As an ongoing conversation about Teacher Leadership, Elisabeth Bostwick, Laura Gilchrist, and Heidi Veal, were compelled to put pen to paper to attempt to share their respective reflections, perspectives, and insights about Teacher Leadership with the hope of inspiring a conversation that will spark a movement of empowered Teacher Leaders everywhere! They hope you are encouraged and challenged by this three part series with a new post published each week. Join the important conversation about Teacher Leadership by sharing your reflections, ideas, and wonderings in the comments section below and using #LeadUpTeach on Twitter.
Teacher Leadership is for ALL
by Heidi Veal
Teacher leadership is such an elegant thing when witnessed, but it must not be relegated to the few who innately take the initiative to lead! A teacher who has positive influence with their peers can accomplish a tremendous amount of good for the benefit of students, not only the ones they teach. Their reach can extend throughout their school and beyond. They earn influence because of their proven effectiveness, passion, and success with students. Peers enthusiastically look to them as mentors, trusted colleagues, and friends.
My perspectives on teacher leadership come from my years of having served as a teacher leader, an instructional coach, and now as a campus assistant principal. It is a topic near and dear to my heart. One of my greatest wishes for all teachers is for them to see themselves as and serve as empowered leaders in the classroom, on their campus, and beyond.
It is important to recognize that no two teachers lead in the same way. They lead uniquely and in multiple ways too. There is no cookie cutter “Teacher Leadership Definition” because teacher leadership is entirely too multifaceted. For additional perspectives on various ways teachers lead, you can read Ten Roles for Teacher Leaders written by Cindy Harrison and Joellen Killion in an article for ASCD (Sep. 2007).
The thing is, teacher leaders do not have to be an isolated few or a rare, unique occurrence. I would like to assert that teacher leaders should exist on all campuses and actually, in every classroom! Consider what leadership means. Simply put, Leadership is Influence! Teachers influence students by inspiring action, facilitating change, and empowering others to accomplish defined goals. A teacher does this with students and can/should do this with their peers too.
In my current role as an assistant principal, I desire for all teachers at my school see themselves as leaders. I do not expect, nor do I want, all teachers to be cookie cutter replicas from one mold. Each teacher comes with individual strengths, gifts, passions, and talents. I strive to empower them to lead with their strengths and grow their leadership identity based on the things that make them uniquely themselves in the classroom. The diverse talents and passions of individual teachers are what make their leadership so powerful and should be shared.
One simple yet powerful way I seek to empower teachers is by carefully listening to them share their passions and ideas, observing them in action in the classroom, and taking note of their unique strengths. Inevitably, the opportunity presents itself to do what Bethany Hill calls “The Nudge”. Like her, I nudge teachers to share their practices, ideas, and passions with others, the staff or their team, whenever possible. Teachers have an important voice and deserve a platform by which to share their genius, thus growing their leadership. The keys here are listening, collaborating, and empowering teachers to own their growth.
I am reminded of a powerful piece of advice my mother gave to me at the start of my middle school years. She encouraged me to think about a content I am interested in and to work hard towards that content with my efforts and passion. Her intent was to see me sharpen that saw, as Covey would say, in order to create a specialty that was uniquely mine. I did this by pursuing choral arts and my interests in science. I would assert that this is great advice for educators too. No doubt, it is difficult to be a master at everything. We have all heard the phrase, ‘Jack of all trades and master of none.’ As teachers zero in on their unique talents, strengths, and passions in the classroom they inevitably experience growth and increased influence.
As a campus administrator, my goal is to remove barriers, inspire all teachers to sharpen their talents, lead from their strengths, and be empowered to exercise leadership in every setting and way possible. In other words my heart is that teachers:
Teacher leadership is not for a few, but for all teachers! Imagine the leadership capacity in a school if every teacher on a campus were in tune with their unique strengths and leveraging them in their classroom, with their teams, on their campus, and beyond. Do you also believe every teacher should be and is a leader? What are your unique talents and passions? How do you leverage your strengths and the strengths of others to lead and influence on your campus and beyond?
Teacher Leadership Through a Coach’s Lens
By Laura Gilchrist
I smile every time I walk into a school. I can’t help myself. It’s not any normal smile–it’s a big goofy grin. There is magic in the hallways, classrooms, and outdoor spaces. It’s in the belief, love, and energy flowing between teachers and students, who see themselves as learners, makers, and doers. Some schools have more of that magic than others, but all schools can create it via teacher leadership.
I see a teacher, several students, and a principal, smiling as they look over a student compost project that will help the entire school reduce waste to the landfill by over 80%. I see kids working excitedly in the hall on big project presentations all parents are invited to see on student exhibition night. I see a principal smiling and talking informally with teachers, sharing feedback and permission to innovate–a principal who believes teachers and students are the true leaders of the school.
Is this school culture the norm or the outlier? Is this the type of school culture you’d want your kids to be part of? If the answer is yes, why aren’t we channeling all our efforts into making our schools like this–focusing on leadership and power distribution?
When looking at schools where learners are thriving, I like to look at the school or district’s “power profile”–the way administrators use the ‘power’ or authority that comes with that position. Simply put, do they keep it or share it? Speaking from a school level, when principals keep and wield power at teachers, a compliance culture of avoiding negative consequences is created. Fixed mindset and status quo are the norm. Inside the box thinking. When principals share power with teachers and students, encouraging them to help craft and guide mission, vision, and innovation, schools will shine from the inside out. Growth mindset is widespread as is curiosity and teacher and student agency.
I believe teacher learning and leadership are key to shifting school culture. I also believe teacher learning and leadership are just as important as student learning and leadership. Over the past twenty years, the talk about teachers was often negative and tied to test scores. It’s time to change this and create a positive language that will elevate teachers, students, and entire schools. Fewer of our youth are going into teaching due to salary, respect, and image problems. Over the past twenty years, teachers had to learn by ‘sit and git’ presentations done at them, not for and with them–a waste of time, talent, and leadership. It’s time to let teachers lead their own learning and innovate!
We must focus specifically on teacher leadership until it is commonplace. Then we can drop it and talk ‘leadership.’
My perspectives on teacher leadership come from my twenty years as a teacher and teacher leader, four years as an Edcamp organizer and facilitator, and my current role as Instructional Coach at Turner High School in Kansas City, Kansas. I am beginning my second year with seventy-five amazing teachers and four growth mindset principals who regard teachers as leaders. I strive to be a champion for my teachers and my teachers are champions for their kids. I tell my teachers they are leaders who can and should dream big for kids. They don’t always identify with the word leader, but they will one day. I won’t stop saying it. They need to hear it.
I focused on relationships last year and building capacity through active teacher learning, including teacher PBL teams tackling self-identified school issues. I launched an EdCamp during work week and it shifted climate that day (An EdCamp is a teacher-led, conversation-based learning format based on choice and voice). I introduced Twitter at one of the optional sessions and now 60% our the teachers at my school are on Twitter. Read how I started an EdCamp at school here and here. Teachers in my building and district who are on Twitter organize and go to meet-ups in our city and have, in many cases, experienced not just incremental growth, but exponential growth in regards to instructional innovation. I know social media has been vital to them seeing the astounding world of resources, people, and ideas beyond that are easily found outside the walls of their school.
The Collaborative Leadership and Vision that is embraced by administrators holds the key to activating potential in all teachers and students. The leadership beliefs and practices at the top deeply impact the culture of learning at all levels. I believe all administrative teams should analyze their power profile and work to include all voices and all genius.
The Five Leadership Principles from Kansas Leadership Center can powerfully unite an entire school/district in action and language, if they are adopted and agreed to by the entire staff:
- Leadership is an activity, not a position
- Anyone can lead anytime, anywhere
- It starts with you, and must include others
- Your purpose must be clear
- It’s risky
Read Laura’s complete LeadUpNow blog “Jumpstart Teacher Leadership and Create District-Wide Leadership Principals” to learn more about these 5 Leadership Principles from the Kansas Leadership Center.
Shift Leadership and Power Profiles in Schools so they shine!
- Collaborative Leadership and Vision are true game changers.
- Learning, passions, and leadership should be commonly talked about at school.
- Learners are leaders. We’re all learners. So we’re all leaders.
- How administrators manage ‘power’–keeping it or sharing it–will determine if teachers and students are compliance robots or empowered leaders.
- Power is shared in the school or district ecosystem in a two-way energy flow between all learners and all voices are heard.
- If a superintendent’s main job is modeling, coaching, and holding principals (all district administrators) to collaborative leadership principles, he or she will impact student growth and school culture significantly.
- Collaborative and Connected Ecosystems support innovation and growth.
Empower your teachers and students as avid learners and leaders and watch them make the school shine from the inside out!
Laura Gilchrist is a Teaching/Learning coach at a high school in Kansas City, Kansas who spent 20 vibrant years as a middle school science & social studies teacher, doing PBL and storytelling from her room. She is also an #EdCamp organizer and #LeadUpTeach co-host and partner. Read more by Laura here.
Spark Your Inner Leader
By: Elisabeth Bostwick
As a teacher, I witness the varying manners in which colleagues lead daily. Through my leadership experiences as both a teacher and instructional strategy coach I absolutely believe every teacher is a leader in one way or another. While teachers are modeling leadership in their classrooms, they’re often empowering students as leaders as well. Teachers demonstrate leadership in a multitude of ways. Some examples I’ve seen are when they share strategies and resources with colleagues, lead or participate within committees, facilitate professional learning, and even by contributing as a positive member of a school community to enhance culture. While all of this occurs in our schools, many teachers deny that they are a leader if they are not in a role that has a leadership title.
When we deny ourselves as a leader, we do not demonstrate the same level of initiative as when we accept that we have influence. This diminishes our level of accountability and undermines our integrity. In order to be change agents who continuously transform our schools to improved levels, we must view ourselves as a leader with influence, as well as develop and leverage the leadership capacity within others.
As a teacher, I view leadership as an endeavor in which any one of us can embark on by choice. However, it’s not necessarily simple to navigate if the path is unclear. Too frequently teachers await to be empowered by their principal, and are uncertain how to go about reaching their desired goals. There are instances where teacher leaders recognize that they are supported by their colleagues, and unfortunately times in which they perceive to be isolated. This is a precarious situation for schools. Feeling isolated triggers uncertainty, and our best teacher leaders may begin to hold back. This is why it’s critical that we foster a culture of collaborative leadership where each individual champions the notion that they too, are a leader. Acknowledging that each individual has a unique gift to bring to the table begins to shift the status quo.
In my experience teacher leadership can be extremely powerful, particularly when the culture supports it. Teacher leadership is powerful and can lead to rapid improvement and innovation in education by influencing schools to do what’s best for learners. This is due to the fact that teachers are in the classroom daily, and have a distinct awareness of their students’ needs. Additionally, they understand the hopes and dreams parents have for their children. By listening to the voices of students, teachers have the unique opportunity to communicate, as well as craft, authentic learning connected to students’ interests and passions.
In my experience, some teachers are more intentional about honing in on their leadership skills in order to be a force of positive influence and drive change. Leadership is about being visionary and understanding the direction in which we need to go. Leaders who engage as an active listener and consider all perspectives from everyone involved, encourage a culture of collaboration. Leaders are also intentional about adding value to others in order to leverage individual strengths and build capacity. Teachers are typically closely connected with colleagues and therefore readily grasp their struggles. This provides an opportunity for teacher leaders to provide genuine support through a variety of strategies as they share experiences on a relatable level. Often times teachers do not feel threatened by sharing struggles with one another since their colleagues are not their evaluator. The beauty of this is that the relationship is often reciprocal. Teacher leaders have the potential to collaboratively support the growth of their colleagues which can significantly impact student learning.
Teacher leaders advocate for what’s best for students, and always bring the conversation back to students. Teacher leadership is not about being dominant or in charge, but rather it’s about remaining focused on the whole child, shared vision, and helping to guide conversations in a way that advances current practice and ultimately benefits student success. Teacher leaders inspire and serve colleagues, as well as spread optimism through difficult times while simultaneously providing support in order to move forward as a team. As leaders, teachers often ask question in order to guide reflective conversations that lead to understanding the perspectives of others, and the effects we have on students and our school culture. If balanced properly, teacher leaders influence others to lead, which creates a collaborative culture of learning committed to growth.
In a collaborative leadership model all voices are valued and included in decision making. If our goal is to move our schools forward in the best interest of students, we cannot follow a top down model and need to examine the hierarchical structures that exist in our schools. Current structures may send the message that teachers voices are not as important as those in administration. Developing a culture where all are included in the decision making process is critical if we truly strive to create authentic learning opportunities where students flourish. When our voices come together (including the voice of students) we can collaboratively craft top-notch learning opportunities for students based on the input from all. If you’re interested in reading more, check out: Building A Collaborative Culture for Change: Establishing the Leadership Environment by Neil Gupta and Tricia Ebner.
Teachers who are provided leadership opportunities have the potential to leave a lasting legacy as they deeply care about their school community. As a teacher, how will you demonstrate leadership and take initiative this school year? Consider how you will spark colleagues to lead and believe in themselves too. As an administrator, how will you restructure current leadership in order to share decision making or provide leadership pathways for your teachers? When we embrace our unique talents and abilities, as well as add value to others, we develop as a team where we challenge, encourage, and inspire one another to grow to new heights for the betterment of our students and school community.
Elisabeth Bostwick is a dedicated educator serving students and colleagues daily in Horseheads, NY. She is passionate about empowering students via the Maker Movement and mentoring fellow teachers. She is a model Teacher Leader! She co-founded #LeadUpTeach, is a Maker Ed Mentor on yearinthemaking.com, and authors her own blog too.