Advocating for this important role in education
Myths come in all shapes and sizes, from UFOs in Roswell and Elvis in Vegas, to whether a tomato belongs in the fruit or vegetable section of a market. Yet, most unexplained phenomena are straightforward; you either agree or you don’t. Why then when educators are asked to explain the role or purpose of teacher leaders is there such hesitancy, resistance, even confusion? Why does a school need teacher leaders? Doesn’t the principal just tell everyone what to do?
Teacher leaders are often tasked with school-level responsibilities such as mentoring new hires, rolling out adopted curriculum, attending meeting after meeting after meeting, and stepping in as pseudo-administrators in a pinch. Additionally, the title may be used synonymously with curriculum coach, team leader, department head, grade level chair, role model, teacher-in-charge, or “Carrie-Catch-All.” However, throughout the menagerie of descriptors and job titles the underlying assumption is that teacher leaders possess a multitude of talents and skills and will rise to a calling to best serve the school.
Whether a teacher has an extensive list of accomplishments and is eager to share with the next generation of educators, or a new staff member readily embraces opportunities to enhance a learning environment, teacher leaders provide foundational structures and supports at the school, district, and state levels. However, blurred lines still exist when perceptions of what a teacher leader is or what a teacher leader is not comes into play. Below are myths often associated with teacher leadership and clarifying points advocating for this pivotal role in education.
Myth 1: Teachers need permission to be leaders.
Educators are inquisitive and perpetual learners with a curiosity that drives the desire to seek out resources, best practices, and growth opportunities to share with others. It’s second nature to learn together, which is why effective teachers will often transition seamlessly to effective leaders, modeling lifelong learning when given the chance. So how does it begin? Where does a teacher interested in pursuing leadership opportunities go for support and experience if not readily identified or aligned with traditional leadership routes? It’s as simple as finding one’s own homegrown interest.
Kellee Kelly (@khapa79) of Kea’au, Hawaii found her spark when she realized she could be a catalyst for change without a traditional title. Through the local teacher’s union, she applied for a newly developed Teacher Leader Initiative program, which enables educators to spread their wings and take risks through a variety of avenues. According to Kelly, “You don’t need permission. Apply for a grant, join one of the teacher leader groups represented, give testimony. Do what you feel is right for students!” Kelly took initiative without bucking a system or disrupting any line of authority. She simply stepped into roles that allowed her to grow as a professional and model for others what teacher leadership can look like.
Myth 2: Young, new teachers are not capable of leading.
Hierarchal structures often require a specified number of years served or dues paid before one is elevated to leadership status. Why is that? Does quantity really trump quality when it comes to effective practices? How can innovative and enthusiastic novices break down barriers or stigmas associated with being new? And, can young leaders be valued and respected in the same way as their veteran counterparts? Abrams and von Frank (2014) posed the question, “What do we do for [Millennials] since they are so much younger than those they will be leading?” to bridge the conversation gap between generations. And, how do we break down barriers or update beliefs hinged on outdated practices?
The mindset associated with experiential levels needs to change in order to reap the benefits from teacher leaders willing to step forward. Anya Nazaryan (@anya_nazaryan), a Teach for America (TFA) graduate and middle level teacher at Kealakehe Intermediate, found her voice and purpose while serving in a school on the Big Island of Hawaii. Encouraged by a supportive administrator, Nazaryan began dipping her toe into leadership waters by sharing success stories with peers and inviting others to join projects and events focused on student success. Additionally, by taking the initiative to revive AVID programming at her current school, she demonstrated commitment, determination, and investment for stakeholders involved. This bold step helped Nazaryan build credibility with her often older and more seasoned colleagues.
Myth 3: Teachers have to be ready to jump into a leadership position.
How are readiness levels for leaders determined? Does one need to include a laundry list of exemplars on a resume to be ready? Do higher-ups preview aptitude of leader wannabes through a crystal ball? Can an individual be ready to learn but not ready to lead, and how would we know? And, when do teachers determine if they are ready to take the leap into leadership?
Tracey Idica (@TraceyIdica) secondary teacher in Aiea, Hawaii, had never perceived the notion of teacher leadership when she looked into the National Board Certified Teachers (NBCT) program. However, interested in expanding her craft while following the journey of colleagues pursuing the endorsement, Idica set her sights on growing as a learner, without realizing she was also flourishing as a peer leader. Once she obtained her own NBCT status, she was motivated to help others pursue the same opportunity within her school, district, and state. Idica’s philosophy stems from key National Board Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS, n.d.) propositions to guide her work: “Teachers think systematically about their practice and learn from experience” and “Teachers are members of learning communities.” Educators participating in the NBCT program fine-tune and hone their expertise while building capacity as teacher leaders in order to pay it forward to their ready-or-not colleagues.
Myth 4: Teachers need positional authority to impact change.
Position or status does not necessarily determine one’s ability to impact change. Inspired by the work of Frederick Hess who encourages “cage-busting” teacher leaders to rethink the “there’s-nothing-we-can-do” mindset, Hope Street Fellows begin with “‘What do we want to do?’ and then make it happen” (Hess, 2015). Kelly Miyamura (@HSG808), Honolulu, Hawaii and Michael Kline (@mkline999), Kilauea, Hawaii work within a community of teacher leaders who share effective actions employed by Hope Street Fellows in Hawaii. Initiatives include facilitating focus groups to collect data that inform decision making about Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS); administering a statewide survey to promote career readiness programming for K-12 classrooms; developing shared partnerships between teachers, administrators, and school-level stakeholders on all the islands; and leading opportunities to amplify teacher voice to inform education policy.
Teacher leadership is an exciting and expanding asset to the field of education. Opportunities for personal and professional growth have evolved from individual professional development courses to action research projects and community-based learning experiences. The question is no longer if teacher leadership should be an option for schools and districts, but how stakeholders will capitalize on the evolving roles of teacher leaders to promote student success. According to Jack Welch, “Before you are a leader, success is about growing yourself; When you become a leader, success is about growing others.” The mindset of teacher leaders models the same philosophy as lifelong learners invite peers to join in the process of growing, while impacting change within the profession.
Myths about any profession can hinder the growth and advancement of its members when perceptions are deeply ingrained. However, the landscape of education continues to evolve, and educators are recognized more for their innovation and contributions to the field today than for the apples on their desks of yesteryear. The Loch Ness monster may continue to elude onlookers, but one does not have to look far to see the impact teacher leaders are making in our schools now!
Abrams, J., & von Frank, V.A. (2014). The multigenerational workplace: Communicate, collaborate & create community. Corwin, Thousand Oaks, CA.
Cameli, S. (2016) What is a teacher leader? Retrieved from http://tlahawaii.blogspot.com/2016/01/what-is-teacher-leader.html
Hess, F.M. (2015). The cage busting feacher (pp. 14, 19). Harvard Press, Cambridge, MA.
National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS, n.d.). The five core propositions. Retrieved from http://boardcertifiedteachers.org/about-certification/five-core-propositions.
Welch, J. (n.d.) Jack Welch quotes. Retrieved from https://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/3770.Jack_Welch.