The Power of Teacher Leaders
Author: Sarah Lundy
"Within every school there is a sleeping giant of teacher leadership....By helping teachers believe they are leaders, by offering opportunities to develop their leadership skills, and by creating school cultures that honor their leadership, we can awaken this sleeping giant...."
--Katzenmeyer and Moller (2001
My phone chimed early one morning this fall to let me know that I’d received a text. Amid the hectic, get-to-work rush, I glanced down at the screen to see it was Heather, a member of the first Teacher Leadership Certificate Program cohort that I began facilitating in 2016. After Heather’s spouse was offered a promotion last summer, they relocated across the country. She was taking a little time to settle in before she applied for a teaching position.
Heather’s message stopped my frenzied routine completely for a few moments. “I’m missing so many things about getting ready for the new school year. But the chance to be working with our teacher leadership group is what I’m missing most.” I had to pause—my four-year-old son still needed milk over his cereal, my daughter needed a diaper change and socks—to consider her words.
Teacher leadership is a new buzzword in K-12 education. We all know the life cycle of education buzzwords. They arrive with much fanfare. Promise to be the next silver bullet. Entice us to travel great distances to new trainings. Then, just as suddenly, their transformative promise fizzles. It turns out that the new buzzword, like so many buzzwords before, was more one-dimensional than it seemed at first blush. It’s a good idea in a few specific contexts but impossible to scale in our system. It’s just a trendy re-naming of changes we’ve already failed to make stick.
But unlike most flash-in-the-pan K-12 education trends, there’s no magic teacher leadership formula. There’s no established checklist of techniques to quickly “train up” a cadre of teacher leaders in the hope that they’ll lead reluctant colleagues to develop highly-effective instructional practices. There’s no training slide deck that teacher leaders can absorb in a half-day workshop to quickly unleash a joyful learning culture back at their schools.
Instead, just like all lasting work in the classroom, teacher leadership is cultivated patiently, messily, and intentionally. It shouldn’t surprise me (although it has) that the essential ingredients required to catalyze a new sense of energy and a deeper sense of purpose for teacher leaders are the very same repertoire a master teacher draws from in order to forge a particularly powerful classroom community.
We owe the inspiration for the Sonoma County Office of Education’s Teacher Leadership Certificate to two distinct sources. First, the scant handful of programs that preceded ours, such as the Boston Teacher Leader Certificate Program housed at Teachers21. We gratefully learned as much as we could from pioneers like Dr. Jill Harrison Berg. Second, we were inspired to avoid at all costs the abundant and useless professional development experiences that we’ve each had to endure as K-12 educators. With these opposing parameters in mind, we designed the Teacher Leadership Certificate Program from the following three assumptions:
- Teachers must experience the learning conditions that they want to create for their students.
- Expert teachers have tremendous, untapped knowledge to share and far too few formalized outlets to learn deeply and continuously with their professional peers.
- Expert teachers know what’s getting in the way of students learning in their classroom and school. They want desperately to confront these obstacles. Given the space to thought-partner with other expert teachers, they will relentlessly tackle complex challenges and innovate sustainable change.
Our four-course sequence of Educational Leadership, Instructional Leadership, Data Leadership & Capstone Project is entirely practitioner-focused. All of our learning experiences prioritize developing teachers’ capacity and confidence to experiment with tackling complex, authentic problems in real time in their classrooms and schools.
Other design decisions also smoothed the way to forging a dynamic community and transformative learning experiences. Here’s a few critical examples:
- We work with only a handful of powerful conceptual frameworks, like The Center for Educational Leadership’s 5 Dimensions of Teaching and Learning. This allows us to take the time required to deeply understand and apply substantive ideas to our classroom practices.
- We rely on the National Equity Project’s work on constructivist listening to practice listening to ourselves and our colleagues more honestly in order to uncover new insights to enduring challenges.
- We spend a lot of time thinking about our students. Together, we think, listen, discuss and learn our way into new avenues for unleashing each and every student’s full potential—especially in the places where we’ve tried and failed before.
- We meet at a Museum of Art & History instead of a traditional classroom or conference space in order to find inspiration that we might not encounter in our typical work week.
- We meet once a month on Friday evenings and Saturday mornings to avoid the need for substitutes or time away from our classrooms.
We have much more learning to look forward to this year. But as we begin year two, I’m buoyed by our cohort’s feedback on how relevant and transformational our learning together has been thus far. Here are a handful of the most common sentiments that teacher leaders have shared:
- "I have a renewed spirit as an active participant in the future of education."
- "I never feel like this program is something more that I have to do. It's something that I get to do!"
- "The most powerful learning experience of our program has been talking with the cohort of awesome teacher leaders....And feeling like I am not alone....I am not the only one who has felt deflated and exhausted. I am now feeling more motivated and ready to ride into an even brighter future!"
- "I used to think that leadership was a "project" or a duty. In this program I’ve learned skills, techniques and information about me that I will take with me into my professional life and personal. I am a fuller person because of this experience."
- I've been challenged to look at who I am as a person, a leader, an educator.
- "Learning how to lead has offered me a sense of power that is calming and restorative."
We know that there are many more teacher leaders who quietly innovate in their own classrooms every day. But the transformational learning that both the students and the adults in our schools urgently need can’t be sustained in isolation. Katzenmeyer and Moller (2001) believe that creating cultures that honor teacher leadership can “awaken this sleeping giant”. We agree. And we’re ready to shake the giant awake. You’re welcome to join us.
Click here for more information on the Sonoma County Office of Education’s Teacher Leadership Certificate Program, or contact Sarah Lundy, Ed.D. with questions at email@example.com.