Teacher Leader? Yes, You Are

As much as we throw around the term teacher leader in education today, I think the term can feel mystical. How does a teacher know s/he has become a teacher leader? Is there a special ceremony? A secret handshake? When can teachers start referring to themselves as teacher leaders?

If you are a teacher reading this blog, I would like to formally welcome you to the club. Yes, you’ve made it. There is nothing to wait for. Right now, you are a teacher leader. And if you aren’t embracing the opportunity to lead, this is a good time to start honing your influence.

If you’re not convinced that you’re a teacher leader, I can relate to that feeling. It took me a long time to feel comfortable describing myself that way. A few years ago, I remember struggling through a doctoral application for a program called Educational Leadership and Innovation. Man, was I intimidated! I felt innovative, but I didn’t feel like a leader. I was on some district committees, mentored teachers after school, and was awaiting scores for my National Board Certification. Did I feel like a leader? No. I thought that teacher leaders were a bigger deal. And I remember feeling like a fraud when I submitted that application. Now, I look back on those feelings and realize they were foolish. Somehow, I had become a teacher leader without realizing it.

In many professions, the term “leader” is reserved for a few select people who have worked many years to reach the top of an organization. I used to think teacher leadership was like that. Now, I believe teacher leadership boils down to acting like a leader. A teacher leader does what needs to be done. They look for opportunities to help their students, colleagues, school, and community in a way that suits their own personality, skills sets, and resources. It’s time for teachers to start embracing their roles as teacher leaders and encouraging others to do the same.

What if we redefined the term teacher leader make it inclusive and inviting? What if we started encouraging brand new teachers to act like leaders right away? Could we make a bigger difference in educational policy and community engagement? Yes, I think we absolutely could. So here is my proposed definition for teacher leader:

Teacher leader /tēCH ǝr lēd ǝr/ noun. An educator who advocates for students using logical statements about good teaching practices, student data, and personal observations about student learning; A dedicated individual who shares authentic classroom stories with others in the school and community; A brave soul who does whatever needs to be done to protect kids, nurture families, and advance the profession.

Instead of treating teacher leadership like an elite club, we should start encouraging everyone to play. Teachers can be leaders within their schools, districts, community, state, or national levels. We should not rank these things to say that some are better than others. Instead, we must encourage each other to engage in leadership activities that feel right for us.

When teachers start acting like leaders, they start feeling more like leaders. In turn, the more they feel like leaders, the more they act like leaders. I have seen this in my own professional experience as well as in my doctoral research. Being a leader starts with a few blind steps of faith. Eventually, every leader finds footing. And we have many steps to walk together.

Step out leaders! The time is NOW. And there is much work to do.

I encourage you to leave comments about your own teacher leadership journey. When did you know that you were a teacher leader? How do you encourage others to step into their own leadership roles?

If you would like to dive deep into a document about teacher leadership to reflect on your own areas of strength and opportunities for growth, I highly recommend reading the Teacher Leadership Competencies from the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards.


Jess Ledbetter

Dr. Jess Ledbetter teaches preschool students with developmental delays in a Title I school in Glendale, Arizona. She is a National Board Certified Teacher (ENS-ECYA), an Arizona Hope Street Group Teacher Fellow Alumni, and a Candidate Support Provider for teachers seeking their National Board Certification. She earned her doctorate in Educational Leadership and Innovation at ASU in 2016. Her mixed methods research used a Communities of Practice model as a strategy for early career special education teachers to collaborate with peers to increase their team leadership skills working with paraeducators in their individual classrooms.

Dr. Ledbetter is guided by the belief that all teachers are leaders in their classrooms and possess the skills to be leaders within their schools, districts, communities, and greater context. She hopes you will contribute to the dialogue by leaving comments about your own experiences, opinions, and insights so that real-life stories from our schools can inform the policies that affect students, teachers, and their communities.

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