Defining the Role of Teacher Leadership

Prospective teachers often gulp when told that teacher leadership is one of the roles they’ll be expected to fill as soon as they begin their teaching careers. They wonder why it won’t be enough to learn how to teach effectively during their first years on the job.

Does earning a teaching license mean that you need to don a cape and fly into the role of “Super Educator?” New teachers may discover that leadership isn’t always a role thrust on them; instead, it creeps up and catches them unaware.

Teacher leadership usually begins in small ways, such as providing resources and help for a struggling colleague or sharing thoughts during staff meetings. Leadership just… happens.

Shifting perspective

At first, a teacher’s focus might be to get through the day, the week, the month, the first rounds of standardized testing and standard school rituals, such as back-to-school night and parent-teacher-student conferences.

A shift in perspective can take hold in a small way:

  • You find yourself frustrated by the disorder in the shared resources closet and decide to reorganize it, negotiating with colleagues on a schedule for shared cleanup.
  • The principal asks you to demonstrate one of your instructional techniques at an upcoming staff development meeting.
  • You join a nationwide group of teachers on a social media platform such as Facebook to share ideas with the U.S. Department of Education.

10 teacher-leader roles

Many teacher-leader roles exist. Teacher development consultants Cindy Harrison and Joellen Killion describe 10 categories in an article reprinted by the Association for School Curriculum Development. Some roles are formally assigned, but others occur due to the collegial nature of teaching. These leadership roles include:

  • Resource provider
  • Instructional specialist
  • Curriculum specialist
  • Classroom supporter
  • Learning facilitator
  • Mentor
  • School leader
  • Data coach
  • Catalyst for change
  • Learner

Review of the Roles

Resource providers are those kind teachers who offer to help organize your classroom or share materials that you lack, such as math manipulatives.

Instructional and curriculum specialists are assigned roles that may come with additional pay and possibly involve hybrid schedules in which you teach part of the day and provide support during the remaining hours. Instructional support experts regularly present teaching strategies during staff development sessions or model these strategies during lessons in other teachers’ classrooms. In contrast, curriculum specialists help teachers understand state content standards and local curriculum initiatives, as well as how to plan and assess lessons meeting these guidelines.

Classroom supporters are instructional coaches who work side-by-side with teachers. They can model techniques, co-teach or provide feedback following observation.

Learning facilitators include colleagues who chair teams of teachers who meet to learn from each other. They may also coordinate opportunities for teachers to observe each others’  instruction. This is different from being a mentor, who provides advice and help to new teachers.

School leaders are department chairs and teachers who head school-wide teams or district committees. Another kind of school leader is the data coach, who shows teaching staff and individual teachers how to use assessment data to shape instruction.

Those who lead by sharing their vision for change or taking additional classes usually do so at their own expense. Catalysts for change may conduct independent research — known as teacher inquiry — about instructional techniques in their own classrooms and then share results. Some may take on roles in their teachers’ union or groups working toward school reform. Others, including teachers in paid leadership positions such as transformational leadership coach Elena Aguilar, may foster change by blogging.

Finally, being a learner is a leadership role that teachers simply can’t avoid. State licensing usually requires continuing education classes, and school districts regularly schedule in-service trainings. However, teachers who share what they learn with colleagues as well as students are truly valuable leaders.

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