Where does teacher leadership begin?

Can we build leadership capacity in our teachers…before they step into their first classroom? I think it is possible, and that feeling is growing stronger every day. Here’s a bit of my thinking and informal research on the subject.

I’m working as a teacher educator this year, and adding my own little research-passion twist. I’m combining the sharing of best practices, research, and pedagogy in the classroom with a lot of thinking on our chosen profession out of the classroom. One of the major tenets of my career is teacher leadership (and I should confess that this sometimes borders on obsession). Though I know that many teachers may not be ready for teacher leadership in year one, I firmly believe that many are.  Who says that leadership can’t begin in year one?

I fully expect pushback on this and am welcome all discussion, as I’m trying to figure this all out myself. But here are a few points to build my case for building teacher leadership capacity in our pre-service teacher education programs:

  • We have high expectations for our prek-12 students, why would we not do the same for our college and graduate students? As the role of a teacher is evolving, shouldn’t our expectations of our pre-service teachers?
  • From the mouths of my students: Why should we hold back on letting them learn 100% of our profession, helping pre-service teacher build their craft in the classroom but not delving into potential outside the classroom? Many of them want to see the whole picture, not just what we think they are ready for.
  • Think about potential impact on recruitment!! What if college students saw the role of a teacher in a much broader light? If they realized that there is potential to impact not only the students sitting in their classroom, but on a second or third generation of students through mentoring, creating smart and effective assessments, developing curriculum, or advocating for their profession? And we are going to need more great teachers, with a spike lately in the number of teachers retiring.
  • Think about potential impact on retention! There is a research smorgasbord of data about teachers and their yearning for leadership roles while still remaining inside the classroom at least part of the day (see the recent MetLife survey or Irreplaceables by NTP). And Gen Y teachers (whose retention rate has been dismally low)? They are looking for something more as well.
  • Some of my former pre-service teachers are living it!  This is living, breathing, transformative evidence (I’m grinning wide and proud as I type this). One graduated in December and accepted a job in an elementary school immediately following. By the end of the school year, she was the grade-level chair. Another has decided to open her doors and constantly invites her colleagues into her classroom for peer coaching and group reflective discussion on practice. And another already has her first blog piece posted in Ed Week, stretching her thought leadership muscles.
  • Last week was the inaugural meeting of Mount Holyoke’s education club. It is shaping up to be a forum to explore education issues and leadership out of the classroom. We had about 20 students at our interest meeting (happy dance, happy dance). All wanting to explore their leadership chops.

Last week, my Teaching English Language Learners class engaged in discussion last week after video chatting with Barnett Berry, the founder and president of The Center for Teaching Quality.  I was curious to pick their brains on this very topic: Is all this teacher leadership talk too much? When they are just wrapping their heads around figuring out strategies to facilitate learning, is it overwhelming to pull back and think big picture about the world outside their classroom that shapes their practice inside the classroom? Below are a few nuggets from our conversation:

  • It can be overwhelming at times, but aren’t multi-layered topics that push our thinking supposed to be brain-stretching (touché, young minds)?
  • Teaching is overwhelming and complicated, period. This is just a square they are learning about amongst a profession they had only previously thought of as rectangles. They are eager to understand different ways of looking at the role of a teacher.
  • They want to know all about education and the forces behind what they can and can’t do in their classrooms. And how to impact change beyond those walls (boo-yah).
  • It is not teaching them all the answers, but they are seeing that as a teacher leader, it is important to think about the right questions (chill bumps).

I’m beginning to work with colleagues Jon Eckert at Wheaton College and John Holland at Virginia Commonwealth University, researching and exploring the topic. We are basing our discussion with our pre-service teachers on the book Teacherpreneurs: Innovative Teachers Who Lead But Don’t Leave. Then it gets even better…we are giving our students opportunities to brainbash with some of the most amazing teacher leader names in the country via video chat. We think it will reframe their thinking about the role of a teacher…and I have a strong feeling that it has already begun.