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With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Professional Development Opinion

Response: Teacher Leaders Are ‘Hungry To Learn’

By Larry Ferlazzo — December 01, 2015 25 min read
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(This is the last post in a two-part series. You can see Part One here.)

This week’s question is

How would you define “teacher leadership” and what does it look like in practice?

In Part One, Regie Routman, Aubrie Rojee, Megan M. Allen, Shane Safir, Sean Slade, and Barnett Berry shared their thoughts on teacher leadership. You can also listen to a ten-minute conversation I had with Regie and Aubrie on my BAM! Radio Show. You can find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Today, Laura Robb, Kylene Beers, Susan Chenelle, ReLeah Cossett Lent, Christopher Lehman, Matt Townsley, Anthony Cody, Patty O’Grady contribute their ideas. I’ve also included comments from readers.

Response From Laura Robb

Laura Robb, teacher and coach, has written more than 20 books on literacy. She is the author of Vocabulary Is Comprehension: Getting to the Root of Complex Texts, Corwin, 2014:

Faith Stickly (pseudonym) is an outstanding example of a self-motivated teacher who voluntarily wears the mantle of leadership. As a seventh-grade English teacher who taught at Daniel Morgan Middle School in Winchester, Virginia, for several years, Faith worked hard to earn the respect of her teaching colleagues and other staff members.

For three years I taught with Faith, trying new strategies for teaching reading, writing, and vocabulary to her students. Again and again, after we’d debrief a lesson, she’d say things like, “I must share this idea at my team meeting,” and “I’ll show the science teachers how to integrate vocabulary lessons into their curriculum.” And usually her colleagues tried those strategies and appreciated Faith’s input.

What enabled Faith to engage in such a productive exchange of ideas with colleagues--colleagues who valued her suggestions and tried them? Part of the answer is the fact that she is a master teacher, and her classroom-tested ideas truly represented best practices. Another part is that Faith is a natural teacher leader who had the full support of her principal and other school administrators. Her goal was to adjust and change educational practices in order to improve the skills of all students regardless of where they fell on the developmental spectrum.

If your goal is to become the kind of teacher leader Faith is, here’s some advice to consider:

  1. Be an outstanding communicator by recognizing the contributions of colleagues in an email or handwritten note. Recognition of colleagues’ teaching skills can build the trust and respect needed to pave the way to instructional changes. It’s also important to be a good listener so you can understand and be sympathetic to the needs and frustrations of colleagues.
  2. Build positive relationships with colleagues, school administrators, and guidance counselors, as well as support staff. With positive relationships, you’re more likely to inspire others to think about and implement changes.
  3. Read professional books and magazines to stay abreast of research and innovative ideas in education. Join and attend state and national educational organizations--and attend their conferences.
  4. Find a mentor. If there is a teacher leader in your school or another school in your district, ask him or her to mentor you.

Here are three ways that you, as a teacher leader, can encourage your colleagues to reflect on teaching practices and rethink them as necessary to meet the needs of every learner.

  • Provide professional learning opportunities by encouraging colleagues to present lessons that worked and by sharing their own lessons.
  • Supply resources to them: professional articles, videos, and suggestions for professional book studies.
  • Offer ideas for formative assessment and model how to gather and interpret data to determine ways to move students forward using well- researched instructional strategies that have worked for you and your colleagues.

By recognizing the importance of voluntary teacher leadership, you can empower teachers at your school to form professional networks that ensure that the needs of all learners are met.

Response From Kylene Beers

Kylene Beers is a past president of the National Council of Teachers of English and the author of When Kids Can’t Read/What Teachers Can Do and co-author of Notice and Note: Strategies for Close Reading. She can be reached at kbeers@prodigy.net:

I’ve always thought that leadership is more a disposition than a position. It’s less about a title and more about actions. And it’s certainly about doing what’s right even if that’s not what’s popular. Transformational leaders inspire, create, and envision. They are inveterate readers who read not only the texts pertinent to their field, but also seek the information from other areas, searching for smart ideas from any place.

Leaders do more than climb the ladder of success. They hold it steady for others to climb. Indeed, they expect others to succeed, and they provide the tools necessary for that to happen. “I have an open-door policy” is not merely lip service to an important idea. It is a metaphor for their thinking: the mind is always open to new ideas. Great leaders listen more than talk, show more than tell, give more than take. And they lead from the middle, more likely standing shoulder-to-shoulder with others rather than sitting in an office or watching others do the work.

Teacher leaders are all those things, though many are never acknowledged by others (or themselves) as leaders, perhaps because they are in the middle of things rather than standing apart. More often than not, teacher leaders are still in their classrooms, teaching their students each day, while also providing the direction, inspiration, and creative ideas that help other teachers find their way. Teacher leaders don’t merely embrace best practices, but they are the ones we look to for “next practices"--those new ideas that someday, after refinement, we will all call “best practices.” Teacher leaders seem to have more hours in the day than the rest of us as they stay current in the research of their field, in the books they want their students reading, and in the cutting ideas from other areas--business, economy, social and environmental issues, medicine--that they know might have an impact on education.

Teacher leaders are sometime visible to the larger community of teachers through published writing, speeches, and now social media, but more teacher leaders are seen only in their building as they quietly encourage the conversations that build a collaborative spirit. They are the ones who stay late to help the new teacher with a first-taught unit. They come early to talk with that seasoned teacher who has decided, for the first time, to try a Skype conversation in her classroom. They raise the question to the principal that others wonder about but fear asking. They stand firm in their conviction that a test-prep curriculum might raise scores, but it won’t raise the curious, passionate, self-directed learners we need students to become.

Teacher leaders are all across this country, in all our nation’s schools. They are called “Hope.”

Response From Susan Chenelle

Susan Chenelle is in her eighth year of teaching English and journalism at University Academy Charter High School in Jersey City, New Jersey. She is co-author, with Audrey A. Fisch, of the Using Informational Text to Teach Literature series from Rowman & Littlefield:

As a lead teacher in my small charter school, I focus on four things: 1) setting up mechanisms that facilitate communication; 2) helping my teachers obtain resources that will make their work easier and more effective; 3) seeking out opportunities for teachers to share (and receive recognition for) the innovative work they are doing and to assume leadership roles based on their expertise; 4) knowing when to get out of the way.

In schools, problems often persist simply because the right people never have time to talk to each other. If we want to solve those problems, we have to carve out time for them to meet. Last year we established monthly grade-level meetings, which have proved enormously productive: teachers are helping each other solve problems, collaborating on cross-disciplinary projects, and articulating collective requests and feedback to administration. Each team is led by one of its members; I merely attend the meetings and coordinate the mechanics behind-the-scenes (e.g., arranging coverage for the members of the team).

Communication needs to continue between face-to-face meetings, so I developed a shared Google spreadsheet template where each grade-level team’s teachers list their key concepts, vocabulary, and texts for the year. This tool enables the teachers to see what their students’ will be learning in other classes and when and to identify any possible opportunities for cross-disciplinary collaboration.

The fact that this spreadsheet is also shared with me allows me to see what all of the teachers are planning, suggest connections and collaborations, and share any texts or resources that I think might help them achieve their goals.

Being tapped into what all of my dedicated, creative colleagues are up to then makes me so excited that I feel compelled to find ways for them to share their great work more broadly: to lead a professional development session in the school, to write about their work for publication, or to submit a proposal to present at a conference. The payoff so far is that, with the communication and collaboration we’ve fostered in the last year, professional development has become more about giving teachers time to do the work they need to do, and less about having outside presenters come speak to us.

The success of all of the above leads to my fourth mandate: getting out of the way. Just as with my students, I have to make sure that my excitement doesn’t overtake their opportunity to lead a discussion or project. Sometimes I may have to be the one to suggest ideas and resources initially, but when my colleagues pick up an idea and run with it, I have to let them own it and take it in the direction they envision rather than try to make it conform to my own. That’s when I rededicate myself to tasks 1-3: seeing if any new modes of communication might be helpful, getting teachers the resources they need, and looking out for opportunities for them to lead and shine.

Response From ReLeah Cossett Lent

ReLeah Cossett Lent helps develop teacher leaders in schools and districts across the country. The author of ten books on education and leadership, her latest is This is Disciplinary Literacy: Reading, Writing, Thinking and Doing. . . Content Area by Content Area (Corwin, 2015):

The title “leader” seems to take on a different meaning when applied to the teaching profession. Unlike business leaders whose management skills serve to increase the bottom line or political leaders hoping to be at the forefront of sweeping change, teacher leaders’ work is more subtle and, many would argue, much more important. Those who are best at leading others at the school level may not be the most ambitious, strategic, outspoken--or those most focused on raising test scores. In fact, these attributes might be deterrents to the success of a teacher leader.

In my experience with literacy leadership teams, the key characteristic of good teacher leaders is that they are hungry to learn, setting their egos aside to engage in the intellectual risk-taking necessary to discover the most effective ways to reach students. They lead by doing and then coach others in often informal ways, engaging in a professional version of the teachable moment. They deal with adults in much the same way that they approach students--encouraging instead of demanding, listening instead of holding forth, showing instead of telling, and questioning instead of responding with certainty.

In this era of rubric-based teacher evaluations and fidelity to standards and programs, teacher leaders must have courage to “rock the boat” when necessary, but they do so in such a way that brings about dialogue and positive change without fueling negativity and resistance. They understand the importance of informal data and use it adeptly when making a case for doing things a different way, especially when such changes are unpopular.

Good teacher leaders often exhibit attitudes, characteristics, and behaviors that may be difficult to pinpoint. To complicate things further, sometimes the best classroom teachers may not turn out to be the best teacher leaders. In addition, the administration’s approach can make or break a teacher leader. Does an environment of trust, respect, and fairness encourage potential leaders to try on leadership roles? In districts where true learning communities are given the autonomy to engage in distributed leadership, teacher leaders emerge as they develop and utilize strengths they might not have even realized they possess.

Response From Christopher Lehman

Christopher Lehman is the Founding Director of The Educator Collaborative and author/coauthor of several popular books on education including Falling in Love with Close Reading. He can be reached at TheEducatorCollaborative.com or on Twitter at @iChrisLehman:

I really appreciate this question’s search for a clearer definition about what this role could look like.

“Position Statements” Matter

Clearly, teacher leadership does not need to be only within a defined position. Educators around the world are leading our profession forward without any title or unique privileges.

That said, schools who are truly invested in teacher leadership owe it to the professionals in their learning community to clearly discuss and define what these roles can look like. A title on a resume opens both professional doors and a sense of personal accomplishment. Clear time and expectations shows respect for an individual’s talent and a definitive investment in their abilities.

While not the only type of “teacher leadership,” at The Educator Collaborative we have been conducting research on the role of Instructional Coaches and our first, probably most essential finding, has been that too often there is no clear job description in place! Or if there is one, many important parties are not aware of what is expected of the role. This then, unfortunately, leads to highly capable Coaches spending too much time making photocopies or organizing test packets. Not a good use of time, talent, or budget!

If I were writing a “teacher leader” job description, I would lean on the following ideas:

Decision Making Around Innovation

In Professional Capital, Andy Hargreaves and Michael Fullan argue that teacher leadership “isn’t just about taking on administrative responsibilities but also about leading innovation and improvement in schools.” They suggest, among other things, that teacher leaders are given some ability to raise questions of practice not just of colleagues but also of leadership.

Part of decision making also involves pinpointing areas for innovation. Teacher leaders should play a role in walking through the building and looking for strengths to build upon. In my work it has always been so eye-opening to walk through classrooms with a group of teachers and then talk about what we saw. The ideas, then, are grounded in real practice, not assumptions distilled from “scores.”

Clear Delineation of Time for Classroom, Leadership, and Learning

The thing no one wants to do is set schedules, yet the first area to become a problem is time.

Teacher Leaders need clearly set time to work with colleagues and, sometimes even more essentially, develop their own learning and skills. The New York City Department of Education, for example, is experimenting with a number of Teacher Leadership roles and within some of the structures is requiring schools to provide a minimum amount of release time.

If one of the largest and most complex systems in the country can find ways to make this work, then really any school should be able to.

Looking for and Supporting the Next Cohort of Teacher Leaders

Rafranz Davis raises the essential point that a part of leadership is reaching out and promoting other talented educators. In “The Missing Voices in EdTech,” she challenges readers to look for voices that are not often represented and then make the choice to actively involve them.

She suggests seeking out the perspectives of teachers whose opinions are often overlooked because they may not be considered “knowledgeable” about an initiative or even pose a differing point of view. For instance, adding someone uncomfortable with technology integration to a technology advisory board can help everyone consider the needs of teachers who want extra help but may be uncomfortable to ask. Bringing in conflicting opinions can often lead to better ideas around design and implementation of initiatives.

Rafranz also makes the critical case for encouraging woman and people of color to step into leadership roles. Any teacher leader should be encouraged to reflect on the diversity of leadership in his or her district and seek out talented individuals that are underrepresented.

We are at our best as leaders when we amplify the gifts and ideas of others. Any teacher leader should see this as a key part of their role.

Sharing Beyond the School Walls

I personally know my greatest reflection and learning takes place when I am working to share ideas with others. Any teacher leadership description should include an expectation, and release time provided for, sharing learning beyond the school.

This could be as travel-heavy as presenting at state and national conferences to as personal as writing blogs or interacting on Twitter. As Meenoo Rami describes in “Thrive: 5 Ways to (Re)Invigorate Your Teaching,” we have a tremendous opportunity to connect with, build, and contribute to our own learning networks. I think of some of the many stars of the Twittersphere who have given time to creating vibrant learning networks such as #Satchat, #kinderchat, #educolor, and Meenoo’s own #engchat.

Through the process of giving, teachers leaders learn more skills and gather more ideas that can be shared back with their home district. Adding to the development of our amazing profession is one of the greatest and most important gifts any teacher leader can give.

Response From Matt Townsley

Matt Townsley is the Director of Instruction and Technology for Solon Community Schools in Iowa. Matt is also a class of 2014 ASCD Emerging Leader whose areas of expertise include assessment, curriculum development, and professional development. Connect with Matt on Twitter @mctownsley:

The state of Iowa is beginning its second year phasing in a statewide teacher leadership system amongst its 300+ school districts. The theory of action states:

“If we effectively...recruit and promote excellent teachers and provide support as they collaborate reflectively to refine their practice; create the political will and understanding necessary to remake the status of the teaching profession; give highly effective teachers opportunities to grow, refine and share their expertise; and develop a clear system with quality implementation...then student learning will increase, student outcomes will improve, and students will be prepared to succeed in a globally competitive environment.” (Source: Iowa Department of Education)

More concisely, teacher leadership involves experiences, both formal and informal, in which classroom teachers are positively influencing their colleagues.

Informal teacher leadership in action

Informal teacher leadership takes place in schools across the nation. Mrs. Johnson volunteers to move from 3rd grade, where she’s spent the past ten years, to Kindergarten. Returning Kindergarten teacher Mr. Jones reaches out to Mrs. Johnson to assist her in this transition. Beyond showing her how to locate supplies in the Kindergarten pod, Mr. Jones shares examples of his beginning-of-the-year Kindergarten routines, instructional strategies for helping struggling students with letter sounds and his “welcome to Kindergarten” parent letter. Throughout the school year, Mrs. Johnson learns she can lean on Mr. Jones as a trusted resource for all things Kindergarten! Although Mr. Jones may not be formally compensated for this support role, he is fulfilling the definition of a teacher leader by positively influencing a colleague.

Formal teacher leadership in action

When some of us think about teacher leadership, we may default to those practitioners with titles such as “instructional coach” or “department chair.” These are examples of what I call formal teacher leadership roles. In Iowa, schools are (or will soon be) eligible to receive funds from the state to create formal teacher leadership roles. Some schools elect to create positions such as “curriculum and professional development leader” in which a teacher agrees to step away from teaching students to positively influence fellow teachers. Another teacher leader role created with these funds might be a “model teacher” who works a few extra days and agrees to open up his/her classroom door at anytime for colleagues to observe in exchange for additional compensation. Some formal teacher leaders continue to have a roster full of students, while others may have reduced teaching responsibilities or none at all.

In summary, teacher leadership involves experiences, both formal and informal, in which classroom teachers are positively influencing their colleagues. We’re fortunate in Iowa to have state dollars dedicated to created teacher leadership systems involving formal teacher leadership roles. Regardless of funding and titles, teacher leaders are an essential part of schools across the nation.

Response From Anthony Cody

Anthony Cody worked in the Oakland schools for 24 years. He hosts the blog Living in Dialogue, and is active in the Network for Public Education:

Teacher Leadership in Troubled Times

For most of my career as a classroom teacher, my leadership was welcome at my school. My principal looked for grant opportunities that would support collaborative work, but she did not micromanage us. We had the latitude to pursue Lesson Study and experiment with our assessments. But this sort of autonomy has become far too rare in schools today.

If we lack the space to direct our professional growth, then genuine leadership becomes difficult.

A few years later, when I was working as a District-level mentor, I spoke up at a training meeting, where the Common Core was being described as the embodiment of creativity. (I described the experience here.) A week later my supervisor told me that higher-ups felt I should be “more of a team player.”

If we lack the ability to challenge destructive policies, leadership is hollow.

Some of the grant-funded organizations that sponsor the development of “teacher leaders” require adherence to “reform” policies, or subtly control the message that teacher voices deliver. Several corporate foundations, including Gates and Walton, have invested millions over the past decade towards this end.

True teacher leadership cannot emerge in a top-down, compliance driven school. Nor can we make change if we are constrained by the stipulations of foundation grants.

The definition of leadership must include the capacity to speak freely and independently.

If you consider yourself a leader, ask yourself these questions:

Are you and your colleagues allowed to decide on the focus of your collaborative work, or does someone else decide this?

Is your leadership position the result of a designation by an administrator or grant-funded organization?

Does that position require you to be a “team player” or can you challenge and discuss?

These distinctions become even more significant when our schools are coerced into patterns of behavior that are harmful to students and teachers. As “reform” policies exert pressure to obsess over test data, much of our collaborative work has become subject to this agenda. Teacher collaboration is far too often a “date with data,” that rivals some of the worst dates we have ever had. In many districts, teachers must spend countless hours preparing documents that prove they met standards. Due process has been reduced or lost, making it harder for teachers to speak out.

Under these circumstances, it is incumbent on teacher leaders to actively push for the space teachers need to guide their own professional growth. In a time when obsession over test scores is taking a huge toll on our students, leaders should offer a different path. Leaders may be found informing students of their rights to opt out of high stakes tests. They may even openly resist by declaring themselves Teachers of Conscience, Teacher leaders may organize colleagues in their local union. They may be active in groups like the Badass Teachers Association, Rethinking Schools or the Network for Public Education.

If teacher leadership is to be worthy of that name, it must be autonomous, and capable of challenging injustice in our schools.

Response From Patty O’Grady

Patty O’Grady’s work in the field of education and psychology spans 30 years and has included classroom teaching in both K-12 general and special education, as well as higher education, where she is currently on the faculty at the University of Tampa. She writes a blog about positive psychology in education for Psychology Today. She is the author of Positive Psychology in the Elementary School Classroom. Visit Dr. O’Grady at http://www.pattyogrady.com/:

The Eight “I’s” of Teacher Leadership: “I” am a Leader

Teachers learn to act as leaders by identifying and practicing their signature emotional strengths and by engaging others using the power of those strengths. They build relationships that are strong, focus laser-like on meaningful efforts, and emphasize accomplishment (intrinsically-motivated performance) over achievement (extrinsically-motivated performance).

Teachers who perceive themselves as leaders and act as leaders are leaders, whether officially recognized by title, position, or assignment, or not. To acquire and practice the correlates of leadership, teachers must often challenge the status quo and shift the paradigm.

What empowers teacher leaders to challenge the existing paradigm? There are eight core leadership attributes--extracted from leadership theory, models, and research--that empower leadership. These eight core leadership attributes are also consistent with the principles of positive psychology.


Leaders are creative and resourceful. They are original thinkers and share innovative ideas that solve problems.


Leaders are open minded. They adopt a ‘growth mindset’ and are willing to ‘try another way,’ considering multiple perspectives.


Leaders are well informed. They are well educated, well read, and familiar with classic and current theory, research, and practices.


Leaders understand themselves and others in deep and meaningful ways. They realize and recognize what others need to succeed and are generous in providing it.


Leaders motivate others in nurturing, enhancing, and guiding ways. They do not manage others; they do not collect information, assemble tasks, and tell others what to do.


Leaders are genuinely interested in others’ thoughts and feelings. They reach out to understand and to connect.


Leaders interpret ideas, emotions, and actions within an optimistic framework. They do not jump to negative conclusions or make assumptions.


Leaders take informed risks. They are pioneers and groundbreakers and change-makers.

Leaders in education are made, not born. “I” am a leader if...I am imaginative, improvisational, informed, insightful, inspirational, interested, interpretive, and intrepid.

Responses From Readers

Thanks to Laura, Kylene, Susan, ReLeah, Christopher, Matt, Anthony, and Patricia , and to readers, for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

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