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Teacher Leader Versus "Teacher" Leader and Why It Matters

The title of teacher is sacred and means that you're teaching on a regular basis. - Lori Nazareno

Before 2011, I had never heard the term teacher leader in any context. There were teachers who everyone knew were leaders. Some led committees, some worked toward administration positions, others led by example, and still others led by executing their own ideas. But the concept of teacher leader, one who, in CTQ language, leads without leaving the classroom, incubates and executes his or her own ideas, and blurs the line between teaching and leading, was foreign to me until I was selected to serve on the Arizona TeacherSolutions Team. 

Teacher leaders--and I'm immodest enough to call myself one--seek not just to share our teaching expertise but also to alter the context in which we work. Altering the context means influencing and creating policy--not just within our schools but also in our districts, states, and nation. Accomplished teachers are uniquely situated to influence the direction education takes because: 1) As the membrane through which policy enters practice we are situated better than anyone to evaluate policy; and 2) We have an inherent credibility because we are not only willing to live with our ideas: We want to!

So here is an uncomfortable question: Must someone be engaged in daily classroom instruction, delivering lessons to students, to credibly call himself or herself a teacher leader? 

I say yes.

My reasons are practical and dispositional. Practically, moving to a non-teaching position immediately disconnects one from first-person experience of daily executing policy and the inherent credibility is compromised. This effect is exacerbated with distance, time and spatial, from the classroom.

Dispositionally, I think teacher should be the highest status job in the profession. The leader in teacher leader should be an outcome of being a teacher and secondary to it. Otherwise, teacher once again becomes subordinate and a stop along the way of one's career path.

Lori Nazareno, Teacher in Residence for CTQ, recently expressed the point exactly: 

I stepped away from the classroom and schools two years ago to take on this full-time, out of the classroom role to help support teachers who are interested in teacher-powered schools and school redesign. I’m thinking, though, that as I move into my third year, we need to come up with a different title other than Teacher in Residence. I’m a firm believer that the title of teacher is sacred and means that you’re teaching on a regular basis.

Does all this mean I'm dismissive of others who lead or that I minimize their contributions? ABSOLUTELY NOT!! Teacher mentors with no classroom instructional duties are indispensable leaders, as are teachers who move into administration or politics or the media. But, how valid is it to call themselves teacher leaders after they've left the classroom? 

Alternatives are easy to come by: Teacher-oriented leader, leader of teachers, a teacher's leader, and so forth. 

Does one have to give up calling oneself a teacher the moment one leaves the classroom? It depends. I'd say yes if one has no intent of returning to classroom teaching. I’d say no if one is taking time to finish a degree program, serve in a role that has a term-limit, or something similar, but fully intends to return to teaching. 

Is all this attention to a couple of words really that big a deal? YES! Words matter. If you have any doubts, just read the first amendment without the single word "no" and see how a free country becomes a tyranny.

Teacher in teacher leader must limited and defended in order to maintain the credibility and uniqueness that comes with the role.


John Holland commented on June 23, 2014 at 2:01pm:

Astnother Perspective


I wanted to offer another perspective on your question. I have struggled with this same question for a long time. There are two alternatives. One is the "art" perspective. 

Since Duchamp the prevailing thought, with much disucssion, has been that art is what the artist says is art. That doesn't mean its good art, or even worth looking at. But, art is essentially what the artist says is art. If this were applied to teaching it might sound like this. A teacher leader who moved out of the classroom coulld say that they are a teacher because what the do is teach the world about how teaching and education is and could be. In a sense, teaching is what a teacher says teaching. There are alternatives to this view as well, I had a very practical sculpture professor that said, "Unless you are in the studio, making art, you are not an artist, you are just a guy drinking too much coffee talking about art."

Lori is still teaching when she leads twitter chats, works with budding teacher led schools, and produces content to support these efforts. She is teaching the world about teacher led schools. But, that feels flimsy so here is my second perspective which includes the role of identity in the profession. As we know here in the collab, teachers are more than performers of a function. Through the process of teaching, teahcers' form an identity that is influences and is influenced by the context of theier work. Identity refers to the ways that teachers describe they need to" be" as teachers, act as teachers, and understand as teachers (Sachs, 2005). If identity is part of the equation then someone can actually not have daily contact with students but still be, act, and understand as a teacher. Are we not teachers when we are off during winter break or the summer? I think that perhaps what Lori is experiencing is a shift in her identity in that she is not sure if she is being, acting, and understaning as a teacher. At the same time, if she is applying her teacher identity to a new context perhaps she is still a teacher. I struggled with this when I left to supervise teachers in Head Start. I decided that the work I was doing was not close enough to my identity for me to keep doing it. It didn't fit. So I decided to teach again. It was closer to who I am.


Sachs, J. (2005) Teacher Education and the Development of Professional Identity: Learning to be a Teacher in P. Denicolo and M. Kopf (Eds) Connecting Policy and Practice: Challenges

Sarah Burrowbridge commented on July 15, 2014 at 10:10am:

Hybrid Roles

This post comes at an interesting time for me.  I am pregnant with my second child due in August.  My husband and I have discussed me taking a leave of absence for the year.  While I know my hands will be full, we decided that we would do daycare 1-2 times a week so that I could work on other projects.  I am working with a college professor on a continuation of a study that we has evolved after the completion of our previous three year study.  I approached my principals and asked if I could work pro-bono to develop a few projects in our school that would explore my passions.  I am very fortunate to be in this position.  I am invigorated by the idea of getting to explore the inner workings of classrooms outside of my own.  It would be interesting if we had a set-up similar to universities and teachers were allowed to take a "sabbatical" to do further research or even work in a different realm of the profession before returning to the classroom.  

I have been so torn and feel like I am at a cross roads in my career. I love teaching.  I love the children, I love that there are constantly new and different challenges that keep me on my toes.  Yet, I struggle with the lack of teach input in small and large scale decision making.  Sometimes even within my own school, I feel like teachers are the last to know.  I stumbled upon this website and if I could find ways to get my school and district to support it, I think this would be the ideal solution.  

I would love to hear stories from people that work as teacher leaders (with the component of splitting some time).  I have enjoyed reading your posts and would enjoy to learn more!

Sandy Merz Sandy Merz commented on June 23, 2014 at 3:26pm:

So much to agree with and yet...

Thanks for your comment, John. My main concerns are to have a term that applies to the unique perspective of classroom teachers and to encourage the notion that Teacher is a high status position. No doubt, many out of the classroom roles involve teaching in some way as well as leading. And no doubt many of the directions that professionals in those roles lead are closely informed by and supportive of classroom practice. I think of mentors who teach teachers how to teach as one example.  And what about nurses, counselors, and librarians?

One the other hand, I don't think self-identity is enough. My first career was a hydrogeologist. I identify with anyone who loves and learns the earth sciences and have degrees that prove my qualifications, but wouldn't call myself a hydrogeologist without practicing in the field. 

One thing a classroom teacher will never have to do is rationalize - even though the rationalization is very persuasive - why he or she should be called a teacher.

I looked at the NEA website to see who could be member - what distinctions they made. They cast a wide net for basic membership but branches that focus on substitutes, retired teachers, support professionals and the like, which suggests even they recognize the differences subtle and not so subtle in differnt posititions. 

Monica Clark commented on June 23, 2014 at 8:10pm:

Teacher Leader

I am new to CTQ so I don't feel real qualified to give any type of constructive feedback.  I just wanted to thank you for your insight into the role of the classroom teacher at the pinnacle of the education profession.  This idea is so affirming.

Sandy Merz Sandy Merz commented on June 23, 2014 at 10:40pm:

Your Ideas Count, too!

Thanks for your comment Monica. Even though you don't feel qualified to give constructive feedback, I bet your first impression would be very constructive, indeed.

Bill Ferriter commented on June 24, 2014 at 7:23am:

I'm with you on this one,

I'm with you on this one, Sandy.  

But I wrote a bit about a decade ago making similar arguments -- I pushed the notion that you have an expiration date from the minute you walk out of the classroom...a point where you DON'T understand teaching anymore and CAN'T rightfully call yourself a teacher -- and I got FLAMED.

The sad truth is that education is still a hierarchy and as one "moves up" that hierarchy (read: leave the classroom for ANY position), they tend to believe that they are "above" those of us who willingly choose to stay in the classroom.  Because they see themselves as "above" us, they believe they retain a deep and meaningful understanding of what it is that we do.  It's like they believe moving up means they mastered teaching as if it were a repeatable level in a video game that they could easily work their way through without any change.

Their new positions often reinforce those notions.  They are usually housed in an office surrounded by other people who have "moved up" and as a result "mastered" teaching -- so no one sees the inherent disconnect of being divorced from the classroom.  

They usually have more organizational juice -- they make decisions and spend budgets on behalf of teachers.  They get to go to district level meetings and professional development sessions, which sends the inherent message that they are important enough to be invested in.  And they tend to continue "moving up" the ladder into roles with lofty titles like "senior administrator."  

So you are right:  A teacher leader should be a practicing teacher in my opinion.  

But trying to tell that to someone who "has been promoted" is risky business!

Any of this make sense?




Sandy Merz Sandy Merz commented on June 24, 2014 at 3:44pm:

Yes it does make sense

Thanks for your comment, Bill. Although I targeted my coments at professionals who are teacher advocates and teacher and classroom oriented, I certainly had in the back of my mind another set (maybe another blog?) who want nothing to do with the classroom, but cling to the title to boost their credibility. That includes former teachers who have moved "above" us - the ones your writing about, but also those who just don't want to teach any more - for whatever reason, to those who expoit the title for commercial reasons like a vendor promoting new educational software.

Like I said to John, one thing a classroom teacher will never have to do is rationalize why he or she should be called a teacher.


The ESOL Ninja commented on June 25, 2014 at 7:03pm:

Right On


I was recently asked to consider becoming a "teacher leader"  next year (I'll receive the final word in August as there's a lot going on at the school over the summer).  This position is out of the classroom.  I tentatively agreed based on the condition that I be assigned at least one or two classes. The vice-principal was shocked by this concession as she assumed that most teachers would be happy to leave the classroom all day.

However, like you, I agree that as soon as you leave the classroom you lose your credibility.  I've also seen too many "teacher leaders" act like school royalty and become dismissive of the daily realities of being in a classroom.  I do not want to become like that.  I also don't want to help make decisions outside of the context of "Hey, this affects me as well as I also have to follow this mandate as a classroom teacher." 

Thank you for speaking the truth.  I am gong to keep this article as a reference.

Sandy Merz Sandy Merz commented on June 29, 2014 at 11:46pm:

ESOL - good luck!

Thanks for your reply, ESOL NInja, 

I hope you keep us informed about how it goes. I guess you'll be doing some "action research" on our claims that teacher leaders should maintain some teaching duties. 

Lauren Stephenson commented on June 24, 2014 at 11:10am:

A career ladder for teachers


Fantastic piece.

I'm curious to hear your thoughts on whether the profession might benefit from a career ladder for teachers who stay in the classroom, a la Shanghai. (Check out this piece by Rachel Evans.) Here's what the teaching career ladder looks like in Shanghai:

  • Career ladder: Teachers are identified across four levels as an indication of their professional status: new teachers (1st year), junior-level teachers (2nd-5th years), middle-level teachers (6th -10th years), and senior-level teachers (11th year and above). A “master teacher” title is as an honor given to senior secondary school teachers for their outstanding contributions to education. 

What would something like this do for the public perception of the profession? Where might the "teacher leader" description fit in?

Sandy Merz Sandy Merz commented on June 24, 2014 at 3:54pm:

Career Ladder Implications

I definitely like the vision of career ladders similar to what you mention, but would link it more to achievement and not years.  By achievement I mean things like National Board Certification, mentoring colleagues, writing, taking on adminstrative tasks, starting programs, and so forth. Attendant to that would have to be pathways, like hybrid roles, that enable to extend their reach and/or deepen their influence.  Attached to that would, of course, be appropriate salary increases. Both Teaching 2030 and the RESPECT document lay out potential ladders.

What I'm not so interested in is getting more pay just for doing more things, which oftent amounts to either seat time in PD or taking on duties that aren't particularly challenging.

Teacher leader would apply to someone who had a track record of achievement regarding bringing original ideas into general practice.

Sandy Merz Sandy Merz commented on June 24, 2014 at 3:54pm:

Career Ladder Implications

I definitely like the vision of career ladders similar to what you mention, but would link it more to achievement and not years.  By achievement I mean things like National Board Certification, mentoring colleagues, writing, taking on adminstrative tasks, starting programs, and so forth. Attendant to that would have to be pathways, like hybrid roles, that enable to extend their reach and/or deepen their influence.  Attached to that would, of course, be appropriate salary increases. Both Teaching 2030 and the RESPECT document lay out potential ladders.

What I'm not so interested in is getting more pay just for doing more things, which oftent amounts to either seat time in PD or taking on duties that aren't particularly challenging.

Teacher leader would apply to someone who had a track record of achievement regarding bringing original ideas into general practice.

Bill Ivey commented on June 24, 2014 at 11:40am:

Teacher or not Teacher, that is the question

Thanks, Sandy. I'd fallen into a rut in my thinking on this question, and appreciate being lifted out of it.

I have several friends who are consultants who feel that you can continue to draw effectively on your experience as a classroom teacher for up to seven years before you really need to concede you're operating - however effectively! - on research and theory, probably continually updated, and - ideally! - listening carefully to other people's experiences when working directly with teachers.  Embedded in that concept is a generaly humble attitude - remaining proud of your past as a teacher and what you learned in the process, but not implying that you're fully in touch with the day-to-day present realities of the profession.

I far prefer that attitude, among consultants, than the arrogant from-on-high "Come on, you have to love and respect me. I'm an expert. And who, exactly, are you?!" attitude I get from some others. And Bill, I'm thinking some of the flaming you got would be coming from people with those or similar attitudes, especially if you hit on a sore point they try not to think about. Sometimes, those who feel the most threatened go the most strongly on the attack.

All of which is not to say I don't recognize there are consultants doing marvelous work, advancing the profession, and indirectly helping kids - perhaps in greater numbers than they could if they stayed in the classroom. And I genuinely love them for what they are doing.

But I couldn't do it. I thought about it, once, around eight years ago when lots of people were encouraging me to go into consulting. But for one thing, I don't think it would have been a sound business decision, and for another, I realized that the core of what I do is in the classroom. And I've realized I would never take an administrative position that removed me entirely from contact with students.

So I tend to side with you, Sandy, and  Bill and Lori. I respect the words and experiences of those who have left as well as of those (like Sandy and me) who have chosen to stay. To me, when you put all of this together, it seems pretty clear that one loses out on a critical dimension of practice when one leaves the classroom to lead. One may be a brilliant and effective leader. But one is no longer an actual teacher-leader.

Sandy Merz Sandy Merz commented on June 24, 2014 at 4:03pm:

As always, Bill, you fill in the gaps

Thanks, Bill, for so clearly describing the end members of out of the classroom professionals who call themselves teachers. I bet we all have experience with every type you mention. When writing, I kept hearing myself say to leaders I know personally and follow - "I'm not trying to disparage your contribution, I'm trying to deliniate between the different kinds of educational leaders, and teacher-leader needs a narrow definition."


Kelly Bullock Daugherty commented on June 26, 2014 at 11:47am:

Dr. Teacher Leader

What a great discussion! I've been battling the title of "Teacher Leader" for over a year now. You see, like you, I hadn't heard anything of this label until Walden University offered a doctoral degree in the area. I pursued and completed the degree last April (2013)! My thinking behind pursuing the degree was that I wanted to stay as close to the classroom as possible! I'm not interested in being a principal or superintendent, but I am interested in pursuing an administrative position that would allow me to work with teachers and teachers practice in the classroom.

You have provided great insight with your interpretation of a "Teacher Leader". I have been struggling with the fact that I have a doctoral degree and remain in the classroom. I'm so concerned about being perceived as a failure in the field because I'm "stuck" in the classroom when in fact I'm not stuck at all! Rather, I have
positioned myself to have a greater impact on our practice by actually being in the classroom! What an enlightening moment! Thank you!

I agree that leaving the classroom could potentially disconnect one from current practices in education, however, I also believe that there ARE other aspects of teaching as have been stated previously. While I love teaching children, I also love teaching teachers! This is the direction I am currently moving in. I think of my classroom as my "lab" (for lack of a better word). It's where I work to perfect my practice and then share what I learn with other teachers through reflective blogs of my experiences.

I thank you and appreciate your sharing your profound reflection and insight regarding the "Teacher" Leader. It has allowed this Dr. Teacher Leader to step back, reevaluate and redefine, for myself, the meaning and purpose of a Teacher Leader.

In fact, if I may, I'd like to share this blog with others.

Thank you again!

Sandy Merz Sandy Merz commented on June 29, 2014 at 11:53pm:

Scholars in the classroom?

What a concept! Thanks for posting this, Kelly. You're an example of the thirst so many teachers have for hybrid roles that enable them to continue their teaching and lead beyond the classroom. By making the choice you are, you're creating an option for others in your postion to consider that they might not have thought of anyway.  

Yes, please share the post.

Kelly Bullock Daugherty commented on June 26, 2014 at 12:53pm:

Dr. Teacher Leader

My post was duplicated. I apologize. This was my attempt at deleting it. I'll get the hang of this. :-) 

Anne Jolly commented on June 26, 2014 at 7:23pm:

Teacher Leader

Great topic, Sandy. The "teacher" (as in classroom teacher) designation carries a great deal of credibility in almost any area. It's been my experience that legislators will listen to teacher leaders before they will listen to superintendents. When teachers are included on committees, people stop to listen to what they have to say. Teacher leaders have access and value in almost all fields - with the exception, perhaps, of some school systems and districts.

So when do you stop being a teacher? I'd suggest that you have to regrettably stop calling yourself a classroom teacher when you close your classroom door for the last time.

But here's something to think about. I never occupied another position in a school or school district than that of classroom teacher. So my perspective when I do professional development or work with teachers in any way is that of a classroom teacher. No matter how kids change, teachers' needs remain much the same in our status-quo-mired school systems.

I do get into classrooms and teach kids. With a team of colleagues, I write curriculum. I implement, observe, and evaluate the effectiveness of that curriculum; then revise and redo the cycle. While I'm in classrooms working with students I can remain somewhat up to date with regard to today's students. But I simply cannot claim to be a teacher in the "classroom teacher" sense of the word unless it's true - unless I'm a classroom teacher.

At least that's my thinking. I would like to point out that I'm speaking only in the classroom teacher sense of the word. I am definitely a teacher in other roles in education, church, and in my community. Teacher - yes. Classroom teacher - sadly, no.

Bill Ivey commented on June 28, 2014 at 9:49am:

Perspective and freshness of perspective

Anne, as I read your comment, something crystallizes for me. I think there are (at least) a couple of things at play here. One is the fundamental perspective each of us brings to what we do, another is the freshness of that perspective. So as you say, someone who might not currently be actively in the classroom but who spent their entire in-school career as a classroom teacher will bring that perspective to whatever they do. But along with that, it matters if that person left the classroom two weeks ago or 10 years ago, and it matters if that person periodically spends time in the classroom with kids even if they are not specifically a classroom teacher.

When you point out that kids might change but teachers' needs remain relatively consistent, it makes me think that kids' needs probably remain relatively consistent too. Certainly, the high-stakes testing regime (for example) provides a very different context than when most of us at CTQ were in school, but fundamentally, we wanted to be loved, we wanted to be taken seriously, we wanted the chance to grow and learn, we wanted to be supported without being judged, and so on - just like today's kids.

I think, quite beyond a simple question of vocabulary and what it means to call yourself a teacher, we're talking about giving, earning, and deserving respect. We're talking not just about what fundamental knowledge each of us brings to the table but also the attitude with which we share it, and the attitude with which we listen.

Does that make sense?

Sandy Merz Sandy Merz commented on June 30, 2014 at 12:03am:

Exactly right, Bill

I'll stand by the claim that classroom teacher should be the highest status job in education. But all the work done by accomplished professionals to make what happens in the classroom deserves respect and acknowlegement and a voice.

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