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The Four I's of Teacher Leadership

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Teacher leadership is gaining widespread interest as a means to improve schools. But even the most well-intended efforts to harness its power sometimes go awry. Those who believe in its transformational power must choose to engage in activities that are significant, authentic leadership opportunities.

After years of engaging in some great and not-so-great teacher-leadership ventures, I’ve learned that the cornerstones of teacher-leadership experiences are the four “i’s”: imagination, independence, inspiration, and integrity. Here are four questions teachers can ask themselves to determine if an opportunity constitutes genuine teacher leadership:

1. Does the task allow me to use my imagination?

Using your imagination to solve problems is one exciting aspect of teacher leadership. Most of us have been at schools where solutions are handed to teachers to carry out (and then experienced the lack of enthusiasm that follows). Instead, when teachers are provided with real leadership opportunities, they get charged up because they imagine possibilities that can improve education for students—and then work to make those possibilities a reality.

Missed teacher-leadership opportunity: I encountered a situation where administrators gathered a group of teacher leaders to inform them that they needed to train staff on effectively delivering small-group instruction. In this situation, the administration identified both the problem and the solution, missing a valuable opportunity to harness the imagination and expertise of teacher leaders.

Genuine teacher-leadership opportunity: I worked at a school where teachers were given the freedom to identify problems and actively pursue solutions. For example, I worked with a group of teacher leaders who were concerned about students’ declining grades and behavior schoolwide. We identified the problems as underachievement and a lack of vital life skills. Then we used our creativity to brainstorm solutions. In the end, we used our leadership skills to create a successful after-school program that focused on character education.

2. Does the task allow me to act independently?

It’s not possible to execute the power of teacher leadership when teachers do not have the ability to freely choose a direction. When projects have so many parameters that it becomes impossible to act independently, they often fail. Instead, when teacher leaders are let loose, great things happen.

Missed teacher-leadership opportunity: Once I accepted an offer to work with an education organization that sought teacher leaders’ input on its relationship with teachers. It seemed like a fantastic task—until I arrived at the initial meeting and learned that the organization had already set the agenda for the entire program. The organization identified all the discussion topics and only allowed teacher leaders to speak about those specific topics. I quickly found myself stripped of both my independence and my ability to lead.

Genuine teacher-leadership opportunity: One of my most successful teacher-leadership endeavors came from a project on improving how Florida state history was taught. I had complete freedom to proceed in the manner I saw fit, without being pigeonholed by parameters like grade level or topics. This latitude allowed me to effectively solve problems and explore a range of possibilities for creating a history sequence. Ultimately, I created a well-thought out, award-winning K-8 sequence that was presented at a national conference.

3. Will my work inspire others?

To put it simply: You can’t lead others if you don’t inspire them. Humdrum projects fizzle out, but moments become movements when teacher leaders inspire.

Missed teacher-leadership opportunity: I took part in a curriculum-writing project about effective teaching practices. Unfortunately, the other curriculum writers and I became so focused on the nitty gritty of the curriculum that we didn’t think about the bigger picture of leading other teachers in creatively implementing what we developed. In the end, the curriculum was well organized and research-based—but it was dull, and teachers were unenthusiastic about using it.

Genuine teacher-leadership opportunity: The National Board's certification process was one of the most inspiring teacher-leadership processes I’ve ever been a part of. Not only was I inspired by teachers who went through the certification process, but I inspired others to do the same once I became certified. In my school district, there was a point when National Board certification spread like Florida wildfire. Certification is no small accomplishment because the process is both difficult and time consuming. Yet so many teachers in my district were inspired by its core principles and an eagerness to demonstrate that they were accomplished teachers.

4. Can I maintain my integrity in this position?

If a teacher’s ability to lead is contingent upon agreeing with plans provided by those working above them, then his or her position is more akin to an administrative position—not a teaching one. Teacher leadership can only be utilized as a bottom-up leadership strategy when teachers are able to stay true to their beliefs.

Missed teacher-leadership opportunity: I have considered several “positional” roles, or formal teacher-leadership positions, that grant you such a title. In these roles, I would have been expected to promote an agenda regardless of whether I agreed with it (for instance, promoting a certain curriculum, instructional strategy, or legislative mandate). In these situations, my leadership role would have depended on my subservience.

Genuine teacher-leadership opportunity: I’ve been involved in some positional teacher-leadership roles where I was able to lead without compromising my beliefs. For example, when I was approached by my local union about leading an online community of members in a discussion of legislative issues, I was initially concerned that they would require me to promote an agenda that I didn’t agree with. Fortunately, I was able to work with members of the group to create a collaborative agenda. I successfully worked with over 100 teachers to develop our local union’s stance on legislative issues.

If all four of these conditions (or “i’s”) are met, you’re looking at a great opportunity to lead. If these conditions are not met, you may still be looking at valuable and important activities—but don’t be fooled into thinking they are true teacher-leadership opportunities.

After you determine your “non-negotiables” of teacher leadership—the values on which you are not willing to compromise—you can find opportunities that align with them. Don’t be afraid to lead. Participating in significant teacher-leadership activities will transform our schools.

What are some projects you’ve participated in that exemplify teacher leadership?

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