My supervisor and I were reminiscing about a time before I was a teacher leader, and she quickly responded, “Was there ever a time you were not a teacher leader?” As I reflected on her comment, I realized that I was a student leader in school growing up, and it just never stopped. However, there are some things I wish I had known earlier in my teacher leader journey.
Take the opportunity to lead
I wish I had known that the opportunity to lead is not afforded to all teachers. Many teachers serve in schools where the traditional style of top down management still exists. The principal, with the formal title, is the know-all, be-all of the building, leaving little room for teachers to lead where they are.
During my first year in the classroom in 1984, I was asked to organize monthly celebrations to highlight our school’s students and showcase the amazing things happening in our middle school. My idea was to bring community leaders to the school to enjoy a breakfast program with teacher and student participation. My administrator provided the opportunity for me as a first-year teacher to step up and lead outside of my classroom while creating time in my day to do the planning and direct the celebration.
Now I know that was an early version of a hybrid teacher leader role. I taught a full class load but had release time during the day to lead. Effective teacher leadership cannot exist without the trust and willingness of the administrator to provide opportunities for teachers to lead. Rethinking the master schedule, providing subs, and getting creative with class coverage are a few ways to make it happen. I thought all teachers had school leaders like Witherspoon, Rabon, Jefferson, Hunter, Moseley, Poda, Coon, Baldwin, and Avins. These leaders demonstrated that administrators hold the title but should never hesitate to get out of the way, giving teachers the opportunity to lead.
Build leadership capacity
I loved my students well and wholeheartedly served my colleagues and have always believed you should not ask of others what you are not willing to do yourself. Over time I found my heart was leading me in a different direction — one that would take me away from the everyday routines of a middle school. I served all 30 years in my home district and had so many people to thank for helping me grow. How could I impact teacher leadership so that all teachers might have opportunities to lead?
I was given the opportunity to serve at the state level as a leader of teacher leaders. What began as a task to develop South Carolina’s Teacher Leader Model morphed into our South Carolina Collective Leadership Initiative. Collective leadership is “the practices through which teachers and administrators influence colleagues, policymakers, and others to improve teaching and learning” (Eckert, 2018). Our state is in its third year of the initiative and second year of a pilot implementation with 12 schools. These schools utilize hybrid teacher leader roles and collective leadership to work through a problem of practice in their schools. In my current role, 98 percent of my time is spent doing the work of collective leadership. Ownership of school improvement is a collective endeavor. I have the awesome opportunity to lead development of a differentiated framework for collective leadership for our state.
Do the next thing
I have been so blessed to have a career as an educator, and I choose to continue to serve in my present role where my avocation and vocation are one and the same. This approach to my 34 years in education comes with many lessons learned and hard knocks that made me a better person and in turn a better leader. Some advice for current teacher leaders can be summed up in a few statements:
- Identify your leadership skills, share them, and contribute where you are right now.
- Take the initiative to do the next thing — whatever needs to be done to accomplish the school goals. No one has to give you a title to lead.
- Surround yourself with people who energize you, not ones who drain your soul.
- Develop a “Yes, and” attitude — the determination to always find a way to do what’s good for educators and students.
- Realize very early in your career that the power is in the process, and sometimes the most growth happens when the process is messy. It is alright to not have all the answers.
- Accept your colleagues where they are and move forward together. It’s okay if they are at a different place on their growth continuum.
- Make effort, not excuse.
- Lead strong.
Every teacher can apply these principles to begin leading right away. You never know how one opportunity might lead to the next. The growth that happens in the present stage transforms us for what the next phase will require. Our impact could be limitless if we lean into leading collectively right where we are.