What is a teacher leader?
Teacher mentors. Curriculum specialists. Staff development leaders. Instructional coaches. New ways to define teacher leaders seem to pop up faster than you can say “Mr. Kotter.”
Although the descriptors may be different, teacher leaders share a defining goal: In addition to instructing students, they work with fellow educators and administrators to improve their schools.
“We’ve moved from top-down leadership styles of the past to a more collaborative leadership style,” says Richard Patterson, PhD, campus college chair for the College of Education at the University of Phoenix Southern Colorado Campus. He views teacher leadership as a bridge between classrooms and administrators’ offices.
In this hybrid role, teacher leaders can influence students, schools and districts by sharing their expertise and perspectives with school decision-makers to help shape daily teaching practices and overall policies.
Teacher leadership is often informal — for instance, an educator might offer to mentor a new colleague, draft a grant proposal or share tips from a professional workshop. Administrators can also select teachers for formally designated leadership positions, such as department chair or committee head.
Instructors still want to be in the classroom but are increasingly interested in all aspects of teacher leadership. MetLife Foundation’s 2012 survey of American teachers found that 51 percent of teachers hold some kind of leadership position yet want to continue teaching. This marked a significant jump from the 2009 survey, when just 40 percent of teachers voiced interest in taking leadership roles.
Having split his public school career between a music classroom and an administrator’s office, Patterson says he’s excited by the evolution of teacher leadership.
“It’s like a vitamin shot for teachers,” Patterson says. “You can move your career forward but not give up the closeness of working with your students.”
In 2008, a national Teacher Leadership Exploratory Consortium formed to study the emerging hybrid. The team comprised representatives from more than 30 organizations, including the University, the National Education Association and the Center for Teaching Quality.
A 2011 report by the consortium outlined the skills and tasks of teacher leaders, and championed teacher leadership as a crucial development in education.
It emphasized that teacher leadership relies on collaboration, stressing that teacher leaders must communicate well not only with their students, but also with students’ families, principals, school district administrators and fellow educators. Trust, the report noted, is a key component.
“Trust-building is a huge piece of teacher leadership,” Patterson agrees. By communicating clearly and following through on commitments, he says, teachers solidify their relationships within the school community and become more effective leaders.
Teachers who want to be leaders, Patterson adds, should talk to their principals about getting involved. “It’s the greatest part about teaching,” he notes. “There’s no end to the chance to improve.”