How do you know if you’re a teacher leader?

As a young teacher I didn’t realize my voice mattered – but even if I had, I would have been afraid to use it.

These days, my colleagues and friends often call me a leader, but it has taken me almost a decade for me to actually recognize leadership qualities in myself. I have always been very passionate person — and looking back, I think I’ve always had the capacity to lead — but those skills weren’t activated until well into my teaching career.

I had been in the classroom for about seven years when I met my mentor, a feisty union leader who became a great friend. A past president of my local, he would transform the way I saw myself and my profession by nurturing qualities within me I didn’t even know were there.

You see, as a young teacher I didn’t realize my voice mattered – but even if I had, I would have been afraid to use it. I had been taught to never question authority, to keep my head down and do what I was told. Stir the pot? Never. I was a rule-follower, and afraid of what others might think if I didn’t do as I was asked.

My mentor exposed me to new opportunities to learn about the association, about the challenges facing my profession, and about ways to work for positive change. I began to see myself as an established professional, but I still didn’t feel like a leader. Then something within me changed. In January 2003, I joined a group of other association members to lobby legislators in Richmond. I remember feeling sick as we entered into their offices. I was intimidated…but then something empowering happened.

I was asked to share my story, my concerns, and my beliefs about education. No one outside my family had ever asked me about my outlook on education. I realized I had a voice – an authentic, small but strong voice with a valuable perspective on students’ needs. Somehow I understood how to paint a picture with words, a picture that pulls people into my world with students.

Later that year, I spoke before the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors and then the FCPS School Board. I shared my story. I shared my colleagues’ stories. I shared my students’ stories. I began to gain confidence and make the story live outside the walls of my classroom. And I began to feel like a leader.

I think many people fail to recognize the full range of leadership opportunities available to teachers; there are those who are explicitly recognized as leaders and others who aren’t, but whose influence is clearly felt nonetheless. Often when we think of education leadership, we think mainly of administrators — but in doing so, we may be placing limits our own leadership potential. Because teachers tend to draw their professional identity from those around them –- how administrators, parents, even community members respond to them — they don’t always recognize their own leadership qualities, much less look for opportunities to use them.

So how do you know if you’re a teacher leader?

Teacher leaders:

  • Step up in different ways to take on issues, identify challenges, organize individuals, and inspire others to advocate for themselves.
  • Don’t just believe they can make a difference, they take action to do so.
  • Raise their hand and ask the hard questions.
  • Reach out and encourage others to speak up.
  • Stir the pot.
  • Volunteer their time, resources, and expertise in order to make things better for the greater good.
  • Invest in other teachers and in the profession itself.

We somehow mistakenly believe that teachers can only make a difference in their classrooms, their immediate sphere of influence. But there is so much more we have to offer each other. Every teacher leader’s journey is different. Every teacher leader’s influence is needed. Every teacher leader’s reach is valuable. The moment you believe you own your profession and that you should lead your profession, step up, take action, and make your voice heard. Look toward your local association and connect with other leaders who have the same passions as you. I don’t know if I would call myself a leader had that potential not been recognized by my union friend. I might still feel isolated in my classroom. Or worse, I might have left the profession altogether.

My local association, the Fairfax Education Association, my state association, the Virginia Education Association, and my national association, the National Education Association have given me invaluable opportunities for professional growth. They make me feel connected, and give me ways to ensure my voice matters.

Whether you know it or not, yours matters too.

So I encourage you to explore your inner leader and join your colleagues in making change. I love Nelson Mandela’s quote, “Courage is not the absence of fear–it’s inspiring others to move beyond it.”  I believe we can help each other overcome our fears and take action. So I ask you — will you join me in leading our profession?

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  • ReginaMcCurdy

    Lead From Who You Are

    Hello Precious, 

    I appreciate your story and the characteristics of a teacher leader. You said, “Every teacher leader’s journey is different. Every teacher leader’s influence is needed. Every teacher leader’s reach is valuable.” This is a statement that many teachers need to hear over and over again. 

    One aspect I would add is that teachers’ leadership styles can be quite diverse. The assumption with many of us–as we teachers are our own worst critic–is that leaders have outspoken personalities. But the key is for us to realize we can lead from who we are, from our unique personality styles. Leadership can take many different forms.

    I was speaking with a friend and colleague Kami today, and she was telling me about a conversation a district director was having with her. The director had heard very good things about her, and Kami was surprised the director had any idea of who she was. Kami, who many who know her would characterize her as a leader, went on to tell me that she does not prefer the limelight. She prefers being behind the curtain, cheering and celebrating the success of the performers and performance (which she definitely had a hand in organizing). She knows her stuff, uses wisdom and discretion when communicating, has great observational skills, and knows when and how to make waves to bring about needed change. Many teachers seek her out for insight and direction. She is a leader. 

    Your blog sort of makes one wonder…how would our classrooms, our schools, our districts and nation be different if teachers began to see them selves as having a true leadership role…If teachers realized that it’s not a title or pay grade that qualifies them as a leader… but it’s having the ability to lead and learn to lead right where they are, from who they are. 

    Thank you for the reminder!

    Regina

    • Juan Salazar

      English Language Arts

      My name is Juan Salazar. I teach Reading and Writing classes in deep South Texas.  I enjoyed reading your post, and the title is what caught my eye.  I am currently enrolled at Walden University getting a Masters degree in Teacher Leadership.  My current class is assigning great sources to build our repertoire of Leadership style that we possess or the style we will eventually develop.  

      Our unique personalities has a huge say in the leadership role we eventually develop and form as we courageously move forward with change that leads to more impactful learning for our youth.  In saying this I would like to share with you that it took many years for me to take the next step in trying to have a bigger impact in my school.  I finally decided on taking the bold move and continue my education for higher calling in my career.  I truly care about all the students at my campus and look forward to improving realtionships with colleagues to bring out the best in them.

       

       Thank you for your post and Have a fabulous school year

  • pwcrabtree

    Leading from where and who we are!

    Good Morning Regina!

    Thanks, Regina!  I agree… every teacher needs to understand the influence and impact they have or could have on education.  We are the experts who need to trust in ourselves enough to stand up and speak up at whatever level we are comfortable with…

    I really love your notion of leading “right where they are, from who they are”.  I truly believe that if teachers across the nation embraced their inner leader to advocate for themselves and students, educate the public about what education really looks like, and lead the profession to where we know it should be, we would be the ones controlling critical decisions made about our classrooms & students.   While extra pay would be nice,,, leaders step up because they see something that needs to be addressed and they take action.

    I have several friends who like Kami, are quiet activists who like to work behind the scenes. Their contributions are just as important as someone who speaks in front of the school board or has been recognized formally with a title. Your post has me thinking… how do we encourage others to lead from where they are and utilize their skills within to begin to shift ownership of our profession to educators and away from those who are not invested, educated, or experienced in the ways that we are?

  • Kate

    Leading For the Right Reason

    Precious,

    I have been contemplating what being a teacher leader entails and how to involve myself in a meaningful way which does not become overwhelming.  I have just started a position in a new school as an arts teacher.  I have been inspired by the students to organize an excellent art program and collaborate with the other teachers in the building.  However, I am trying to pace myself and strategically plan my involvement for fear of getting “in over my head.”  

    Regina,

    You mentioned that teachers most often see leadership as a title or a pay increase.  I could not agree more.  I have always seen teacher leadership in this light.  Recently, I have encountered a few professionals who make leading the school part of their everyday mission.  It has inspired me to find a leadership role in my school to make a positive change in our community.                                               

    Kate

     

     

     

    • ReginaMcCurdy

      Go For It!

      Kate, 

      I think it’s great that you’re taking a step to lead. It’s funny, but I never saw myself as a leader until a principal six or seven years ago pointed it out to me. I thought I was just doing my job and making sure I was doing it to the best of my effort and ability each day. I enjoyed teaching and collaborating with and helping my co-workers. I tried to come up with solutions to teacher problems and frustrations and ways to creatively engage my students better. I haven’t perfected either but I wake up everyday with these as my goals and passion. 

      So whatever step you take, make sure it is something that speaks to the core of who you are as a teacher, something that will typically come naturally for you and something that will challenge you a bit as well. I hope to hear more about your journey!

      Precious,

      You’ve got me thinking now… The wheels are turning! I accept the challenge to seek to unveil the positive leader lying right under the surface of other teachers. 

      Let’s keep this discussion going and I’ll post ideas I have on this venture ! 

      Regina 

  • JasonParker

    Importance of taking action

    Couldn’t agree with you more on this point:

    • Don’t just believe they can make a difference, they take action to do so.

    I might add a “quality” to your list:

    • Relentlessly positive, optimistic, and solutions-oriented.

    Thank you for sharing your story with all of us! And for inspiring your peers to stir the pot!

  • Haddenkk

    Well honestly being a teacher
    Well honestly being a teacher leader is not easy and not everyone can do it, there was this aussie essay on it that i once read and it laid down a whole list of criteria that you had to pass, and well i didn’t meaning i didnt have the potential!