Prepping Teacher Prep for Teacher Leadership

This post is co-written by Mike Paul, a pre-service Middle School Mathematics Teacher finishing his degree in December 2014.  He blogs about educational technology topics over at Pike Mall Tech. This summer, he’ll be launching a training site for teachers to help them learn to integrate technology and flip their classrooms at TeachFlip.

As a profession, our definition of teacher leadership is changing.  A decade ago, any demonstrated leadership capacity ultimately placed teachers on an administrative track.  Although administration is one possible articulation of leadership, many in the teaching field now realize that administration is not a form of teacher leadership.  

Do a keyword search of “Teacher Leadership” and you will find a wealth of information–from blogs to formal standards.  In her Aspen Institute report, Finding a New Way: Leveraging Teacher Leadership to Meet Unprecedented Demands, Rachel Curtis defines teacher leadership as the specific roles and responsibilities that recognize the talents of the most effective teachers.  As Curtis details, it is essential that the roles, responsibilities and talents of teacher leaders are deployed in service of student learning, adult learning, collaboration as well as school and system improvement.    

In light of these new realities, how can we insure that teacher preparatory programs give new teacher candidates an accurate picture of the complexities of the profession as well as clear models and standards for elevating the profession and deeply impacting student learning experiences?

As teacher leaders pioneer the new roles and responsibilities that serve to reshape and elevate our profession, we must turn our attention toward teacher prep programs.

As it currently stands, most of our teacher prep programs, in Kentucky, focus on teaching methods centered on inquiry-based learning and creating student centered classrooms.  Special focus is also given to ensure new teachers are masters of their content area.  Both of these pursuits are terribly valid and speak to the need to develop highly effective teachers.  

However, highly effective teacher candidates must also be aware of opportunities to be highly effective outside of their own classroom as well. These opportunities include, but are certainly not limited to:

  • Participating in Twitter Ed Chats based on geography and interest

  • Submitting proposals to present at conferences

  • Composing blogs that chronicle different aspects of the profession

  • Collaborating with mentor teachers on teacher leadership efforts

  • Creating a teacher candidate network

  • Engaging in virtual community discussions with master teachers

  • Consulting with private sector companies that serve public education

  • Joining organizations that value teacher voice

By engaging with other educators early and often, teacher candidates are able to stay current on teacher leadership opportunities and research, project possible leadership roles and responsibilities to work towards and stay current on topics that may affect their teaching career, such as educational policy changes.

Why don’t we see more teacher candidates engaging in this type of work in our state?  What barriers exist that keep teacher candidates from engaging in teacher leadership opportunities early and often?

The environment of a new teacher training program must foster creativity and leadership skills, both of which are amplified in a student-centered teacher prep program.  In the realities of the classroom, ‘student-centered’ means promoting a growth mindset and a culture that places high-value on continuous growth.  By expecting and modeling constant professional growth, teachers and teacher candidates earn the credibility to demand the same level of growth from their prospective students.  In this way, engaging in teacher leadership opportunities early and often, and the corresponding growth culture created in the classroom, can be thought of as a fractal:  growth is mirrored at every level; from student to teacher to building administrator to district administrator.   

New teachers must be encouraged to go on their own journey of discovery and mature into the teaching professionals we need in our classrooms, taking the lessons learned through experience to their students.  Without these experiences, we are merely pouring new wine in old wineskins, thrusting new pedagogical methods and strategies, new teacher roles and responsibilities, new leadership dispositions and talents into isolated classrooms that cause new teachers to burn out at unsustainable rates.   

As teachers like Brison Harvey have demonstrated, teacher leadership is not the sole property of 20 year veterans. Mr. Harvey has been teaching for only two years, yet he has all of the dispositions and talents of a teacher leader.  He deeply impacts student and peer learning through his work with the Center for Teaching Quality’s Kentucky Lab and the Common Assignment collaboration among Colorado and Kentucky teachers.

Teacher training programs must be the “beta testing”  laboratories for these paradigm-shifting ideas; ideas to be encouraged by the staff and faculty of the training programs, the districts that hire the new teachers, as well as by the licensing board.  In essence, teacher prep needs to create more Brison Harveys.

We have Districts of Innovation in the Kentucky public school system that offer new and exciting pathways to graduation for our next generation.  Why can’t we also have Teacher Training Programs of Innovation that can both recognize and build the capacity of prospective teacher leaders?  It is time that we place a high priority and value on the fresh ideas and innovations that can completely change the landscape of education.  We must also work to create systems that allow these new, innovative teacher leaders the freedom to contribute to the direction of our schools, scaling and implementing their new ideas as efficiently as possible.

Teachers, we hope that there are examples in Kentucky that would prove our assumptions faulty (and we welcome those examples…please share!).  Assuming our assessment is correct, how can we change teacher prep while guarding against the trap of the status quo:  the hollow impression that innovative teacher leaders can only be effective in their classrooms?