What’s a Teacher Leader?
Dr. Sandy Cameli, Educational Specialist, HIDOE Teacher Leader Academy
During a recent flight home, after a holiday visit with family, I sat next to a well-read, intelligent, articulate, professional woman who engaged me in polite conversation. After exchanging pleasantries and job titles, this friendly seat-mate asked a question that stopped me in my tracks - “Why do teachers need teacher-leaders, doesn’t the principal just tell them what to do?”
The query gave me pause as an educational specialist, but also as a community member. Do we as educators have tunnel-vision and assume because we know and use jargon so freely, we forget it’s a foreign language to those outside the school walls? Are schools operating with shared-leadership models for students and families to observe and emulate, or is the assembly-line model all they see? Or, do bigger misperceptions and biases exist about what happens on a school campus from community stakeholders & society perspectives?
Most teachers have experienced that surprised look on a child’s face when they run into their student for the first time in a grocery store, restaurant or movie theater. The image of educators living in their classrooms is shattered when a learner realizes teachers are real people, and have lives outside of the classroom too! There are also incidents of parental confusion when a teacher shares an update on his/her blog about a recent professional development conference, only to be questioned by a parent who innocently asks, “Why did you need to attend a conference, didn’t they teach you everything you needed to know at the university?” Or, the disappointment felt when a team of teachers receives a letter of regret for a grant submitted, only to find out the funder didn’t understand the concept of interdisciplinary units, and provided feedback suggesting “Perhaps individual teachers could reapply next time so they can stay in their own rooms?”
The image and concept of a teacher’s role is assumed by non-educators, and generally based on media influences, government stipulations, societal expectations, and an individual’s personal experience. “Joe Public” was schooled in some capacity, therefore possesses a certain amount of expertise, and frame of reference on the topic. Trying to collectively define what any given teacher’s role is by non-educators is like having a group of middle schoolers come to consensus on a dress code - it becomes a futile discussion.
The next level of understanding then becomes explaining leadership in education to family members, community representatives and society as a whole. For most careers and jobs, leadership and supervisory roles are synonymous. A boss may lead a group of workers, but also conduct performance evaluations on those s/he manages. The CEO of a corporation uses a scaffolded structure to lead, disseminate information and duties, and delegates managerial tasks to his or her subordinates. Even many volunteer organizations use a hierarchal system to coordinate and support volunteers during outreach services and events. So, it should come as no surprise that if the common understanding of leader - any type - would conjure up a boss-like image or description, then why wouldn’t a curious fellow-passenger ask such a question - Why do teachers need teacher-leaders?
Teacher leader may not be a familiar term for non-educators, nor even understood the same way by colleagues from different schools, districts or states; however, a teacher leader is rarely considered a boss or supervisor, but rather a coach, mentor or a teacher’s teacher. They may serve as curriculum coordinators, data specialists, instructional mentors or coaches, team leaders, department heads or grade level chairpersons (the aforementioned list may need an additional airline flight to explain those roles and responsibilities to anyone who asks!). However, the bottom-line remains - a teacher leader’s role is to support their peers and school who in-turn provide resources and quality learning experiences to the students with whom they are entrusted. These selfless individuals are often encouraged to serve in teacher leadership roles, based on best practices exhibited, know-how & expertise, and their service as role models - many times without added compensation. And, while benefits may be meager, personal and professional growth is significant for educators who embody the role of teacher leader.
So upon gathering my thoughts - seeking that perfect 30-second elevator pitch - I addressed the inquiry from Ms-Why-Do-Teachers-Need-Teacher-Leaders seated next to me, by responding: “For the same reason we encourage students to pay-it-forward and help others - it creates a better world; Likewise teachers continually learn, grow and serve as role models to their peers - it creates a better profession”.