Leading from the Front of the Classroom

Leading from the Front of the Classroom

By Timothy Dohrer

A few weeks ago I was lucky to be invited to a summit on teacher leadership set up by the Department of Education and a number of educational organizations. This gathering of educators in Louisville, Kentucky, was the first of three summits to explore and discuss what teacher leadership is and could be in the United States.

It is significant that the Department of Education and Secretary Arne Duncan are throwing this kind of high-profile support behind this concept. It comes at an important moment in the recognition of the roles teachers play in schools, a role that may be new to some members of the public but not to everyone.

What is teacher leadership? At a basic level, it acknowledges the skills and dispositions of leadership that teachers employ every day in the classroom with their students, such as communication, teamwork, decision-making, and effectiveness. These are just a natural, often unspoken part of the definition of “teacher” and “teaching.” By using the specific term “teacher leadership.” we shine a light on this aspect of teaching that is often unnoticed.

But there is a new and additional definition of teacher leadership that is of growing interest today. Teacher leadership is the work that a classroom teacher does in helping manage, improve, engage, and assess the school itself. Now, let’s not forget that educators have been playing this role for a hundred years! Each school in the United States can look back at its history and point to teachers who have served or chaired committees, taken on extra duties without pay, or spoke the words that mobilized their colleagues or parents around a cause. And they did all this while still carrying a full load of classes and students, without leaving the classroom to become an administrator.

This then is an important distinction between a teacher leader and an administrator. At the Teach to Lead summit, several people wondered why the only path to school leadership meant leaving the classroom. When lawyers become partners, they don’t stop practicing law. They also wondered why schools don’t rotate teachers in and out of administrative roles so they can continue to impact kids as teachers. There must be a different model.

Teacher leadership is an attempt to create that model by allowing great teacher to “lead from the front of the classroom.” We must acknowledge the leadership skills inherent in teaching, the skills it takes to lead a group of young people. But we must also acknowledge the role teachers can have in running our schools. Are there new structures that would give teachers time and compensation to play a semi-administrative role, take some of the burden of school management and leadership off Principals and other administrators, and have a greater impact on the vision and direction of the school? 

Leading from the front of the classroom may also elevate the perception of teachers and teaching. It is a recognition that teachers not only impact their students but the entire school and community. Teacher leadership may be the key to transforming our schools and respond to the every growing complexity of educating young people in the 21st Century.

Photo courtesy of teachtolead.org

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