subject. Of course, with much of the praise I received, I also heard a deluge of critiques from all sorts of key stakeholders. For instance, I have advocated that teachers spend some percentage of their time outside the classroom to find solutions for the school. Some principals wonder if this is the best use of their (most effective) teachers’ time. Other teachers wonder if this idea of teacherpreneur is a bridge toward relinquishing the roles (and salaries) of teachers to the whims of an undulating market. Still others take issue with the way teacher leaders get chosen, which we can all agree has been a problem since the 20th century.
With that, we must set a new path. We need a way of looking at teacher leadership which assures that we value expertise while spreading the idea of teacher-as-thought-leader to the rest of the country. That starts locally. In many schools, the idea of 21st century leadership may radically change the paradigm in the school. For others, it might be a smaller adjustment. I’ll try to address those and more in a few simple steps.
1. Know Your Stuff
My advice to any teacher leader, new or old: know what you’re talking about. Teachers respect leaders who have expertise and demonstrate confidence in that expertise. Having classroom experience goes a long way, but if our message doesn’t sound classroom-based or substantive, it won’t ring true to your colleagues. For instance, if you’re asked a question about the Common Core State Standards, you should know about the shifts in English, the practices in math or the integrations in science, even if you disagree with the standards. In other words, know your stuff. Nothing inspires confidence like reading up on important policy and having a good sense of how that applies to the classroom.
2. Create Something New
In the beginning, new teacher leaders have a hard time adjusting. It can be a strange position to be in now that your role distances you from other colleagues. One of the best solutions to that is using your position to create something new. For instance, in my school, I saw the need for us to create a better presence on the web. I also saw that our tools at the time didn’t let us advance our work as effectively as we could have. I replaced our outdated website with a WordPress-based website and a Google Apps suite for the entire school, and encouraged our staff to use Engrade or any other web-based app for grading. Over the years, even the nonbelievers wanted to start using blogs and communicating with parents via Gmail. We don’t need to have our name on things in order to leave an indelible mark on the schools we help lead.
3. Structure Your Role
If your administrator assigns you the role of teacher leader, you can only hope that you got a list of responsibilities from the outset. If not, this step makes sense: define your role. After a few weeks in your new role, your administrator might ask you to take on a little more than you can chew, or you might want to ask for a little more autonomy in how you meet expectations. Either way, make sure you find your boundaries and stay within that proximal zone. Teacher leaders often burn out (sometimes in flames!) when they’re unclear about their roles or didn’t start with an understanding of what their role entailed. In the worst scenarios, teacher leaders get asked to take on the roles of other administrators, and this makes for even more unease. Know your role. Identify your strengths. Work within those, and people will respond accordingly.
4. Keep the Energy Going
By October, the going does get tough. The honeymoon period is over by then, and teachers are getting a sense of their classes. Administrators begin stressing over interim tests and the first marking period. Thanksgiving can’t come soon enough. Despite yourself, you as the teacher leader might have to start doing the cheerleading and clapping when teacher morale starts dropping. If you’re the high-energy leader, teachers will look to you to pat them on the back or give them positive stories about your small successes in the classroom. If you’re the «lead by example» leader, this means you will have to open up your classroom door a lot, and listen to your colleagues while leaning in to give advice.
These characteristics fall in line with what I’ve seen the most effective teacher leaders do. Teacher leadership doesn’t necessitate teachers leaving the classroom for a principalship. Teacher leadership doesn’t mean you were chosen or assigned as the absolute best person for the job, as biases abound in our school systems. Teacher leadership doesn’t require one specific temperament or «look.»
However, the best teacher leaders understand that instructional and pedagogical knowledge comes first. They don’t need to tell others what to do, and often find themselves doing with others. They frequently answer the questions they asked themselves when they were just «regular» teachers. They know what they’re doing and, when everyone’s down, they pick themselves and others up. Once we have these common understandings, the conversation around teacher leadership goes from the humdrum to the transformative.
How are you gearing up to lead more effectively this year?