Teacher Leaders are Essential
by Jessica Keigan
I have always been a leader. When I was a child, I used to choose a high spot on the playground to call together the other children to do my bidding in imaginative games of role-play. When I entered high school, I naturally gravitated towards opportunities that allowed me to influence decisions that were being made, such as being captain of the color guard or lead trumpet in the band. In college, I ran for residence hall council and planned social events for the 100 residents of my dorm. Many have mistaken this character trait as ambition. Actually, I recognize that being as closely involved as possible in a system allows me to understand how and why decisions are being made. That allows me to be more proficient with my own piece of the systemic purpose and vision and influence the system from within to help it be a strong and thriving environment for all who occupy it.
My personal path to becoming a teacher leader stemmed from this innate desire to know how and why decisions and processes are the way they are. I didn’t set out to take control, but rather to connect myself to people in the know so that I, too, could be in the know. I wanted to learn from those with more experience and improve my practice by shaping the structures that guided those practices. I started as a representative on our district standing committee for language arts my second year in the classroom. From there, I was pulled onto a number of other committees and into a variety of building leadership roles. Truth be told, I took on most of my building leadership roles because no one else volunteered! However, I believe (hope?) that as I became a stronger leader and worthy of my colleagues’ trust I was pushed towards things because people knew that I would provide a strong voice for our department/school. My school’s unique leadership structure allows for many voices to be heard – we don’t have formal department chairs and most departments have multiple people who participate in the budget, curriculum and staff governance processes. But my department has leaned heavily on me to be their voice over the nine years of my career.
Mark A. Smylie and David Mayrowetz, in their article “Footnotes to Teacher Leadership,” point out that schools and districts are leaning heavily on teacher leaders for a variety of jobs. Teacher leaders are asked to support new systemic structures and provide professional support for their peers while maintaining success in the classroom. Smylie and Mayrowetz are also quick to point out, however, that teacher leadership has not always been supported the way that it needs to be so that teachers can carry the burden of its load. There is a misnomer that teacher leaders are innately aware of the needs of their peers, equipped with natural talent, and readily accepted by both administration and teachers equally. While I feel like I have done a great deal of good in my various leadership roles, the overwhelming needs of the system often tame me from my initial purpose of improving my own practice so that I can support others as we all work towards a common purpose and vision. Sometimes my influence feels limited because I have neither the formal training nor the access to a broad audience of educational stakeholders. I wonder how much I am truly able to represent each of my peers the way they believe I should represent them.
The best leaders are those who lead from within. Smylie and Mayrowetz acknowledge this point and ask that support be provided for teacher leaders so that they can be the powerful, classroom-based voices that will drive educational policy and reform. While I feel the tension of being a leader in a system that doesn’t always provide support for its leaders, I also still feel like that little girl calling out to anyone willing to join my games on the playground, giddy with hope for a profession that I am whole-heartedly invested in. I hope that more teachers will recognize their unique ability to influence the system in ways that will benefit all stakeholders within. Additionally, I hope that the current structures of leadership will recognize the need to bring teachers to the table so that decisions are steeped in experiences from classrooms. And, even more importantly, doing so will help current and future leaders be the supports necessary for this strong, internal leadership to exist. With everyone joining in, the system can thrive with shared structure, purpose and vision, making it the kind of environment that makes this hope contagious in those who occupy it.
Contact Jessica at Jessica.firstname.lastname@example.org