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How To Be a Teacher Leader

CTQ blogger Sandy Merz recently posted “My Teacher Leader Manifesto” and challenged teacher leaders to write theirs. Instead of writing a manifesto, I decided to write a few thoughts about how one might become a teacher leader in his or her department, school or district.  These are some of the steps I have taken to develop as a teacher leader.

Be the thing you teach. My late mentor, Dr. Nancy Peterson who was director of the Morehead Writing Project in Morehead, Kentucky, urged her pre-service teachers to be the thing they taught.  If you teach writing, be a writer. An English teacher? Read voraciously and be intoxicated with language. A math teacher should be obsessed with logic, numbers, computation. A history teacher should swoon at national parks and statutes.   Love and be and live the things you teach, especially those things we all should teach:  compassion, honesty, integrity, peace, humanity, kindness, grace.  There is a gravitas to the teacher who takes his calling seriously. There is inherent leadership in that kind of passion.

 Be the expert of your classroom. When, on every street corner and talk radio show, there is someone claiming they know how to fix public education, rest assured that you are the one who goes into the classroom every day and makes learning happen.  Being the expert doesn’t mean you have all the answers, but no one else has more knowledge of your own students, more reference points and growth charts than you have. You are the expert of that room.  Don’t let anyone else – a vendor pushing a product or an administrator pushed by a vendor pushing a product – tell you differently.

 Be data savvy. When I go into schools to provide professional development for school wide writing programs, I find many teachers (sometimes all of them) don’t have access to state data by which their students are measured or don’t care to look at it or don’t know how to read it in a way that is helpful in designing their instruction.   Institutionalized learning, standardized measurements, one size fits all education are all problematic, but quality data is not. Data—generated by the teacher, tailored for students, used to inform instruction— is almost always square one of targeted, individualized learning in a classroom.  Data is part of relationship building. Without knowing where kids are, how can we help them get to the place they need to be?

Be continually reflective on your practice. A good teacher constantly takes the temperature of her classroom, either for comprehension or behavior. A good leader does the same thing in his professional life. How am I growing as a leader? Where do my interests lie? What projects are worth my limited time? Am I spreading myself too thin? Is teaching still my first job?

Be able to defend your practice. This directive is similar to the data-savvy and expert points, but teacher leaders need to be able to explain their craft. Your administrator will be trotting all kinds of people through your classroom.  As a teacher leader, you might be a maverick, doing things a little differently than the rest of the herd. Be prepared to defend that road less traveled.  Know why you do the things you do.  Then, as a leader, share everything you know.

Be informed about local, state, national education policy. I’m always stunned by teachers who don’t know the standards by which they are evaluated as a professional or the policies that their own school board has adopted. Educate yourself.  Get involved.  Serve on a site-based committee with your school district.

Be positive and solutions-oriented. It is hard to be positive when, perhaps, your school is led by an ineffectual administrator or the staff suffers from low morale or your professionalism has been questioned by an esteemed member of your community whose son or daughter is in your class. But complaining and blaming are not the answers. The teacher leader works toward solutions. She clarifies and explains. She builds a team and works toward resolutions.  She’s creative and thoughtful and resolute.

Rise above the turbulence. This is the key to being a teacher leader and being a human being.  Silver bullets come and go. Evaluation instruments change every decade or so.  Certain standard biases fall in and out of fashion.  Every week, there is another hand-wringing report about the state of public education. Thoughtful inquiry, collaborative discussions, critical thinking, humility, patience, honesty and integrity – these pursuits bear longevity.  Do the best that you can do, then go home.

11 Comments

Anne Jolly commented on April 27, 2015 at 5:42pm:

Teacher leaders build teams

I think you have hit the nail on the head with many of your points, Liz. I think my favorite phrase is the one that reads, "The teacher leader works toward solutions . . .  She builds a team and works toward resolutions. 

Building a team is a critical piece of being a teacher leader. You can't lead if no one is following.  Teamwork that builds a collaborative culture is a critical function of teacher leadership - and a great way of addressing many of the other points you make. 

One thing I have realized is that teachers need guidance and preparation for productive facilitating, engaging, providing useful feedback, and a number of other skills that don't necessarily come naturally. Where will teachers get this intentional instruction? 

Anne

Liz Prather commented on May 4, 2015 at 9:44am:

Intentional Instruction for Teachers

Anne, I think you bring up a critical point.  We often are professionally developed with introductions to new systems of technology, assessment, district-wide data collection, etc, but I would love to attend a PD on enhacing the soft skills of communication --  In teaching, so much depends on the ability to explain clearly, coherently, compassionately.  This is such a simple thing, and yet often over looked.   Teachers need to be able to explain a concept, facilitate a discussion, provide clear feedback to students, but if those skills don't come naturally, how does one cultivate them?  This would be a good book idea!

Melissa Lim commented on April 27, 2015 at 8:28pm:

Education Technology

I think these are very practical tips and things we should aspire to do in everyday life, even if you don't necessarily want to become a leader. Thanks!

Tricia Ebner commented on April 27, 2015 at 9:22pm:

Rising . . .

So much good in this. I especially appreciate the last point: rise above the turbulence. Such a great way of describing what we have to do, daily. Well said. Tough to do sometimes, but so important. 

Cossondra George commented on April 29, 2015 at 9:22am:

LOVE!

Great thoughts. I particularly like the Be the Thing You Teach. I value teachers who step outside the classroom to challenge themselves in the content area they teach (and even more, content areas they do not teach in...). We need to be showing our students how what we are teaching applies to the real world. What better way than experiencing the application of that subject ourselves!

Julie Webb LitCentric.com commented on April 29, 2015 at 1:34pm:

Amen!

Thanks so much for your clarity and thoughtfulness.  I especially agree with your point about being able to "defend your practice".  I was fortunate to learn early in my career to justify the decisions I made to administrators, parents, students, colleagues, etc.  It served me well time and time again.

My favorite line you wrote was "Data is part of relationship building."  Brilliant!  Often it seems as though data is viewed as cold, distant, and removed from the daily business of learning.  But truly it's an integral part of the instructional choices we make to serve the children in our care.

Steve Zemelman commented on May 1, 2015 at 12:24am:

Teacher voice, teacher leadership

A fellow educator and I have tried to turn some of these ideas into more concrete actions that teachers can take in order to enact leadership and exert influence on policies and climate in their schools. So we've written about it in "13 Steps to Teacher Empowerment: Taking a More Active Role in Your School Community." Perhaps this might be helpful for teachers who wish to pursue the work that Liz Prather outlines.

robert commented on November 5, 2015 at 12:53am:

Leadership qualities

I really appriciate and i think these are very good tips 

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Kimberly Gwizdala commented on November 8, 2015 at 8:55pm:

Thanks!

Thank you for your wonderfully articulated suggestions on how we can become teacher leaders. The idea of a teacher leader can be daunting for many, mixed with the assumption that we must be perfect in our behaviors and practices. Your piece reminded us that we can do this in small but important ways.

I especially appreciated your reminder to "Be The Thing You Teach". As a high school English teacher, I'm constantly planning, grading essays, and re-reading the books with my students. While I love language and literature, if I'm not careful, I can find myself easily going weeks without reading anything for pleasure. Your note was a helpful reminder that we are not only expected to teach the materials to our students but to become physical manifestations of those concepts, leading by example.

Clifford Noble commented on December 12, 2016 at 9:17am:

One can hardly meet a teacher

One can hardly meet a teacher who doesn't like his or her subject. How can you imagine dedicating life to teaching something without being completely into it? To become community involved is a natural step when you love your job and children you teach and want changes for better. Your practice is your strongest side and teachers do not simply teach coursework writing but give excellent example for students of social involvement, care, and being safety-oriented.

Thakaueornao Jhaeiawahir commented on January 12, 2017 at 6:34am:

If leader is doing anything

If leader is doing anything than the followers are also doing same so that’s why leader is tack care of every moment. Teacher is most professional passion if leader of teacher are provide custom dissertation writing sercice for students and help them than automatically all teachers are also doing same.

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