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The View From the Chalkboard Ceiling

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As part of a new partnership, teachermagazine.org will be publishing a regular column by members of the Teacher Leaders Network, a professional community of accomplished educators dedicated to sharing ideas and expanding the influence of teachers. In this article, TLN fellow Susan Graham shares her perspective on the role of the teacher leader today.

I am a teacher leader, but that doesn’t matter to my students and their parents. To them I’m Mrs. Graham, their nice, funny, Family and Consumer Science teacher who encourages them to learn by doing and connects academic concepts to everyday life.

My colleagues know me as a senior staff member who is the lead electives teacher, a member of my middle school leadership team, and the teacher mentoring coordinator. Many of them consider me a reliable source of information on pedagogy, education policy, and politics. My principal knows I am involved in leadership roles outside the building—but my leadership credibility with him is based on coordinating instruction across content and grade level, building consensus among my co-workers, and developing relationships with the community that support school goals.

I am a teacher leader, but it's not my job title. Nor is it a role I sought. It's a collection of things I do. The leadership journey began with Teacher of the Year recognition. After the initial glow of self-congratulation, I was terrified of being exposed as unworthy, so I pursued national board certification, earned my master’s degree, and always said yes when opportunities came along to join professional online groups, serve on committees, present at conferences, participate in mentoring, or contribute to policy discussions.

My days are longer now and I’m often one of the last to leave in the afternoon. I come home and turn on my computer to invest more hours with my virtual professional community—the Teacher Leaders Network—or visit an online discussion lounge where I converse with first-year teachers from the University of Connecticut and the College of William and Mary. I also spend some evenings working on initiatives as a state liaison for the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. None of these duties are in my job description, but after 27 years of teaching, they energize and affirm me professionally.

We Can't Wait to be Anointed

Ten years ago, no one questioned the career path for the ambitious classroom teacher. An organizational chart awarded "leadership" to those who completed a certified formal training program. If a highly accomplished (or deeply disgruntled) teacher wanted to advance professionally, he or she left the classroom and became a school administrator. Leadership meant an office somewhere near the front of the school.

Today's schools are poorly served by that rusty, industrial-era model of leadership. In the corporate world of 2006, fluid, project-based management systems are the buzz—and for good reason. They are open to adaptation and place a high value on research and development. If we're to survive in the high-stakes climate of the 21st century, schools need these same attributes.

The resources we need to implement this proactive organizational approach are already in place. More teachers hold advanced degrees, attain higher levels of certification and have access to research, resources, and contacts beyond their classroom walls. We are better prepared than ever to be contributors both in the classroom and in leadership roles. But change will take time, and if teachers expect to help shape their practice and profession, we cannot wait passively behind our desks for someone else to pronounce us "teacher leaders."

I think we often limit our own empowerment by investing too much energy seeking formal job descriptions or official titles for what we do. This demand for acknowledgment distracts us from important work that influences our students and our practice. When teachers lead by identifying and addressing real needs, we gain power and credibility where it matters most—among our colleagues.

Proving Ourselves

When teacher leadership is more about tasks than titles, our relationships with policymakers and managers become critical. Principals and superintendents bear responsibility for outcomes when they delegate leadership to teachers. If we want to share in decision making, we must convince them that we will define goals with measurable results, honor boundaries, follow through on what we promise, and anticipate unintended consequences.

Teacher leadership is still a premise looking for a proof. Until the effectiveness of teachers as leaders has been proved—until we build trust based on performance—we may have to lead without compensation, time, or credit for what we know and can do.

Leading without formal acknowledgment and without compensatory time or pay requires rethinking how we lead and how we gain influence. For starters, we need more allies. Too often, we hoard leadership opportunities—we complain that our plates are overflowing with work, yet we cling to every job rather than recommending a colleague or passing an assignment to a peer. Hoarding leadership limits our effectiveness. Shared leadership is transformational—it serves our schools and sustains us as we work to balance the needs of our students with our desire to advance our profession.

Teacher leadership is rather like parenting. Until you do it, it is hard to comprehend any benefit that would justify the enormous effort. But when we approach it as a family, working together to accomplish goals that really make a difference, our sense of satisfaction and fulfillment is palpable.

I am still more than a little surprised to find myself where I am today—a teacher who relishes my leadership roles. I acknowledge that I share a problem common to many teacher leaders. I am constantly pressed up against the "chalkboard ceiling" by a system that does not fully recognize the value and potential of teacher leaders. Lack of time and support limits my ability to meet the needs of students and to serve my profession—and implies I must choose one over the other.

But you know, I like the view from here. I can see over the walls and into the classrooms of my fellow teachers all over the country. They are amazing and inspiring people who improve my pedagogy, enrich my content knowledge, and motivate me to try harder to make a difference. Up here, I have a more informed and balanced perspective on education trends and policy across the state and nation, as well as in my own school and district.

Most important, from this vantage point, I can see more deeply into what matters most—my own practice and its impact on the learning and the lives of my students. I am a better teacher because I am a teacher leader. And who knows—maybe someday, some other teacher will look up and benefit from what I’m writing on this ceiling.

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