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Opinion
School & District Management CTQ Collaboratory

Who Decides Who Is a Teacher Leader?

By Julie Hiltz — May 03, 2016 4 min read
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A few months ago I was eating lunch with a teacher friend who bemoaned the fact that he couldn’t do the work he wanted to do within our professional organization. “I keep offering up all these great ideas and I’m getting nowhere,” he said with great frustration. “I just don’t know what it takes to get inside this group and get something new started!”

His ideas were phenomenal. He had a vision for programs beyond any of the work the group had done to date. But they just weren’t resonating with the priorities of the organization at the time. And when you’re the right person with the right idea at the wrong time or wrong place, it can be extremely frustrating. I gave him the best advice I’d ever received when I was in the same situation: “Why are you waiting to be invited to play with the group? Go build your own sandbox.”

Just Do It

Sandbox, door—whatever the metaphor, sometimes you have to make your own opportunities. If you wait around to be asked to do this work, you will be waiting a long time. Trust me. And while everyone’s teacher-leadership journey is different, these are the similarities I’ve noticed in my work.

It starts with self. The Greek playwright Sophocles is credited with saying “Look and you will find it—what is unsought will go undetected.” If you are looking to see leadership in yourself, you will find it. Start small with a simple declaration: “I am a leader.” That felt good, right? You are already on the right path.

Don’t get hung up on titles. Leaders are no longer defined by what they are called, but by what they do. Are you often visited by other teachers when they have questions or problems? Does your administration ask for your feedback or help on projects? Are you cornered in grocery stores or on ball fields by parents who have questions about school policies or programs? If so, then chances are you’re already seen as a leader in your school, regardless of your position or title. Embrace it.

Identify your passion. Not passions—passion. Most teacher leaders I’ve known are passionate about all kinds of things. This can be good, but it can also lead to false starts early on as it strains your already limited resources, namely time. Start with Simon Sinek and his TED Talk about “the golden circle”. After the video, write down a list of things you’re passionate about changing. In which scenarios do you have the power to affect positive change? Which of the things are not as important and can be eliminated? Which of those things are products or factors of the others? Which resonate most with you? Eliminate duplicates or things out of your control. What’s left over becomes your passion project.

Connect with other teachers. You aren’t expected to have all the answers or come up with the next great new idea all by yourself. There are many teachers doing similar leadership work around the country, and professional and personal learning communities are helpful places to find human and material resources. Connect with people via social media, conferences, professional organizations, or community events, and let their work empower you. They will also be your lifeline and support when things get difficult.

Know that you are good enough. I once had the chance to hang out with one of my education reform (Capital H) Heroes. I was fangirling so hard! When we finally talked, I was so scared of him judging me for my lack of experience or policy background that I steered the conversation to baseball. Don’t get me wrong. I love a good baseball conversation, but my self-doubt led me to miss the opportunity to pick his brain. There is plenty of work to go around in education reform. You are not expected to know it all or do everything. Do the work that speaks to your heart and be proud. There will be moments of doubt, called Imposter Syndrome, and that is okay. My colleague, Megan Allen, wrote two posts about the Imposter Syndrome felt by many leaders including: exploring the problem and ways to overcome it.

Be patient. If no one’s following you, are you still a leader? Short answer: Yes! Sometimes you’re charting new ground that others just can’t wrap their brains around—yet. You may have to build trust and community with your colleagues. Or you may have to explain your vision over and over again. You might even need to show others how to follow you. All of this takes time. Check out the Derek Sivers TED talk “How to Start a Movement” to learn more about “lone nut” leadership.

Pay it forward. Author Tom Peters is quoted as having said “Leaders don’t create more followers, they create more leaders.” Once you have figured out your path, help others find theirs. Compliment your colleagues. Help them see the power of their work. Invite them on your journey or support them on theirs. Take time to build relationships and nurture ingenuity. As Kris Giere would tell you, #PeopleAreWorthIt.

In the end, what you do and how you do it will be entirely in your hands. The work of the many teacher-leaders I have had the privilege of learning from is connected by one common thread: the kids. In the end, it is all about the kids. If you center every decision on what’s best for our students, you are a leader.

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