By: Misael Gonzalez, High School English Language Arts teacher, Miami, Florida
In many ways, my definition of teacher leadership was shaped by dramatized Hollywood portrayals of real accounts: a heroic singular leader fighting the system to make a change, a school in a “rough part of town” with a high minority-student population, and a challenge that had been thought a lost cause by everyone else I have come to realize that teacher leadership is not a case of catching lighting in a bottle. Through research, reading, and learning in my doctoral program, I’ve come to understand teacher leadership relies on collaborative efforts in and out of the classroom, requires a unique set of skills, and needs the right culture to truly grow. Here is what I’ve learned:
- Effective teacher leadership is a collaborative effort.
I can’t think of it as ‘my students and my classroom’ if I want to lead; it must be ‘our students and our school.’ This leadership means leading “within and beyond the classroom,” (Katzenmeyer & Moller, p. 6). I work with others to impact trust, collegiality, and interconnectedness. One way this happens is through professional learning communities where power is shared democratically by administration and teachers. With the challenges that we face at my school, with the different learning abilities, with a diverse population that we teach, the solutions, the ideas, and the leadership must come from a combined effort of teachers and other stakeholders working in a collegial culture and thinking and crafting together.
- It takes intentional skill development to be a teacher leader.
Although my influence should start within my classroom, it must then move to my colleagues, to my administration, and ultimately to the district and state (National Education Association, 2018). Some key leadership skills that every teacher can build upon include forging relationships, encouraging others, clear and concise communication, and managing processes effectively. I exercise these skills in my own circle of trusted colleagues, but I know I can grow and develop them through outside projects and by connecting throughout the school, district, and education field.
- Culture matters.
I had long viewed teacher leadership as a heroic accomplishment against a resisting culture, which can be true. However, I have also learned that the right culture includes teachers feeling free to speak up about concerns, an atmosphere of trust in the school, a shared school-wide vision, teacher and administration accomplishments being recognized, and high standards existing for all teachers (Ingersoll, 2018). Although teacher leaders can grow in any environment, structural needs, like effective professional development, the removal of the traditional hierarchal structure, and the provision of time and space for teacher leaders to work are vital if there is going to be true teacher-leader-led transformative change (York-Barr and Duke, 2004).
This understanding of leadership has encompassed both joy and sorrow. Learning how much the culture for teacher leadership is lacking for many teachers pains me because I know how important these roles are to supporting and retaining great teachers. It was a joy to learn and see that not all teacher leadership must be formal and have a title, and that when I use my experience to share lessons learned with others, share resources, and observe my peers, I am being an effective teacher leader.
I feel motivated to step out of my classroom to collaborate more closely with my colleagues within and outside my department, understanding that the leadership needed to help all our students is a community effort. By doing this, I will sharpen my teacher leadership skills, forge closer relationships with students, and influence and encourage them to be leaders within our community. I will continue building a culture of trust by trusting others and inviting them into my classroom; I will continue to build a culture of respect and recognition of leaders by respecting and recognizing other teacher leaders; and I will continue to build a culture of high standards for teachers by setting high standards for my own teaching.
Misael Gonzalez is a High School English Language Arts teacher in Miami, Florida.
Katzenmeyer, M., & Moller, G. (2009). Awakening the sleeping giant: Helping teachers develop as leaders. Corwin Press.
National Education Association, National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, and the Center for Teaching Quality (2018). Teacher Leadership Competencies. Retrieved from http://nea.org/home/61346.htm.
York-Barr, J., & Duke, K. (2004). What do we know about teacher leadership? Findings from two decades of scholarship. Review of educational research, 74(3), 255-316.