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.

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