What is Teacher Leadership?

What is Teacher Leadership?

By Timothy Dohrer

What is Teacher Leadership? 

At a recent conference, I was talking to a school administrator about teacher leadership when it dawned on me that he thought I was talking about school administrators: principals, deans, superintendents. When I explained this was not about administrators but rather teachers who teach and also provide leadership in their schools, he was puzzled.

Quite often, I end up explaining teacher leadership through what it is NOT, rather than what it IS.

Teachers have always provided valuable leadership in their classrooms, school, districts, and communities. Every time a teacher volunteers to serve on a committee or takes on the role of grade level leader or sticks around after the Pep Assembly to put away chairs is a moment of real leadership. The essence of leadership is serving the greater good and being a positive role model for others. This is quite similar to what it means to be a teacher, which is why being a teacher leader is so natural for teachers. The difference is serving more than just the students assigned to you. It is about helping others in the school and community.

Becoming a really good teacher leader means embracing both sides of that term. It should start with teaching, which is a complex amalgam of building relationships, understanding content and pedagogy, designing learning environments and activities, and communicating to multiple stakeholders. In our Teacher Leadership Program, we insist on working with teachers with some experiencing developing that part of themselves, and that they continue improving as teachers throughout their careers.

The other side is for teachers to develop themselves as leaders. That means being aware of ourselves as role models and as active agents of change in our schools, districts, and communities. It is developing skills as coaches, mentors, managers, and teammates. It means having a vision for the classroom but also an entire school system and the ability to move back and forth between those two when imagining or enacting changes. It is recognizing that the more we know about kids, learning, teaching, policy, and schooling, the more we can make better decisions and improve the world around us 

Just as we know teaching can be taught, we also know that leadership can be taught. There is research that defines good leadership and the skills that lead to it. There are also wonderful examples and models of good leadership that can teach and inspire us. We also know that hands-on experience enacting leadership is also a powerful teaching tool.

The current teacher leadership “movement” is an attempt to give teachers a chance to learn about leadership and step up as leaders. We are trying to better define the field of teacher leadership and better explain it to others. Possibly the most important people in a school who need to understand teacher leadership are administrators. Having only a few people in a school leading is inefficient compared to everyone helping with that leadership.

But first we need to better define and explain teacher leadership so that everyone, including principals and superintendents, understand this amazing resource for helping our schools go from good to great.

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Master of Science in Education School of Education & Social Policy

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Email: teacherleadership@northwestern.edu