by Dana Tanigawa
It takes a certain finesse to be a teacher within the Hawaii Department of Education, especially when you strive for students to be successful. Navigating a system that operates as both a state and local education agency is complicated. Meeting mandated requirements like the Educator Effectiveness System and abiding by the Every Student Succeeds Act takes careful precision for teachers concerned with demonstrating accurate measures of student growth. Understanding how to best support and teach students from diverse backgrounds and geographically isolated areas is a challenge. Pursuing constant and continuous professional development to further our craft is rewarding, yet time consuming. For the past fifteen years I have worked alongside teachers who I believe are leaders within our profession. Each teacher has tackled different problems in their own way while trying to guide students, support their colleagues, and strengthen their school.
What defines a teacher leader? How do you know when you are in the presence of a teacher leader? Do teacher leaders need to have super powers to do everything or can they excel in one area? Even among teachers and administrators, many questions surround teacher leaders, but if the Department of Education wants to prepare students to be successful in college and career, it should begin conversations around teacher leadership. The department, in coordination with its teachers, should define a teacher leader and develop a better understanding of what teacher leaders do. This would help educators see the need to use our collective strengths to build our community and to amplify the call to support the areas of need.
Many equate professional development with being a teacher leader, though it’s not a perfect equation. Teachers attend trainings or classes and learn more. They know more about the topics they’ve studied: phonics, relationship building, math, and so on. The traditional salary system only rewards teachers’ education level and years of service (Augenblick, Palaich, & Stoddard, 2014). But is that all? Data from the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (2012) shows that 96% of teachers entering the profession with a bachelor’s seek more professional development. Teachers continue to learn and often acquire a master’s degree, but then professional development is sought after less and less. What do teachers do after they receive these degrees? What professional development opportunities do these teachers seek out?
Personally, my experiences lead me to define teacher leaders as those who create a lasting impact in education so students can succeed. Teacher leaders play a critical role in helping students, schools, and states progress. Schools need these leaders to support, influence, and guide all those involved. Creating impact doesn’t follow a roadmap or a criteria sheet. It is different from classroom to classroom and school to school. These leaders assess the situation, collaborate, develop a plan, take action, reflect, and continue the cycle.
I commend teachers who attend workshops or other professional learning beyond the school day and put their new skills into practice. But what the teacher does with the learning from the workshop and her past experiences shows her impact as a leader. Does she form a professional learning community and read books or research connected to the workshop? Does she implement her learning with students and invite others to reflect on the instruction? After receiving a higher degree, does she do action research projects to see if she can implement better reading strategies? If a teacher took a GLAD training to know how to better support her English Language learners, what does she do after the training? Does she say, “Man that’s a lot of work! I don’t have time to do all of that!” or does she find someone at her school who has also taken this training and collaborate to work and create lessons to influence student learning? This is what teacher leaders do.
Leadership goes beyond acquiring knowledge. Rather, those with the knowledge from learning and experiencing must now provide or continue the learning. When leaders show their qualities and design ways for those within the organization to internalize and build capacity, the more progress is made as an organization. Teacher leaders move our profession forward. They lead by learning, collaborating, persevering, communicating, and impacting those around them.
Teacher leaders lead in many ways. Some may not even know they are leaders. Giving teachers a clearer understanding of what it means to lead could transform our education system. Valuing teachers and giving them an active service role could elevate our profession while further propelling our students toward success.