Teacher Leadership: The What, the Why and the How?


Whole Child TLLast week ASCD held its second Whole Child Symposium, a live panel event that took place at the Knight Studio in the Newseum in Washington, D.C. It brought together leaders from prominent education organizations, authors, practitioners, and teacher leaders to discuss a very important topic: teacher leadership. And that is one key aspect of these symposia—putting educators back at the forefront of the education debate.

Just last month in the Washington Post, Valerie Strauss highlighted the startlingly low number of experts appearing on cable news shows who were actually educators. The aptly titled article “Guess the percentage of cable news education guests who are actually educators” summarizes results from Media Matters that analyze how many educators were included in substantial discussions of U.S. education policy on evening cable news shows between January 1 and October 31, 2014. The result? A whopping 9 percent of guests across the three major cable news outlets (CNN, FOX, and MSNBC) were educators. ASCD’s Whole Child Symposium, on the other hand, focuses solely on educators and allows them to get their voices heard in the education debate. This is both purposeful and warranted.

Below are the panelists that spoke at the symposium:

Peter DeWitt—former elementary principal, education consultant, and ASCD author

Maddie Fennell—classroom fellow, U.S. Department of Education

Robyn Jackson—author of the ASCD book Never Underestimate Your Teachers: Instructional Leadership for Excellence in Every Classroom

Jennifer Orr—ASCD emerging leader and kindergarten teacher

Becky Pringle—vice president, National Education Association

Tanya Tucker—vice president of alliance engagement, America’s Promise Alliance

The topic of teacher leadership was chosen as the theme for this symposium because it is currently one of the most vibrant conversations in the field of education. It is both relevant and timely, and it also provides the profession with a clear step forward. The role of teachers as leaders has the potential to boost both the processes of teaching and learning and the overall education profession. There is widespread agreement about the great value of teacher leaders and the importance of recognizing, and even cultivating, this role. However, there are also a myriad of definitions and examples of what a teacher leader is. The concept of teacher leader has different meanings to different people and goes by a variety of names, including but not limited to specialist, instructional coach, mentor, peer colleague, and team leader. In addition to the ambiguity over the definition and labeling of the role, many who view themselves as teacher leaders feel that they are on their own in terms of preparation, support, and even development. Such teacher leaders are seeking guidance on the scope and parameters of their role and want to be utilized in the best ways possible.

So, what did we find out at the symposium? Here are several of the key takeaways along with tweets from the panelists themselves:

Teacher leaders are crucial to improving teaching and learning and to advancing the profession. It makes little logical sense for professionals who have exceled in one environment (the classroom) to be forced out of that environment if they want to grow and expand their influence.

Our role is to tell these stories and show that #TeacherLeadership is a healthy addition to the plate of #Teachers‘ –@maddief #WCS14

Bosses say “go”, leaders say “let’s go”, builders say “come.” How can teachers reframe their view of leadership? –@Robyn_Mindsteps #WCS14

A framework for developing teacher leaders is needed, but there is uncertainty about how structured and systematic the framework needs to be. A structure that highlights the role of teacher leaders is critical. Many teachers and several of the panelists highlighted how they didn’t assume or realize that they were leaders until someone else pointed it out to them. However, any structure that restricts or confines what a teacher leader can be could also be damaging because it can prevent empowerment and necessary growth.

There are so many teachers I meet who are reticent to claim mastery. We should pursue it transparently. – @Robyn_Mindsteps #WCS14

If systems support teacher leaders, they can progress even when principals aren’t ready.

@jenorr #WCS14

Teacher leaders can tremendously benefit from collaboration of any kind, whether face-to-face or virtual. The rise of social networks means that anyone, wherever they may be, can find others who are expanding what a teacher can be. You no longer need to be in the same school or even district to connect, learn, and grow.

“Twitter has been eye-opening for me, in the way [it] has been a support for others [without support in their own school]” – @jenorr #WCS14

“Even if you want to keep teacher leaders down. It’s going to be harder and harder and harder.” @SeanTSlade #WCS14

The role of a teacher leader is varied and not just focused on improving instruction. School climate and culture are areas where teacher leaders have profound influence. Whether by enhancing the relationships between staff, creating new links between staff and students, or establishing a connection between the school and the community, the role of developing a school climate often falls onto the most experienced and dedicated staff.

There is a role the teacher leader plays outside of the school by trying to bridge the gap with the larger community. @APA_Tucker #WCS14

We should allow for conversations and say [teacher leadership] is to be defined based on the needs that you have. @maddief #WCS14

Professional development is needed, not just for teacher leaders but also for principals and administrators. Teachers need professional development—that should be obvious. But just as important is professional development for teacher leaders, principals, and administrators—that is, those who hold decision-making roles in the school.

A principal is a person that should be differentiating their leadership like they did for their students. – @PeterMDeWitt #WCS14

Principals need to be trained on how to see leadership in others. That’s not always a natural skill. – @Robyn_Mindsteps #WCS14

Teacher leader training is gaining leadership, principal training is relinquishing control. – @SeanTSlade #WCS14

Teacher leaders are here to stay and it is time to figure out how to best promote and develop their roles and their growth. Through the Whole Child Symposium panel discussion and other conversations occurring around the country, the teacher leader role is being determined and structured. ASCD believes that all such discussions and conversations must be centered on those that actually teach and lead: the educators.

Below you will find a video recording of the second panel discussion from the symposium. To view the entire archived symposium discussion, go to www.ascd.org/wcsymposium and keep the conversation going on Twitter at #WCS14.