Teacher Leaders: Many Titles, Big Impacts

This is the second in a series of blog posts on teacher leadership. The first is called "Real Teacher Appreciation: Let Them Lead."

Pop Quiz:

What is a teacher leader?

a.) a fulltime teacher with an official title who takes on additional roles and responsibilities outside the classroom
b.) a former classroom teacher, not a school administrator, with full-time school- improvement responsibilities?
c.) a fulltime teacher without an official title or orders from above who takes the helm of a reform or makes sure a school change is implemented effectively? 
d.) a teacher (full-time, part-time, or not even in the classroom) who influences education reforms and elevates the teaching profession at the state or national levels?
e.) All of the above.

The pop quiz answer is “e.) All of the Above.” But teacher leadership has far more than four definitions. At a recent Teaching and Learning Conference in Washington, D.C., Secretary of Education Arne Duncan told an audience of 3,000 teachers that the definition of a teacher leader was up to them.

Teacher leadership is becoming a growing part of the national conversation about the teaching profession, and we've seen the development of Teach to Lead, The Viva Project, Educators 4 Excellence, Teach Plus, Leading Educators, and the Teacher Leaders Network. There’s even a new term, Teacherpreneurs, and teacher leadership advanced degree programs.

Yet, even with that buzz and growth, no single definition for the term “teacher leader” does the job because the work is so varied, school cultures and supports are not consistent, and funding is often an issue. However, teachers say that taking on leadership roles—inside and outside the classroom—is central to becoming a better teachers and transforming schools, districts and state education systems.

Last year, the Center for Great Teachers and Leaders partnered with the National Network of State Teachers of the Year and other organizations to publish From Good to Great: Exemplary Teachers Share Perspectives on Increasing Teacher Effectiveness Across the Career Continuum, a first-of-its kind exploratory survey of National and State Teachers of the Year. It ranked the professional experiences and supports that these outstanding teachers believe contributed most to their growth and eventual excellence as teachers.

More than a third of National and State Teacher of the Year respondents rated becoming a teacher leader as one of the important growth experiences in their careers. This suggests that leadership should not be confined to a few veteran teachers, but should be part of all teachers’ career paths.

The most common leadership roles listed by survey participants:

  • 92 percent facilitated professional development
  • 92 percent presented at conferences or to peer groups
  • 89 percent served on national, state, or local forums, workshops, or conferences
  • 85 percent met with policymakers
  • 83 percent organized whole-school, whole-grade-level, or whole-team projects
  • 82 percent had informal leadership roles in improving colleagues’ instructional practice
  • 81 percent served on school or district leadership teams

So whether they’re called data specialists, policy advocates, mentors, instructional coaches, curriculum writers, peer evaluators, action researches, consultants, supervising teachers or assessment experts, teacher leadership roles offer opportunities for teachers to grow and have an impact.

Impact on one student at a time, impact on a full classroom of students, impact on their schools, their districts, their states—and ultimately the nation.  

Gretchen Weber is former vice president for Policy, Practice, and Systems Change at AIR.