Teachers have long been considered leaders in the field of education. After all, they are on the front lines, working directly with students to not only instruct and inspire, but to identify trends, gaps in resources, and student needs. However, when it comes to formal leadership in many school districts, administrators often call the shots, determining not only policies but also the scope of teacher involvement in various initiatives. Thus, while in many cases teachers have been called leaders, they actually serve in a more representational or ambassadorial role than a leadership one.
There is a profound shift happening across the country, though, toward teachers taking on actual leadership responsibilities, in more than just name only. These roles are different from administrative roles, but are still vital to the effective functioning, growth, and change of educational programs. Teacher leaders are on the frontier of new educational paradigms, working with administration to better develop and support student instruction and teaching that is more effective.
What Are Teacher Leaders?
The definition of a teacher leader is a broad one, and encompasses a wide variety of roles. The simplest way to describe a teacher leader, though, is one who works alongside other teachers, administrators, and parents to change and improve education, while still maintaining their presence in the classroom. These people want to improve the educational experience for everyone, and put their considerable expertise to work to effect real change — and support those initiatives that are working.
Teacher leaders fulfill a number of roles, but some of the most common include the following four categories.
New teachers entering the field today face a number of challenges, especially in the face of changes in expectations regarding achievement, instructional paradigms, and social shifts that effect the classroom environment.
Experienced educators can serve as mentors to help their colleagues handle the pressures of the modern classroom, share ideas, and provide support during the first years of teaching, when attrition is at its highest.
2. School Leaders
Teachers can be leaders on committees, serve as department chairs or liaisons, or serve on task forces or development committees with other schools in the district to bring the perspective of a classroom educator and ensure that the teachers’ voices are being heard.
For example, when one school district sought a new superintendent, teachers from each school were invited to serve on the selection committee to ensure that the individual selected shared their goals and philosophy. In another district, teachers served on a committee focused on long-term school planning, ensuring that initiatives and curriculum development were age-appropriate and in line with teacher priorities.
Teachers can be leaders among their peers by becoming instructional or curriculum specialists. Instructional specialists support their colleagues by helping them design and implement new teaching strategies to improve student learning and performance. For example, a history teacher who notices that student essays are lacking thorough research and attribution may work with the English department to develop new ways to teach research, while the English teachers can beef up their instruction in research and citations.
A curriculum leader brings together teachers — either from the same subject-area or across a team, to discuss and develop plans for consistent instructions and assessments, with the goal of making connections for students. Teacher leaders may initiate such collaborations as these, or work with administration to bring people together.
4. Change Leader
Sometimes, change needs to happen outside of the scope of the administration, and teachers must step up and become leaders of their own volition. Often, change leaders appear naturally, and are backed by others within the school. However, sometimes, these leaders are more informal — and serve as advocates for students.
Becoming a Teacher Leader
Teachers have a number of opportunities to become leaders, and it the process often starts during teaching master’s degree programs. Many programs offer coursework and training in effective teacher leadership, preparing teachers for their roles in the classroom and school environment.
However, teacher leadership doesn’t always require formal training and education. Teachers can put their unique experiences and perspectives to work to learn from each other, and improve the overall quality of instruction and the school experience for students and families. Serving on a committee, providing feedback, and simply participating in healthy discussions can help establish your role as a teacher leader — and lead to a greater sense of fulfillment and the ability to make a difference in the lives of your students and other teachers.