How to Be a Leader of Teacher Leaders: Building an Infrastructure for Improvement

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One day, teacher leadership will be the norm rather than the exception. I believe teacher leadership will be the means to identify and solve problems at the classroom, district, state, and national levels. However, as a passionate advocate for teacher leadership, I must concede—we’re not there yet. The infrastructure to build and support teacher leadership does not exist in many places. Roles, funding, platforms, and knowledge about teacher leadership are still missing.

That’s why I went on a leave of absence from the classroom to serve as the vice president of my local teachers' union. In my position, I am working to create true teacher leadership opportunities so that teachers can lead without leaving their classrooms. In other words, I am no longer a teacher leader; I am a leader of teacher leaders.

After years of limited progress promoting teacher leadership in my district, I now have the resources, time, and influence to advance a progressive teacher leadership agenda. As a leader of teacher leaders, I believe those in my role should be promoting school-based forums for teacher leadership, mentoring teacher leaders, creating meaningful professional-development opportunities, and working with elected officials to promote teacher leadership.

Create Platforms for Teacher Leadership

A couple of years ago, our local affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers negotiated language in our contract for steering committees at every school. Steering committees involve groups of teachers who are instrumental in identifying problems, brainstorming solutions, and presenting the issues and solutions to their administrators before helping implement the agreed-upon solutions. It was exciting to see that our contract included a platform for genuine teacher leadership at every school in the district. However, very few schools were taking advantage of it.

In my role as a leader of teacher leaders, I took action to ensure this platform was being used. First, I met with our relatively new superintendent in order to get him on board with the committees. He was excited by the prospect of having teachers and administrators solve problems at the school level, and he went so far as to offer to examine the minutes of the meetings if it seemed like principals weren’t receptive to teacher leadership. My next step was to publicize the committees using all of our communication channels. Then I met with any school staff who needed additional help getting started.

My advice, to keep it positive and solution driven, has paid off. Teacher leaders throughout the district are feeling empowered to speak up, identify, and solve problems. Problems, both big and small, have been addressed, including issues ranging from the best place to locate a copy machine to how to improve a school’s culture. Without a teacher leadership platform, these issues may never have been solved, or the solutions might have come from the “outside” and never received buy-in from those expected to implement them.

Teacher Leaders Need Mentors, Too

Teacher leaders often serve as mentors to other teachers, but who serves as a mentor to teacher leaders? When a teacher leader needs advice, the logical person for him to turn to is someone who’s been down the same road. Although teacher leadership is just getting off the ground in some places, I’ve been involved with the initiative for nearly two decades. I've seen what works and what doesn't, and now, I’m ready to share that with aspiring teacher leaders. Every day as I interact with teacher leaders, I discuss and offer guidance about the actions they are taking. I point them to resources, identify key players, and offer suggestions on their approaches to problem solving.

For example, I recently had a discussion with a teacher who wanted to improve the curriculum for her gifted students. I was able to direct her to some effective curriculum, but also connected her to a teacher who could help facilitate its implementation. This year I’ve worked with teacher leaders at two schools to provide them with the professional development and ongoing support to problem solve at their schools using the design-thinking process, a process I learned about last year. I meet with these groups monthly as a means to mentor them. Although their projects are still in progress, the teacher leaders have already demonstrated the skills needed to lead and make a positive difference at their schools.

Support Teacher-Led Professional Development

Most teacher leaders strongly support teacher-led professional development. The problem is that administrators in some districts are deciding which professional development must be offered. This top-down method of professional development prevents teacher leaders from teaching what they know and learning what they need to learn. Teacher leaders have valuable ideas to share and a strong desire to learn about new ideas in order to improve their practice.

In my role, I am working to find ways for teachers to take ownership of their professional development. Through a National Education Association Great Public Schools grant, our local union, along with our district, sponsored a large ECET²—Elevating and Celebrating Effective Teaching and Teachers, an online professional network. Through the ECET², the enthusiasm of teacher-led professional development, as well as its effectiveness, was on full display. As a leader of teacher leaders, I continue to search for ways to fund teacher-led professional development.

Lobbying Elected Officials

By their very nature, district-led teacher leadership initiatives avoid one of the most important aspects of teacher leadership … politics. Advocating for teacher pay, more planning time, and common sense in education policies is a significant component of teacher leadership. Teacher leaders who are in the classroom every day typically do not have the necessary time to devote to these endeavors. In my new role, not only is this an area that I can spend much more time focusing on, it is the core of what I do.

I gather input from teacher leaders, typically through social media platforms, and then use that feedback to help create our local association’s positions on these matters—and then advocate for them. If teacher leaders have more time to devote to politics, I act as a liaison who can direct them to the right person. For instance, many teacher leaders in our district are dealing with challenges related to special education. I created a virtual committee to get feedback from these teachers. Then I lobbied our school board members to get their support, and now I am actively working with my district’s exceptional student education leadership to work directly with teachers on these issues. I was able to arrange this because of my position. Without a leader of teacher leaders, such as someone in my role or a classroom teacher in a hybrid role, teacher leaders might have been unable to move the needle on this issue.

I was an enthusiastic teacher leader, and now I am an enthusiastic leader of teacher leaders. It is my goal as a leader of teacher leaders to help put a structure for teacher leadership in place so teachers can lead.

Does your district need a leader of teacher leaders? What ways can that person support teacher leaders?

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