By Robyn Herbig
Teacher Leadership seems to be one of the latest educational buzz phrases getting tossed around by school administrators and district leaders. These days, one can Google “teacher leadership” and find articles that provide definitions, offer suggestions on competencies, recommend tips for teacher leaders to be successful, and the list goes on. So what is teacher leadership really and why should administrators and teachers care?
DEFINING TEACHER LEADERSHIP
Perhaps the place to start is a current and common definition of teacher leadership: according to Charlotte Danielson’s Teacher Leadership That Strengthens Professional Practice, one who extends their skill set beyond their classroom to help in administrative duties is a “teacher leader.” Despite this definition, teacher leadership roles have often been viewed as roles given to teachers who have been at a school for a long period of time and have “paid their dues.” Often, school or grade-level teacher leaders are not necessarily chosen because of their ability to lead but rather based on years served or as part of a rotation among the teachers. These kinds of teacher leaders carry out duties assigned to them from an administrator and ensure the supply cabinet is full and that messages get communicated up and down the chain. They do not typically act as innovative leaders, making real changes.
It is past time to redefine what it means to be a teacher leader and to look at who we are encouraging and empowering to be our teacher leaders. In fact, the best schools and most successful districts have already redefined these roles and reimagined how schools can operate. It is time for the rest of us to catch up.
WHO IS A TEACHER LEADER?
As with nearly every educational decisions, teacher leadership should be about student learning and wellbeing. If a school genuinely wants to see growth and movement as an organization, teacher leadership needs to go beyond designated roles and delegation of duties. Instead, teacher leaders need to always focus on student voice and student success. With this in mind, schools need to be equipping all teachers to realize they are all teacher leaders regardless of whether or not defined roles exist. Administrators need to recognize that all teachers can be teacher leaders even if it is just to lead their own classroom in supporting their students in rigorous and engaging instruction. However, teachers should feel empowered to reach beyond their classroom to influence a school’s culture which in turn will impact student learning.
WHAT DOES THIS LOOK LIKE?
There are many teacher leadership programs and opportunities for professional development outside of a school. Here in the state of Hawaii, teachers can apply to be a part of various teacher leader learning opportunities through the Department of Education’s Leadership Institute. Despite these options, it would benefit the educational system to localize teacher leadership training and bring it to the school level. The University of Florida Lastinger Center offers an 18 month Teacher Fellowship where teachers are identified and recommended by their administrators as teacher leaders. Their approach is job embedded professional development in order to create more high quality teaching staff. This program goes beyond a once a month get together to learn leadership skills and strategies; the Fellowship pairs together academic research and academic practice. All learning is brought back to the individual’s school and implemented with support from the Fellowship.
To grow teacher leaders, schools need to create this type of environment where teachers feel safe and are able to take on leadership roles without fear of negativity and hostility from other teachers or administrators. Schools need to promote risk taking and reflection, where teachers can grow both professionally and personally as well as receive feedback on their practice. If Hawaii is serious about growing our own teacher leaders, we must start having conversations with the stakeholders who can help to localize teacher leader programs and look at innovative ways, some that have already begun in complexes around the State, to continue to build capacity from the inside out.
Robyn is the Instructional Coach, Early College Coordinator and AVID Site Team Coordinator at Waimea High School. As an Instructional Coach, she is a mentor for new and beginning teachers, oversees the STEM Capstone Project and conducts regular Professional Development for teachers. She also participated in the Na Kumu Alaka’i Teacher Leader Academy. Robyn earned her bachelor’s degree in Psychology from Wheaton College in Illinois and Master’s Degree in Elementary Education from the University of Phoenix.