Looking to the horizon:
The adventure and impact of teacher leadership

My educational vision: To empower ALL students to own their learning, shape their dreams, and create a better world.

Take the first step: Own it

My educational philosophy is anchored in this short statement, and this vision for learning has guided my heart and acted as a North Star since before I became an educator. However, it was not until I engaged in my first action-research project, as a part of my teacher licensure program, that I was able to put into words what I intuitively knew to be true: the purpose and art of being an educator and mentor is in being a catalyst for students to take ownership of their learning. Once students assume a position of ownership, or what is now widely known as agency, a world of possibilities opens up, and students are able to cast and realize their dreams, which we hope will also serve and improve those around them.

Interestingly, my K-12 schooling experience was the antithesis of this philosophy, and being a teacher was never even a thought that crossed my mind until I was in my 20s. I floated through school with mostly B’s but had no real purpose for being there. I had great teachers and a quality education, but for some reason I was a passive learner. I can honestly say that the first time I was passionate about learning was when I was 19 years old and pursuing my EMT so I could become a ski patroller and eventually open a backcountry guiding business. That dream didn’t pan out, but it was an adventure. And I learned the powerful lesson of the importance of relevance and connecting to your passions.    

First glimpses of my educator adventure

I like stories of adventure, and I tend to seek what is just beyond the horizon. My first glimpse of becoming a teacher came at an open mic night where I heard a wilderness therapist sharing about how he supported at-risk teens in finding purpose and rebooting their lives. Around the same time, I had a mentor who worked as a teacher and counselor at an alternative high school. He took time to listen, told me I mattered, and encouraged me to pursue my passions. His investments in me laid the foundation that more than anything else being an educator is about being a mentor and being in relationship. While I had a taste of the education adventure, I did not yet have the courage to commit to boarding the ship. I needed to finish my undergrad, and my plan to enter the corporate or tourism industries seemed more firm.

Stepping out and filling the gap

The seeds of wanting to invest in others grew over time, and eventually I found myself leaving the corporate world to work with teens and become an educator. My career as a teacher began in an alternative high school setting with students who had fallen through the cracks of our educational system. Most had gang affiliations, 40 percent had identified special education disabilities, and on down the list: broken families, interrupted schooling, drug addictions, trauma. Our school program was one of the greatest strength factors in their lives, and as teachers we had the opportunity to impact the life trajectories of these students. This environment was taxing to work in, and staff burnout was high. However, that also meant that teachers were needed to lead and model the way. In my time at this school, I learned the foundations of how to plan units and lessons, how to differentiate for a broad group of learners, and how to establish meaningful relationships with students. I was also afforded leadership opportunities such as filling a department chair role and developing programming and support for English Language Learners and students who were new to the school.

Leadership compass: Step out to affect the students and communities you are passionate about serving and do not be afraid to lead and meet needs as they arise. As long as you are still learning, you do not need to be a master teacher to lead when there is an open need.

Follow your captain—sometimes into the unknown

One of the greatest gifts of the first school community I was a part of was the leadership and support I received from my mentor, principal, and instructional coach. These mentors gave me feedback, let me fail forward without judgment, provided opportunities for me to stretch, and pointed me to initial areas to lead. Being collaborative and proactive with the school leadership also provided an unexpected opportunity to open a new, innovative high school, where I worked in a formal teacher leader role in Denver Public Schools Teacher Leadership Academy.

There is nothing more exciting, difficult, and scary than opening a new school. The creative energy and collective commitment energize the staff and build deep comradery. The excitement and tentativeness of a pioneering class of students is also truly unique. However, the greatest gift comes in the shaping of what is possible for ALL learners. Your community has an opportunity to re-envision what school should look like, to redesign systems that may cause inequity in a traditional setting, and to leverage the collective strengths of staff, students, and the community to fill the voids of start-up.

I am blessed to have initially etched my leadership story through sailing the rugged seas of school design and implementation. Over the course of six years, a team of passionate teacher leaders and openhanded administrators designed and opened two high school programs. At the first school, I was provided opportunities to fill the roles of teacher leader, assistant principal, and principal resident. Later, I was able to work with a group of teacher leaders as the founding principal to design a second high school founded on the principles of empowering teachers to lead and students to own their learning.  These leadership steps came from formal job embedded leadership pathways provided by Denver Public Schools. Equally important, the process and context of school design allowed our collective teams to learn, lead, and, at times, fail forward, in creating school designs that are empowering for educators and students.

While opening schools is a rare opportunity, I have come to see that the opportunities to lead and pilot innovations in established schools are much more common and may have fewer barriers to ensuring sustained implementation. Taking the lead on establishing processes for learning communities, moving a school toward student-led conferences, and tuning engaging project ideas with colleagues are a few areas teachers can lead in without needing a formal role.  The key is developing relationships and working agreements with teacher colleagues and school leadership that are anchored in responsible risk taking and innovation on behalf of supporting the students you serve.

Leadership compass: The adventure of being a teacher leader and filling leadership roles often requires risking the safety of familiar harbors.

Don’t drift: It’s all about the crew and passengers

In the last two years, I have transitioned away from the adventure of school design and into a broader district leadership role. This role also has storms (our district underwent a central office reorganization last spring), and there are bold horizons to be pursued (our district-wide vision is to scale competency-based learning to over 22,000 students). However, I am more sure now than ever before that leadership is about amplifying the efforts and ideas of the crew and passengers. As the director of professional learning, I can accomplish very little on my own. Rather, our team designs learning and sets goals by listening to the voices of teachers and students. Sometimes we slow down because we want to keep everyone on the ship, and sometimes we lean in because students and teachers need to make the next benchmark in order to round the cape and reach calmer seas.

The teams I work alongside have made teacher leader roles a key component of how we scale new instructional practices, assessment methods, and student-voice initiatives. We are also looking at developing intentional career lattices (rather than a ladder of teacher to administrator) that allow effective teachers to advance in their careers while still staying close to the classrooms if they choose. Some of the teacher leadership roles available in our district include curriculum developers, learning facilitators, new teacher mentors, instructional coaches, high school assessment policy developers, and technology liaisons.       

Though the scale has changed, I still find myself needing to hold fast to my purpose and re-anchor in why I am doing this work. This is best done by spending time in schools working, learning, and straining at the oar alongside teachers and students. Spending time working in schools keeps me anchored to my personal educational vision: to empower ALL students to own their learning, shape their dreams, and create a better world.

Leadership compass: Leadership has additional layers of stress, organizational complexity, and other duties that can pull you away from the kids and teachers we are here to serve. Develop routines and seek opportunities that bring you back to your why and keep you steeped in the voices and work of students and teachers.     

What adventure calls on your horizon, and who can embark with you?

We are each positioned to embrace adventures from where we stand and the role that we currently occupy. I learned from a legendary servant leader that we are all empowered to make the most of our corner of the world.

Consider the horizons where you currently stand. Where are there voids to be filled? Perhaps a groups of students is not being served well academically or social-emotionally. Maybe there is a school system, such as advisory or homeroom time, that could use tweaking or a new iteration. The challenge may also involve getting interpersonal by being a voice of life in a learning community. Perhaps there is a staff member who has fallen into dry routines or is worn out by the sheer lift that education places on each of us. These challenges each present an opportunity for you to step out and sail against the tide in order to create a better experience for your students and school community.

Ready to set sail on your own adventure?

Before embarking on your leadership adventure, be sure that you have accounted for a couple of essential considerations for success:

  • Start with your compass: Does this leadership adventure align with your educational beliefs and personal passions? You are going to be putting in effort beyond the hard work that you put in to be your best in your classroom, so make sure this fits with your overall direction.
  • Find a first mate: If the adventure seems worth taking, then do everything you can to avoid going it alone. Who can you partner with to build momentum as you step out into these uncharted waters and shift systems and communities? Find a like-minded and like-hearted peer. Your vision for where you are going will expand as more come aboard the ship, but more hands also make for easier work.
  • Set benchmarks and landmarks: Success builds commitment. While you may dream of distant lands and new educational paradigms, the best organizations maintain 90 percent of what exists and is known to work and innovate on 10 percent. Try to pace yourself and the team you are leading by setting benchmarks and building onto, or enhancing, what exists. This will honor the work of those before you, create energy- boosting early wins, and provide natural reflection and reorientation points in your adventure. Stopping by these peaceful harbors along the way will help maintain the commitment of the whole crew.
  • Reorient often: Revisiting your purpose and hopes for stepping out is essential. It is easy to lose sight of why you took on greater responsibility to lead, especially when challenges arise. Re-anchoring in your purpose for stepping out will keep you on course so you can navigate the difficult waters of uncertainty.
  • Embrace ALL aspects of the journey: This can be difficult, but it can also be incredibly rewarding. Have fun and smile when the successes of team efficacy on behalf of students takes hold; it is like wind in your sails. However, also be confident and lift your head when adversity and rough seas come upon you and the team. The adventure of leadership is about celebrating and sharing the highs and helping and encouraging each other in the doldrums. Navigate these different waters together.

Danny’s post is part of CTQ’s September and October blogging roundtable. To join the conversation, comment on this blog and read the other blogs in this series. You can find an updated list of all posts on the Teachers leading/leading teachers landing page. Follow CTQ on Facebook and Twitter to see when each new blog is posted, and use #CTQCollab to join the conversation on social media.

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