Stepping Up, Part Two: Insights & Advice for Aspiring Teacher Leaders

In addition to helping you grow as an educator, becoming a teacher leader can broaden your impact beyond your classroom. Here’s how to get started.
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As a teacher, you know first-hand that your skills, passion, and dedication can make a tremendous difference in the lives of your students. 

At the same time, many of you might be craving something more, whether it’s a new challenge, additional ways to engage with your peers, and a desire to learn something new. You might see the need or opportunity to step up, given the challenges you’re seeing at the current moment. Or, you might be thinking: I know I have a positive impact on my students, but I want to do even more. Is there something else I can do to amplify my impact?

If you find yourself mulling any of those thoughts over, it might be a sign that you’re ready to make a leap into teacher leadership. In addition to broadening your overall impact, becoming a teacher leader is a great way to gain experience and find plenty of opportunities to challenge yourself and grow as an educator.

Leadership is not something for a select few. The myriad of experiences you’ve gained in teaching students and working with families can be translated into leadership skills that have the ability to positively influence student achievement and success on a broader scale. 

What does it mean to be a teacher leader, and how do you start to shift your thinking and adopt a mindset that transcends the walls of your classroom? Having trained thousands of emerging leaders over the past two decades, we have some insights that might be helpful as you decide to take the next step. 

What does it mean to be a teacher leader?

The simplest definition of a teacher leader is someone who impacts students and teachers beyond their own classroom. While some districts or states will have more defined teacher leader roles, the leadership portion of a teacher leader’s role isn’t always clearly defined with a position or a title. This broad definition might make teacher leadership a little confusing initially, but it also means there are many ways to make an impact

Teacher leader roles can be more formal—a curriculum specialist, a data coach, an instructional leadership team member. Or informal, such as being a mentor to a less experienced teacher or leading a professional development session. Regardless of the way you choose to lead, there are plenty of roles that make it possible for you to contribute to your school’s success. 

Why teacher leadership matters

From leading teams and coaching colleagues to engaging in school-wide decision-making, teacher leaders are a critical part of school improvement. When teachers take what they’ve learned and apply it to leadership opportunities outside their classrooms, there are several benefits:

  • It bolsters the pipeline of future school leaders. Maybe you’re interested in becoming a principal or administrator someday but aren’t sure where to begin. Taking on a teacher leadership role means getting an inside, holistic look at your school—one that helps you gain valuable experience and real-time problem-solving for the challenges and opportunities that are part of a school leader’s day-to-day life.

  • It supports principals by distributing leadership. The truth is that principals can’t lead a school entirely on their own, and research shows that effective teacher leadership—in concert with instructional leadership from a principal—is linked to improved student outcomes in English Language Arts and Math. Teachers are closest to students, so they know what students need to improve. Distributed leadership, a shared approach in which decision-making is spread among a group instead of just one person, is a way to center and elevate teacher voices and engage a collective group to advance school priorities. 

  • It makes our education system more equitable and effective. As a teacher, you have the personal experience of working with children and families one-on-one and getting to know the lived realities of those in your classroom. You can offer invaluable perspectives on making sure all members of your school community are being represented when it comes to a new curriculum or how budgets are being allocated for programming. 

What are the steps to becoming a teacher leader?

As much as we'd love to have a "teacher leader" roadmap that we could share with you and send you on your way, the truth is that everyone's journey to teacher leadership is different. With that said, here are a few pieces of advice to consider as you're deciding what your own path looks like:

  • Shift to a leadership mindset. There’s a misconception out there that leadership is only for the chosen few — and this limiting belief can inadvertently stifle or self-suppress the potential of talented teachers who have the ability to make a marked impact on student achievement. One small yet useful strategy to help you broaden your view is to shift the language you use. Moving from “my students, my class” to “our students, our school, our team” can help you see the bigger picture and motivate you to take on more responsibility. 
  • Be vocal about your desire for leadership opportunities. When you’ve decided you’re interested in taking on more of a teacher leadership role, it might be tempting to wait for your principal to take notice, tap you on the shoulder, and ask you to lead. Of course, that does happen in some cases, but the best way to show you’re ready to be a teacher leader is to take the initiative and step up to the plate. In addition, pay attention when your colleagues nudge you into leadership roles. If they suggest you lead a professional development session or put together a data team, it most likely means they already see your capacity for leadership, even if you don’t see it yourself quite yet. Leaning into those opportunities can be a great place to begin.
  • Continue to support your peers. The most successful teacher leaders don’t need—or want— to be better than those around them. They want their schools to be better, together—and strong relationships based on mutual trust and respect make that possible. Keep cultivating meaningful relationships with your peers by listening purposefully, showing an interest in classrooms outside of your own, and helping your fellow teachers out when they need a hand. This might seem obvious, but showing support and being a cheerleader for those around you builds trust—an essential component of leadership. 
  • Don’t be afraid to start small. When dipping your toe into teacher leadership, it’s important to remember that there’s no right way to do it, and there’s no scorecard, either. Writing a grant, launching a new program or initiative, attending a conference and presenting what you’ve learned, or taking it upon yourself to research a new educational policy and share it with your team—these are all small steps that can provide a great springboard into gaining leadership experience.

Teacher leaders, we need you

Leadership is not something for a select few. The myriad of experiences you’ve gained in teaching students and working with families can be translated into leadership skills that have the ability to positively influence student achievement and success on a broader scale. 

There’s a leader inside you, and it’s one that’s needed as we think about the next era of our schools and classrooms. We can’t wait to see what you accomplish.

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