Opinion
Education Teacher Leaders Network

The View From the Chalkboard Ceiling

By Susan Graham — October 25, 2006 5 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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.


Commenting has been disabled on edweek.org effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Teaching Webinar
What’s Next for Teaching and Learning? Key Trends for the New School Year
The past 18 months changed the face of education forever, leaving teachers, students, and families to adapt to unprecedented challenges in teaching and learning. As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Curriculum Webinar
How Data and Digital Curriculum Can Drive Personalized Instruction
As we return from an abnormal year, it’s an educator’s top priority to make sure the lessons learned under adversity positively impact students during the new school year. Digital curriculum has emerged from the pandemic
Content provided by Kiddom
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Equity & Diversity Webinar
Leadership for Racial Equity in Schools and Beyond
While the COVID-19 pandemic continues to reveal systemic racial disparities in educational opportunity, there are revelations to which we can and must respond. Through conscientious efforts, using an intentional focus on race, school leaders can
Content provided by Corwin

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Education Judge's Temporary Order Allows Iowa Schools to Mandate Masks
A federal judge ordered the state to immediately halt enforcement of a law that prevents school boards from ordering masks to be worn.
4 min read
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds speaks to reporters following a news conference, Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021, in West Des Moines, Iowa. Reynolds lashed out at President Joe Biden Thursday after he ordered his education secretary to explore possible legal action against states that have blocked school mask mandates and other public health measures meant to protect students against COVID-19. Reynolds, a Republican, has signed a bill into law that prohibits school officials from requiring masks, raising concerns as delta variant virus cases climb across the state and schools resume classes soon. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
Education Hurricane Ida Deals New Blow to Louisiana Schools Struggling to Reopen
The opening of the school year offered teachers a chance to fully assess the pandemic's effects, only to have students forced out again.
8 min read
Six-year-old Mary-Louise Lacobon sits on a fallen tree beside the remnants of her family's home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Dulac, La., on Sept. 4, 2021. Louisiana students, who were back in class after a year and a half of COVID-19 disruptions kept many of them at home, are now missing school again after Hurricane Ida. A quarter-million public school students statewide have no school to report to, though top educators are promising a return is, at most, weeks away, not months.
Six-year-old Mary-Louise Lacobon sits on a fallen tree beside the remnants of her family's home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Dulac, La., on Sept. 4, 2021.
John Locher/AP
Education Massachusetts National Guard to Help With Busing Students to School
250 guard personnel will be available to serve as drivers of school transport vans, as districts nationwide struggle to hire enough drivers.
1 min read
Massachusetts National Guard soldiers help with logistics in this Friday, April 17, 2020 file photo, at a food distribution site outside City Hall, in Chelsea, Mass. Mass. Gov. Charlie Baker on Monday, Sept. 13, 2021, activated the state's National Guard to help with busing students to school as districts across the country struggle to hire enough drivers.
Massachusetts National Guard soldiers help with logistics in this Friday, April 17, 2020 file photo, at a food distribution site outside City Hall, in Chelsea, Mass.
Michael Dwyer/AP
Education FDA: ‘Very, Very Hopeful’ COVID Shots Will Be Ready for Younger Kids This Year
Dr. Peter Marks said he is hopeful that COVID-19 vaccinations for 5- to 11-year-olds will be underway by year’s end. Maybe sooner.
4 min read
Dr. Peter Marks, director of the Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research in the Food and Drug Administration, testifies during a Senate health, education, labor, and pensions hearing to examine an update from federal officials on efforts to combat COVID-19 on Capitol Hill in Washington on May 11, 2021. On Friday, Sept. 10, 2021, Marks urged parents to be patient, saying the agency will rapidly evaluate vaccines for 5- to 11-year-olds as soon as it gets the needed data.
Dr. Peter Marks, director of the Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research in the Food and Drug Administration, testifies during a Senate health, education, labor, and pensions hearing to examine an update from federal officials on efforts to combat COVID-19 on Capitol Hill in Washington on May 11, 2021.
Jim Lo Scalzo/AP