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When Do Teachers Transform From Teacher to Teacher Leader?

Are you a teacher leader? If so, when did you realize you were ready to be a teacher leader?

If you don't consider yourself a teacher leader, what do you think needs to happen for you to feel prepared to make this transformation?

Or, maybe you are already doing the things teacher leaders do, but don't realize you are a "teacher leader." After all, in our egalitarian profession, it's rare for teachers to introduce themselves as "teacher leaders." We all tend to refer to ourselves as "just" a "teacher" regardless if we are a 23 years old 1st year teacher straight out of college, or a 23-year teaching veteran who may also be a department chair, mentor, and fulfill other leadership roles in the building.

So, when do teachers realize they are ready to be teacher leaders?

The Teacher Leadership Exploratory Consortium recently released their The Teacher Leader Model Standards to "stimulate dialogue among stakeholders of the teaching profession about what constitutes the knowledge, skills, and competencies that teachers need to assume leadership roles in their schools, districts, and the profession."

Teacher leadership is composed of seven domains:

Domain I: Fostering a Collaborative Culture to Support Educator Development and Student Learning.
Domain II: Accessing and Using Research to Improve Practice and Student Learning
Domain III: Promoting Professional Learning for Continuous Improvement
Domain IV: Facilitating Improvements in Instruction and Student Learning
Domain V: Promoting the Use of Assessments and Data for School and District Improvement
Domain VI: Improving Outreach and Collaboration with Families and Community
Domain VII: Advocating for Student Learning and the Profession

Each domain outlines specific functions that teacher leaders should exemplify.

The consortium offers several recommendations for practice and policy, emphasizing that:

"To educate our students to be successful in this rapidly changing world, the education system and the teaching profession must transform dramatically in the very near future. Teachers need to experience and model what we want students to be able to do. This means creating opportunities and cultures within schools for teachers that promote collaboration, sharing of practice, leading from the classroom, and collective responsibility for the success of students."

The document is an interesting and insightful read. It's very encouraging to see the concept of teacher leadership receive this level of attention and articulation. This document, along with the several publications, articles, and research on teacher leadership, helps define the different roles a teacher can have in schools and in the education profession.

As teacher leadership becomes better defined, school systems can provide a more systemic structure and process for teacher leadership to occur. The more we understand the knowledge, skills, and competencies required for teacher leadership, the more teacher preparation programs and other professional development efforts can better develop and support teachers in these emerging roles.

Transform When?

But, in talking about transformation from teacher to teacher leader, I think an equally important concept is understanding when teachers are ready to make that transformation from teacher to teacher leader.

When do teachers shift their mindset to see themselves as active contributors in the profession, rather than "passive" participants? What are the personal and professional factors in making this transformation?

Can all teachers become teacher leaders? If so, what supports do they need? Or, is there something internal in each individual that either encourages or limits one's professional growth potential?

These are the important questions to be asked in helping bring about this much needed transformation in our profession.

I have one idea when that transformation can happen.

As a middle school special education teacher, I co-taught in a classroom where a new student was placed in the middle of the school year. This student very recently came from a war-torn country whose family had witnessed several atrocities. The student spoke no English and had no school records. Based on the student's performance, we weren't sure if he ever attended school.

We had many questions on how to meet this student's educational and social needs.

So, like any "regular" teacher with a mindset that the "leaders" had the answers; I consulted my colleague teacher leaders, the special education department chair, and our English Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) chair. They had helpful suggestions, but no conclusive answers.

I looked for the chapter on educating "young adolescents from war torn countries who have never attended school" in my special education textbook. There was no chapter.

Then I went to the district level and asked for answers. They were very helpful in providing possible resources and had the same concerns, but they had no definitive answers.

Then it clicked.

We were all in the same position. Because of my work with the student in my classroom, I was just as much of an "expert" as everyone in positions who were suppose to be the "leaders," but who had no experience educating students with this specific level of needs.

We did not have the definitive answers, but we all could ask the right questions, search for helpful resources, and design the most informed intervention possible given available capacity and resources. We all had areas of expertise, but none of us could claim being the sole expert on the complex challenges facing this student.

Most importantly, a teacher's leadership from the classroom would be essential in accessing and organizing all available resources to help the student and to provide feedback on the effectiveness of the interventions.

When do teachers realize they are ready to be teacher leaders?

Perhaps one of many possible paths to transformation is the realization that "experts" don't have all the answers, and most importantly, when it comes to real students in real schools, a classroom's teacher's perspective is just as insightful in finding solutions as any "leader" around them.

That's when a teacher's mindset shifts and begins the transformation from teacher to teacher leader.

So, when did you transform? What types of encouragement and supports will help other teachers make that transformation?

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