Teachers as Leaders: Five Lessons in Teacher Leadership
As teachers, it is hard to set yourself up as an expert amongst your peers. We don’t want to feel “better than” others. We don’t want to appear to be arrogant. We might also occasionally have a colleague who has been around a long time and who is dismissive of younger or less experienced colleagues – we don’t want to be them either.
But teacher leadership is critical today. Our administrators are just not able to do their administrative tasks, serve the Head of School, stay up to date with the latest teaching research around pedagogy, methodology, neuroscience, and spend meaningful time with every faculty member. For those of us who taught in the 20th century, we remember a more relaxed time when information was not increasing exponentially. Today, each teacher must, in some sense, take on the mantle of leadership. Here are five lessons that might be helpful:
Lesson One: Know and Believe
Each of us is brilliant at something. The first lesson of teacher leadership is to be able to describe the pedagogy, the relationship building, the humor, the planning, the parent connection, the brilliance that “I have”. I need to be able to stand in front of the mirror at home and say: “I’m really good at…..”. You don’t have to say that in public at all. But you have to know it. That’s not an introduction to Arrogance 101. Arrogance is lording it over others because you think you know and others can’t know. Leadership is sharing with others because you actually do know and want others to be great too. But remember, you have to know your brilliance and be confident in it.
Part two of this is the opposite. We also have to know and understand where we are not brilliant. Just because I am terrific at Socratic questioning doesn’t make me great at problem-solving. I can only be brilliant at one or two things – that’s actually a relief for most of us who think we have to overachieve everywhere. No, we can be very good at most things and brilliant at one or two things. We must appreciate the difference.
Lesson Two: Sharing is Simple
Being a leader is not a call to be Maria Montessori or John Dewey. It is a simple thing. It is a willingness to stand up and have your voice be heard. Remember that in Lesson One we had to know where we are very good and where we are brilliant. That’s important because where I am only very good, I have colleagues who are brilliant, and I must cede the stage to them in those areas. I have the right to share and speak where I am exceptional; I must have the self-control and self-management to ensure that I listen a lot more where I am not exceptional. That’s also part of leadership.
Sharing can happen in a number of ways – they all demonstrate leadership e.g. providing a list of resources to a colleague; expressing an opinion with considered reference to research and practice in a team meeting; going to the administrator and advocating for a better practice. Sharing is not a complicated leadership practice. It’s leading from the side. And it’s probably continuing what you are already doing but acknowledging it as a leadership activity.
Lesson Three: Step Out and Take Risks
Leadership that is more than behind the scenes (which can be quite powerful) is balanced by understanding the importance of standing up and being visible. Can you imagine yourself saying the following things:
- I heard you say you needed help in the meeting and I would be happy to come to your classroom if you would like.
- I am doing a demonstration debate next Tuesday – you would be welcome to come and see how I do it.
- When we go to the conference, I would really recommend going to this workshop and listening to X – she is a leader in the field.
- I don’t think I agree with that. The research, and my own practice, tells me that the method you are thinking about has been tried and is not the best option. May I share an alternative?
These are all different ways of stepping forward. It’s always a risk to step forward. In most faculty cultures, your expertise will be valued and, once known, sought after.
Lesson Four: Expect Disappointment
The reality of leadership is that it is not always appreciated, advice is not always followed, there can even be hostility in some cultures to it. Why is that? Of course, it might be because the approach by the expert is arrogant or threatening. But that’s not what we are talking about here.
Unfortunately, not all faculty cultures are healthy places where everyone wants to grow and learn along with their students. Not all administrators are secure enough to allow others to be the expert in the room. Not all Heads of School are willing to listen to alternative ways of getting to their objectives.
In those circumstances, if you see no light at the end of the tunnel, leadership means brushing up your resume and seeking a healthy culture where you can thrive. Much research has shown that teachers burn out in their careers in schools where there is no growth. Such places don’t allow you to be brilliant. Leave them.
Lesson Five: Expect Growth and Change
Where you as a teacher leader know your brilliance, are willing to lead from the side through sharing, lead from the front by stepping out and initiating, you find not only that you can help your cultures move forward but that you yourself feel happy and fulfilled in their vocation. Here are some signs that growth and change is happening:
- Newcomers are welcomed into the culture, are proactively invited to see how masters of their trade talk, walk, work and generally conduct their (professional) lives.
- Newcomers become members of the culture and rapidly gain the basics needed to be successful as well as being respected for the brilliance they themselves bring
- The culture itself ceaselessly seeks improvement on behalf of every student individually
- Every member of the culture is committed to continual learning for themselves, with their peers, and for the students
- All teachers are committed to each other characterized by what McLaughlin and Talbert described as communities in which groups of teachers talk openly about students and the problems they are having, discuss curricular and pedagogical approaches to making change together, teach one another different strategies and practices, and commit themselves to collective discussion and action (Contexts that Matter for Teaching and Learning 1993)
As teachers, we want only what’s best for our children. A key part of that is for each of us to recognize the brilliance within and be leaders (and listeners) in our cultures. When we grow together in service to students, each one of us and all of us collectively will be healthier, happier, and more successful in our vocation and career. As important, if not more important, by being leaders and knowing our own brilliance, every one of our students will thrive and learn to lead themselves as they move through their own stages of life.