Selected researcher and teacher panelists respond to and discuss key issues in K-12 STEM education.

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.