Here Are Four Things Every Teacher Can Do to Become a Teacher-Leader

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With the growing political divide, a less than perfect public image of the teaching profession, and the financial realities facing our schools, numerous pressures have converged to raise challenges for educators across the nation. As these and other pressures mount, there has never been a better time for teachers to insert themselves into the change equation by becoming teacher leaders.

You don’t have to be Wonder Woman or Superman to become a teacher leader. However, you do need a workman-like drive and a relentless passion to successfully initiate an activity that makes school a better place for kids and to inspire others to join you in the work. It’s likely that many of you are already doing teacher-leadership work naturally. To continue growing your leadership, begin with simple, low-stakes activities and build up to wherever your passion drives you.

1. Mentor New Teachers

Early-career teachers fearlessly enter their classrooms with great amounts of energy and enthusiasm—positive attributes that are quickly tempered by the fires of experience. However, with mentor support, those first few years of classroom experience can produce confident teachers who choose to stay in the profession.

All experienced teachers can support newer staff members in their buildings. Mentoring can be as easy as making sure new teachers know where the bathrooms are and the best times to get a cup of coffee. It can also be more involved, such as helping with curriculum development, classroom management, or parent engagement. You can even be a new teacher’s shoulder to cry on or chief cheerleader. The key is developing a strong peer relationship and then allowing novice teachers to figure out what they need to improve their instruction. For additional tips on cultivating meaningful mentorship, see my previous article for Education Week Teacher, “Mentoring Novice Teachers to Become Teacher-Leaders.”

Most mentors gain as much as their mentees, and sometimes even more, from these relationships. For example, recently one of my mentees asked me a question about contacting parents of low-performing students. His question helped me see that I had not been communicating my expectations for each student clearly to parents, especially parents of English-language learners. To remedy this, I have augmented my communication protocols by creating academic notification templates written in Spanish, as well as making use of the online translation services provided by my employer. Increased communication has already resulted in student progress, and with these steps in place, I believe it will be even more effective next year.

2. Continue Your Education

Few things build personal and professional capacity faster than self-directed inquiry. If you’re curious about anything from flipping the classroom to standards-based grading, you can find a colleague with experience in that area, join a related social media group, or enroll in a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC). You can also engage in the Center for Teaching Quality’s blogging roundtable discussions, where educators have conversations on topics like teacher shortages, teacher-powered schools, and collective leadership. As you expand your repertoire, share your experience with your colleagues. The trick is to “find your tribe” and go.

For a more formal approach, consider pursuing additional credentials as a way to prepare for future leadership roles. For example, English-as-a-Second-Language or National Board for Professional Teaching Standards certification can open up doors to new leadership opportunities. By documenting your expertise, you establish credibility—but you can’t rely on serendipity to provide you with the skills and credentials to succeed; teacher leaders proactively seek out these opportunities and take advantage of them.

3. Advocate for the Profession

When people hear the phrase teacher leadership, most think of national opportunities, but advocacy doesn’t have to be high profile. Every teacher can lead a grade-level team, serve on a district curriculum committee, or organize teachers’ union members at the local level.

One of the key roadblocks to meaningful educational reform is a widespread misunderstanding of what educators actually do. When teachers communicate the intricacies of their daily professional lives, a clearer picture emerges. Begin your advocacy by sharing your experience as a teacher when you’re in a casual social situation with friends and family.

Years ago, while my father-in-law and I were talking about teaching, he told me he didn’t understand why a teacher would need an answer key, since “they should know the material if they’re teaching it!” My father-in-law is an avid woodworker, so I asked him to imagine that he needed to make several identical pieces for a project—would he use a template? That was the moment where he began to see that there is more to what a teacher does than what he experienced as a student in the classroom. Years later, my father-in-law and I now have discussions about how local elections impact our schools.

Making evidence of the work you do public is critical to elevating the image of our profession, as well as educating local voters. Consider sharing your stories with a broader audience by posting education-related articles on social media or writing a blog using resources from the National Blogging Collaborative.

4. Advocate for Policy Change

I suggest starting small by attending a local school board meeting. Educate yourself on local, state, or national education issues and write your representatives asking them to support your views. Escalate your involvement by requesting to meet with legislators locally when they are out of session. Before the meeting, research your representative’s voting history, values, and beliefs.

Meeting your elected representative may seem daunting, but remember that when it comes to teaching and learning, you’re the expert. As a constituent and an educator, your opinion matters. Begin with a brief introduction and gradually get to know your representative. If you belong to a union, ask your state affiliate to connect you with lobbyists who can share tips on influencing policy makers. You can also consider working with one of the many other organizations that equip teachers to become policy advocates, such as Teach Plus, Hope Street Group, or America Achieves.

All of the above opportunities are things that any teacher can do. To launch your teacher leadership, you simply need to find a comfortable spot to start, gain experience, put on your work boots, take chances, and then courageously press forward. As a teacher, you inspire students daily; why not inspire your fellow teachers to be teacher-leaders as well?

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