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Lead, Without Leaving the Classroom

This is the first of a six-part conversation on how teachers can grow in their leadership capacities.


Nancy Barile

I became a teacher because I wanted to teach. I did not want to leave my classroom to become an administrator. As a teacher leader, I enjoy the opportunity to lead, work as a mentor, conduct research, present at workshops, and contribute to my profession. In fact, I strongly believe that teacher leadership is one of the most effective sources available to help improve education.

Of course, it's teachers who are uniquely aware of the challenges that impact their schools, their students, and their profession. And it is teachers who can offer the best ideas and solutions to facilitate effective change.

One of the most significant boosts to my leadership endeavors came last year when I applied to be part of the Teacher Leadership Initiative. The Teacher Leadership Initiative is a joint endeavor of the National Education Association, the Center for Teaching Quality, and the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. The initiative is the product of these three organizations' shared vision of teacher leadership advancing the profession.

During my year in TLI, I worked with 150 educators representing six states across the U.S. We participated in a comprehensive leadership training program, and each of us completed a field-based leadership capstone project blending instructional leadership, policy leadership, and union leadership. We met online for webinars, and several times during the year we met in person to discuss our projects. My own capstone focused on Transforming the Educational Experience of Young Men of Color (YMOC), and it has already helped increase the number of YMOC at my school taking Advanced Placement courses and experiencing rigorous curriculum.

While the TLI experience helped me hone my leadership skills, it was joining the Center for Teaching Quality's Collaboratory that really impacted my life. When I signed onto the Collaboratory, I noticed a posting at the top of the page calling for writing submissions for Education Week. Writing has always been a passion of mine, so I sent in several ideas. Surprisingly, the first article, "How Punk Rock Made Me a Better Teacher" was accepted and published. The article was widely shared and even appeared on Harvard University's Facebook page. This summer, I was contacted by the Massachusetts Teachers Association, who asked me to do an "Ed Talk" based on the article at their summer conference. Nervous but honored, I obliged, and the video from that event is one of the highest viewed on the MTA website.

In late 2014, I learned that CTQ was seeking bloggers, I immediately applied and was accepted. Now I have a platform to share ideas and concerns with educators throughout the nation. Because of that opportunity, I also received a Smartbrief's Educators' Choice Content Award for my article on Setting Goals with Students.

Many of the leadership opportunities I pursued were offered through organizationsshowing how important it is to connect with organizations whose work you identify with. But each teacher leader's journey begins in different ways.

Here are a few ways to get started:

1. Figure out your area of expertise and be brave. Think about what you can share with your school or with teachers in your content area that will benefit the profession. Then step up to the plate and agree to take on the challenge. Be aware that there is a vast network of leadership opportunities, and after taking on one challenge, another will probably come your way.

2. Don't be deterred. Some leadership opportunities are highly competitive. Some are looking for a very narrow skillset. I throw a LOT of lines in the water, and every once in a while, I'm lucky enough to pull up a fish.

3. Listen. One of my favorite things about TLI was hearing the varied experiences of the other teachers in my cohort. These educators were from all over the U.S., and I was amazed at the wide-ranging knowledge, skills, and practices that I encountered. I learned a great deal from each one of them, which now informs my practice and enables me to focus on what my next leadership project will be.

4. Think outcomes. How will your leadership opportunity positively affect your school? Your students? The profession? If your project does not produce an outcomeone that is action orientedit probably isn't worth pursuing.

5. Be prepared for pushback. Not all your leadership experiences will be welcomed by your school administration. After studying teacher evaluation systems with my TLI cohort this past summer, I was excited to share that information with my school. Unfortunately, my ideas were met with a great deal of pushback from administrators. I was disappointed at this response because I was used to the collaborative sharing and discussion that went on in TLI. However, I am determined to keep sharing my ideas and solutions with my colleagues and administrators.

I've been very fortunate to be able to lead without leaving the classroom. I would ask all teachers to take on a leadership challenge because transformative action and leadership from teachers will benefit our students the most. History has shown us ways to positively transform the world—and almost always it has been teachers who have led the way.

Nancy Barile (@nancybarile), a National Board-certified teacher, has taught English language arts at Revere High School in Revere, Mass., for 20 years. She advises the Culture Club and Future Teachers Club and is an adjunct professor at Emmanuel College. A CTQ Collaboratory member and blogger, Nancy won the Kennedy Center/Stephen Sondheim Inspirational Teacher Award in 2013 and was one of the Top 50 Finalists for the Varkey Global Teacher Prize.

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