Opinion
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The Seven Verbs of Teacher Leadership

By Wendi Pillars — October 15, 2013 4 min read
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The phrase “teacher leader” is an intriguing mental Rorschach test, since the interpretation depends on one’s perspective and experience. I always prefer to think and talk about what teacher leaders do (or would do, given the chance) than about their official or prospective titles. After all, a lack of title or recognition doesn’t stop us from leading.

I hope you’ll think about these verbs and the teachers in your life who live them out. How can these ideas help you support their growth, collaborate with them, or take on similar actions?

Invite

Success in education is collaborative by nature, so teacher leadership must be about power with—not over—others. Logic dictates that teacher leaders invite others along on the journey, encouraging colleagues to pursue and share their own gifts.

When we invite our colleagues to take part in a project or to share their knowledge about technology, literacy practices, or classroom management, we are acknowledging their expertise. That simple act of validation can encourage them to step things up a notch on their own accord.

People are rarely offended when they are invited to do something. Instead, invitations are an opportunity to recognize the passion of our colleagues, families, and community in the service of our students. Invitations show it is never just about us. Having one another’s backs is a game-changer.

Take Risks

Fear and analysis can paralyze—but not if we are fully committed to our students’ success.

We realize that criticism will come, of course, but we still take risks. We learn to distinguish criticism that pushes us to grow from criticism that we can ignore. And we consciously welcome that critical voice along, realizing that silencing it will lead to complacency or contentment with mediocrity. Each conquered step multiplies confidence even as it tempers our understanding of reality.

When we are told “This isn’t working,” we don’t assume inefficiency but ask why various needs are not being met.

Grow

Few of us believe there is a single answer to fixing our country’s educational woes, but we know that growth is mandatory for anyone invested in this work, including us. We take on the gradual expansion of our limited roles; we invest in and take ownership of our personal development; and we learn, question, and seek solutions.

Our success stems not from external validation but from, in the words of renowned NCAA coach John Wooden, “knowing you made the effort to do your best to become the best of which you are capable.”

Act

We realize that a single action can set off an unlikely—yet powerful—chain of events, and that the fruit of some actions will not appear until the future. We never know when that tipping point of “a-ha!” will be, and so we plug on. But we do not plug on blindly—we share knowledge, ask for help and ideas, and do all we can to fulfill the high expectations we hold.

We ask others to do only that which we would do ourselves. We are fiercely committed to, focused on, and excited about making learning meaningful for others: our students, colleagues, and our communities.

Fail

We fail. We fail by taking risks and making mistakes. We fail due to external circumstances. We fail by setting high expectations for ourselves. We are, after all, human.

But we also reflect. When projects go wrong, when ideas are shot down by the short-sighted, when we face obstacles beyond our control, we reflect. Sometimes silently. Often publicly, with transparency and vulnerability.

It is at those times we lay it on the line and make a conscious decision—each day, or moment by moment—to be better, to be bigger than what crushed us. To embody our own phoenix rising.

Catalyze

Because we’re driven by our passion, we do all we can to create opportunities for others to innovate and grow. We seek and acknowledge the good in others, encourage the reticent, and exemplify the belief that our value is not defined or limited by our role.

We understand the old sports adage: that the “we” is more important than the “me,” when it comes to nurturing successful learners. We strive to unearth potential, lending credence and a listening ear to even the silliest of ideas because we know that seedling ideas can sprout something monumental.

We also realize that sometimes all it takes is knowing someone believes in you and your idea to spur you on.

Respect

Conflict-resolution expert Kenneth Boulding has broadly explained power both as the potential for change and the ability to get what one wants. There is destructive power (the power to destroy something), economic power (the power to get what one wants by giving something in exchange), and integrative power (the power to get others to act in order to please you because they care for you, respect you, or identify with you in some way).

Teacher leaders operate with integrative power, cooperating rather than coercing. We acknowledge and respect others. Even when we compete (think merit pay), we keep in mind that a great colleague must be committed to the team and willing to subordinate his or her individual goals for the collective good.

Yes, there are qualities that fit teacher leaders: boldness, resilience, innovation, willingness to take risks, confidence, knowledge, empathy, and a passion to ensure learning has meaning. But these qualities all demand proof of action.

We act because we have the responsibility to do so. We are not here to usurp anyone’s power. But we do appreciate it when those who have power also have our backs. C’mon—let us in. The world is waiting. We’ve all got work to do.

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