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The Three Key Mistakes Teacher-Leaders Make

By Alex Kajitani

Teachers who become teacher-leaders naturally strive toward creating broad, positive changes that have a big impact. As we strive toward these goals, we are also prone to making three key mistakes that can undermine the work we're doing to strengthen our schools, communities and the world of education. Knowing these mistakes can help us avoid them:

Mistake #1: Saying "Yes" to Everything.

As teachers, we can only do so much.  As teacher-leaders, we can only do so much more.  With so many of us already living up to the stereotype of arriving at work well before the first bell rings, crafting lesson plans until the darkest hours of the night (not to mention the work we do on weekends and vacations), too often, already hard-working teachers are thrust into leadership roles, fearful of saying "no" as new opportunities arise.  While teacher leadership should open up lots of new opportunities, it should not be equated with lots more (often unpaid) work.

Tip to avoid Mistake #1: Choose your "yesses" carefully. When you say "yes," don't be afraid to ask for time or financial compensation. When it's "no," learn to confidently say things like, "That sound like a great opportunity. Unfortunately my plate is full right now, and I want to say focused on (fill in the blank), so I'm going to need to pass." Often, you'll find that people actually respect you more for saying "no," and standing by your boundaries.

Mistake #2: Being Shy About Our Success.

Teacher-leaders often accomplish great things in education. As educators, most of us are pretty humble people, so the idea of seeking attention for these great things makes us want to run and hide, instead of embrace it and shine under the spotlight.  (Sometimes fellow teachers even begrudge the attention.) However, not allowing our successes to reach as many students, parents, community members and other teachers as possible is a mistake that ultimately stymies the work we do to make impactful changes.

Tip to avoid Mistake #2: Build a network of other teacher-leaders who will support you in your successes. People like you--who struggle, rejoice and show up every day to do the work that has an impact both within and beyond our classrooms. Find them on twitter, at conferences and within your professional organizations. Surrounding yourself with other leaders is one of the best decisions you can make--both for the work you do, and the person you become.

Mistake #3: Not Looking Outside of Education for Answers.

While the concept of teachers as leaders may be obvious to those of us inside of education, the amount of research and discussion on teacher eadership pales in comparison to the amount of information available on Leadership itself.  Let's look to successful corporate, political and non-profit models and champions of leadership, and bring the lessons they've learned back into education. 

Tip to avoid Mistake #3: Check out the work of leadership experts like Steve Farber, Lynda Gratton, Simon Sinek, or Meg Wheatley. Their work applies to the work we do inside of education, and helps us better understand the working world our students are entering. Also check out authors like Brene' Brown and Malcolm Gladwell, and memoirs of leaders you admire, to bring outside wisdom into your teacher leadership.

Everyone makes mistakes, even great teacher-leaders. Still, aiming to avoid these three particular pitfalls can help us all accomplish more for our students, schools, communities and profession.


Alex Kajitani is the 2009 California Teacher of the Year, and a Top-4 Finalist for National Teacher of the Year.  His book, Owning It: Proven Strategies for Success in ALL of Your Roles As a Teacher Today, was named "Recommended Reading" by the U.S. Department of Education. Alex is a highly-sought after keynote speaker who supports and motivates teachers nationwide. Alex has a popular TED Talk, has been honored at The White House, and featured in numerous books and media outlets, including The CBS Evening News with Katie Couric.  For more of his innovative ideas, visit www.AlexKajitani.com.

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