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Three Questions to Begin Transformation to Teacher Leadership

At the Celebration and Teaching and Learning Conference last week, I was part of the panel presentation for Realizing Teacher Leader Roles in the Future of School Transformation...NOW with Barnett Barry, President of the Center for Teaching Quality (CTQ) and Lori Nazareno, Co-Lead Teacher of the Mathematics and Science Leadership Academy, a teacher-led school in Denver Colorado.

We highlighted the vision for what the teaching profession could be in 2030, but more importantly we had productive discussions about how teacher leaders today can begin this transformation.

While having the big picture direction and vision are critical, this transformation of the profession begins with individual teachers having their own internal leadership transformations to see themselves as leaders.

One theme that resonated with me was discussing the knowledge and skill sets needed for teachers beginning to explore their leadership potential. While many schools and districts offer new teacher mentoring programs, there is a lack of formal programs or supports for emerging teacher leaders.

Emerging teacher leaders benefit from more guidance to help them successfully navigate being leaders among equals. It is often challenging for classroom teachers to begin seeing themselves as leaders who have an impact beyond their classroom and students.

How does that first step into a larger world begin? Consider these questions.

1) What are your areas of expertise?

Effective teachers develop a range of knowledge and skills from managing a classroom community and helping students learn. But beyond the competence of subject matter knowledge, teachers may also develop skillsets in pedagogy and other areas.

Policymakers understand the importance of the "elevator speech" where one is able to clearly summarize the main points of their platform in a few sentences. Emerging teacher leaders should develop their own "elevator speech" to be able to clearly and concisely identify their areas of expertise, strengths, and interests.

Working on your "elevator speech" encourages you to think about what you do well and what others can learn from you. Don't passively rely on your reputation alone to open doors for leadership. Actively build your reputation with others. This clear knowledge of self and how one can differentiate oneself from others are important places for all emerging teacher leaders to begin. After all, how will others see you as a leader, if you don't see yourself in that way?

2) What value do you add to the school leadership team and to the school mission?

As emerging teacher leaders define and promote their skillsets and knowledge, the next stage is to create links to identified school wide needs and areas of focus. Perhaps a teacher's expertise is addressing literacy issues for diverse learners. Perhaps it's about specialized resources for differentiation in math.

When these skillsets match what is described in the school plan or what teachers throughout the school need, then one begins to validate one's potential contributions in the larger community.

3) How do you work collaboratively with others?

While many potential opportunities for teacher leadership may be informal and initiated by teachers, teacher leaders need to work collaboratively with administration in order for teacher leadership to be the norm throughout a school.

This normalization of a teacher leadership culture requires administrators dedicated to a distributed school leadership model, but also requires teacher leaders who are able to critically analyze and problem solve school wide issues. Effective teacher leaders need to be team players that work well with other adults who may have different expertise and viewpoints.

This level of understanding challenges classroom teachers to see issues beyond their specific context or their classroom and students, and to see issues from the larger school policy perspective.

In this regard, exemplary teachers may struggle to be effective teacher leaders that are valued throughout the school.

As one teacher leader remarked in the discussion, "Teacher leaders need to turn around every now and then and look, if no one if following, they are not leading. And knowing a lot about topic is not helpful if it can't be explained in a way that encourages the right people to listen."

There is a critical difference between being an "expert" and "leader." Experts know a lot about their area of expertise.

But teacher leaders in formal roles are responsible for the direction of a group of people, and apply themselves in a way that allows them to constructively meet the challenges of that responsibility.

So consider, what experiences have prepared you to work collaboratively with others in challenging situations? The lessons learned in successfully solving those problems go a long way in leadership development.

"Work on That Elevator Speech"

Being a leader among peers requires additional skills beyond effective teaching practices - fodder for future posts as we begin to dissect the Teacher Leader Model Standards.

Until then, for emerging teacher leaders, begin to consider these questions. The journey from a classroom teacher of students to a teacher leader who guides other educators begins with a degree of self-knowledge, analysis, and reflection.

Then, you'll be ready for the next step in the transformation to leadership. And teaching will move towards a true profession where differentiated roles and teacher leadership is promoted, supported, and embedded in schools.

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