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Pathways to Teacher Leadership

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When people write about teacher leadership and teacher leaders, a common theme is variety — there are so many activities that can be considered teacher leadership! Indeed, one report that scans the landscape argues that "teachers lead, formally or informally, wherever they are," and "all teachers have opportunities for leadership."

All the varieties — instructional leader, pedagogical coach, professional developer, teacher voice in policy discussions, and more — make it hard to define "teacher leader." A case can be made that this variety is a positive thing, and even a necessity, because teachers have so many different tasks and roles, so many kinds of expertise, and so many kind of personalities. It might make more sense to think of teacher leadership as a pathway anyone can take, when there is a need or opening that feels like a good fit. The meaning of teacher leadership, and its challenges, is conveyed in the voices of those who are doing it.

Another thing that we have heard from teacher leaders is that it's important for teacher leaders to get in touch with each other, to communicate about their work. This is especially so because many of them have to deal with isolation and criticism when they start to advocate for innovations.

Recently, we talked with several teacher leaders who have been able to find and enact their leadership both locally and at a regional or national level. Here are four stories from that conversation — each of them could be the starting place for generating ideas, program development or a wide-ranging discussion.

Linda was motivated by passion: "Hands-on inquiry science excited and empowered my students so I wanted to work with other teachers around inquiry. I just liked sharing the passion I found in my classroom with my colleagues and friends. I wanted to share the joy I found in both my classroom and my students with anyone who would listen. I was named a Presidential Awardee, and I've moved into teacher professional development, and providing resources to support teachers' learning. I have been a leader in APAST [Association of Presidential Awardees for Science Teaching], but frankly, I still don't feel like a 'teacher leader'! The thing about teacher leadership is that there's not one way to do it right, and as you're working out your way, you can feel uncertain and isolated. One thing someone like me can do is help with that. The most important part of my leadership role, in my humble opinion is sharing and giving a voice to teachers, which allows them to find their own “teacher voice” and in turn empower their own students.

DeLene said "Recognition as a Presidential Awardee enabled me to meet other leaders, and be encouraged to try new things. I saw it as an opportunity to bring the "best of the best" to my students. But then I also wanted to pay it forward. Being in the classroom drives everything I do and I am motivated by hope for the future that teachers are appreciated, have resources, and receive a wide-range of support to do their very critical work—teaching! Though I've focused mostly on improving instruction, I've also taken the opportunity to be part of groups that advocate for STEM and environmental education policy, through programs such as the NSTA/NCTM STEM Ambassadors. It's hard to get time away from the classroom— organizations who want teacher representatives need to be sensitive to the classroom teacher's limitations: After all, they want us to serve because we're good at what we do in the classroom! Teacher Leadership is natural for teachers in the classroom but needs to be nurtured so more teachers are able to serve outside the classroom.

Rebecca said, "My preservice teacher education contributed to my desire to be a teacher leader. After getting my degree in physics education, I got involved in Modeling Instruction for Physics, an evidence-based approach developed at Arizona State University. That professional development experience got me very interested in research methods, and I began looking for other opportunities to grow. I became an NSTA New Teacher Fellow mentee. During this time, I was encouraged by many of my teaching role models to set goals for myself and my career—to my delight, I was able to attain most of them because I had planned for my leadership early on. Later in my career, Camsie McAdams, one of my colleagues, poignantly described what I believe I had tried to enact—she said that teacher leadership consists of receiving an invitation, saying yes, showing up, & sticking around. As a result, I have been able to work in many different educational arenas and agencies, influencing both classroom instruction and policy.

Denise told us that, certified as a special education teacher, she found she had a passion for teaching math and science. When she got a chance to serve as a math specialist, and then as a "lead teacher" in mathematics, she didn't feel well enough prepared for her new role. But the district invested in her development, and as time went on, she got involved in wider fields, for example, participating in a Math Science Partnership, and being awarded one of the Noyce Fellowships "The more I do, the more doors open. I'm not afraid to fail so I’m constantly putting myself out there to try new things! My best work is when I'm in the classroom with the teachers and I'm engaged in side by side coaching. I especially like working at the school level so I can stay connected to the students. Elementary teachers have a hard time following thru on teacher leader growth -- the classroom is so absorbing and they have to be masters of all subjects -- so being in touch with others can help to lead the way."


We hope that this blog will be a place where teacher leaders' voices can be heard as they tell the stories of their path-finding. It is clear that teacher leadership is an evolving process where, one learns of opportunities and begins to inhabit the role of leader.

If you are a teacher leader, you can help us get us started by adding your comments here. Some questions that might get you thinking:

  • How did you become a leader? Has your leadership changed over time?
  • What opportunities, or people helped you along the way?
  • What did you have to learn? What challenges did you overcome? What did you discover unexpectedly?
  • What advice do you have to help others find or persist on their path of leadership?
  • Is there something in the stories above that resonates with you, or that you'd like to add to?


Our thanks to Linda Smith, DeLene Hoffner, Rebecca Vieyra, and Denise Schultz for their contributions to this blog.

 

Comments

I have never thought of myself as a teacher leader, just someone who enjoys learning and sharing innovative ideas and techniques with others. I started out learning hands-on inquiry based science and using scientist notebooks with my students. I worked as a FOSS Kit trainer through Purdue’s Indiana Science Initiative almost 20 years ago. I continued with Purdue through STEM Grants and Teacher Retention Mentoring Program. I am passionate about STEM education. There is a huge impact on learning with enthusiastic, engaged learners. 

 

I am always exploring and learning new innovative ideas to use with my students. I love to share these ideas with colleagues. When I was awarded the PAEMST for science teaching, I found a group of friends that felt like home. When colleagues didn’t share the excitement or initiative to try new things with their students I felt out of place. I have even been referred to “as a lot to handle”. Although this is in fact true information when I am armed with a new STEM lesson, it can make you feel isolated or alone due to the “competition” factor that is ever-present in education. You shouldn’t do too much or win an award. It will make others feel bad. I was once given this advice as a new teacher. I have learned to embrace my geeky side and seek out those who want to learn. I am at home sharing ideas and teaching new STEM technology to other teachers  I love coteaching and working together with veteran and student teachers  

 

 

Mon, 03/11/2019 - 20:34 Permalink

Shelly, I really appreciate your sharing the pros and challenges of leadership. It sounds like co-teaching and working with other teachers provided the rewards of being a teacher leader,  but that soft resentment from others is a challenge. I wonder if this could be ameliorated in some schools where there is clear support for the position from administrators. Would love for others to way in. Wha are the best parts? What are the challenges? What supports can make it better?

Wed, 03/13/2019 - 12:33 Permalink
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Steven Rogg

Brian, it is good to discover you here in a new forum! 

This topic always brings my mind to the idea of professionalism and the meaning of leadership. To these matters, I am drawn to Fullen's prolific writings, and Lee Shulman's work. I also would like to see more of "servant leadership" and less that is ego driven. In a learning community, leadership is more about making conditions fertile for development, not about leading troops in a march to a destination predetermined by a leader. Yes, I remain fond of Dewey's democratic philosophy of education. So, a pathway to teacher leadership is a pathway of learning in order to serve. Something like that.

With Gratitude,

Steve

Thu, 03/14/2019 - 11:35 Permalink
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Anne Moore

As a middle school Science teacher, I did not plan to become a teacher leader.  It just happened.  It happened over many years and through the succession of events that molded me into a leader.  Throughout this transition, I was unaware that I was becoming a recognizable leader - I was just doing what I thought was "right" and "fun" and offered "experiences".  I applied for grants and received thousands of dollars to develop curriculum, support student and teacher growth, and travel (New Zealand!). I volunteered for committees, offered to present at PD and conferences, and applied for awards.  The awards started adding up and I was sought after to assist other teachers in achieving their goals. I was at that time a passive leader.

The realization that I WAS a teacher leader came when I applied for a Teacher Leader position in my county.  It was as if I needed the affirmation of an official title to actually call myself a leader.  One of our first tasks was to reflect on how we got to this point in our career.  After examining the years of strategies, deliberate or not, I came to realize that this title was not a new appointment, but a culmination of all my hard work throughout the years.

When I received two Presidentail awards in the summer of 2015 (PAEMST and PIAEE), I thought I was at the top of the ladder.  But, there was time for growth as I was then selected to the first Cadre of STEM Ambassadors and I continue to grow and grasp all opportunities available.  Each award and opportunity opens more doors and growth possibilities. 

Teacher leaders evolve over time but there is a blurry transition from becoming a teacher seeking opportunities to becoming a teacher leader. As a teacher leader, I aspire now to assist teachers in recognizing their leadership skills so they can develop and move towards their goals more focused and deliberate.  I often wonder how things may have developed if someone told me years ago that I was a "teacher leader".  

Wed, 03/20/2019 - 12:46 Permalink

For me leadership is a natural part of what we all do as educators.  If it weren't for the senior faculty that mentored me, took me under their wing and helped me through my first few years of teaching, I would have been just another statistic, one of the 80% or so of teachers who leave the classroom in the first five years of  teaching.  Because I had solid support, and peers who wanted me to succeed, I was able to make it through the low times and celebrate the successes and little battles won.  Once I made it to my fifth year, I was comfortable in my own teaching and felt that I was ready to pay it forward, I could support emerging teachers like I had been supported. I volunteered to host sophomore and junior practicum students from the local 4-year institution and quickly realized that I needed my own PD in adult learning and mentoring.  I applied to be part of a mentoring program and really got the bug.  I found that the strategies I was learning in PD could improve my own teaching as well as help me mentor early career teachers.  From that early experience in the mid 1990's I have continually worked to help "New Teachers" through the transition from learning about teaching to learning to be an educator.  I think that much of what I learned I have passed on to my early career colleagues, and rather than eating our young, I have supported them to the point where they have become much better educators than myself.   

Wed, 03/20/2019 - 13:13 Permalink

My pathway to teacher leadership began in my first year of teaching. My principal assigned me the role of freshman academy co-leader to support incoming girls with their transition to high school. I was also placed on the School Improvement Team that same year.  While I've not sought out leadership roles, they have just kinda landed in my lap. My goal has always been to do what's right, build trust and relationships- that includes relationships with students, parents, colleagues, administrators, etc. I'm a firm believer in reaching students to teach students. That's kinda spilled over into other roles and how I interact with others- developing trust and mutual respect; and, that's how I lead. Great leaders are not dictators and do not believe they have all of the answers. They develop relationships and rapport with a network of individuals who they then inspire and ignite to work together for a common goal. 

Thu, 03/21/2019 - 10:38 Permalink