Teacher Leader? Yes, You Are

Jess Ledbetter Teacher Leadership, Uncategorized

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As much as we throw around the term teacher leader in education today, I think the term can feel mystical. How does a teacher know s/he has become a teacher leader? Is there a special ceremony? A secret handshake? When can teachers start referring to themselves as teacher leaders?

If you are a teacher reading this blog, I would like to formally welcome you to the club. Yes, you’ve made it. There is nothing to wait for. Right now, you are a teacher leader. And if you aren’t embracing the opportunity to lead, this is a good time to start honing your influence.

If you’re not convinced that you’re a teacher leader, I can relate to that feeling. It took me a long time to feel comfortable describing myself that way. A few years ago, I remember struggling through a doctoral application for a program called Educational Leadership and Innovation. Man, was I intimidated! I felt innovative, but I didn’t feel like a leader. I was on some district committees, mentored teachers after school, and was awaiting scores for my National Board Certification. Did I feel like a leader? No. I thought that teacher leaders were a bigger deal. And I remember feeling like a fraud when I submitted that application. Now, I look back on those feelings and realize they were foolish. Somehow, I had become a teacher leader without realizing it.

In many professions, the term “leader” is reserved for a few select people who have worked many years to reach the top of an organization. I used to think teacher leadership was like that. Now, I believe teacher leadership boils down to acting like a leader. A teacher leader does what needs to be done. They look for opportunities to help their students, colleagues, school, and community in a way that suits their own personality, skills sets, and resources. It’s time for teachers to start embracing their roles as teacher leaders and encouraging others to do the same.

What if we redefined the term teacher leader make it inclusive and inviting? What if we started encouraging brand new teachers to act like leaders right away? Could we make a bigger difference in educational policy and community engagement? Yes, I think we absolutely could. So here is my proposed definition for teacher leader:

Teacher leader /tēCH ǝr lēd ǝr/ noun. An educator who advocates for students using logical statements about good teaching practices, student data, and personal observations about student learning; A dedicated individual who shares authentic classroom stories with others in the school and community; A brave soul who does whatever needs to be done to protect kids, nurture families, and advance the profession.

Instead of treating teacher leadership like an elite club, we should start encouraging everyone to play. Teachers can be leaders within their schools, districts, community, state, or national levels. We should not rank these things to say that some are better than others. Instead, we must encourage each other to engage in leadership activities that feel right for us.

When teachers start acting like leaders, they start feeling more like leaders. In turn, the more they feel like leaders, the more they act like leaders. I have seen this in my own professional experience as well as in my doctoral research. Being a leader starts with a few blind steps of faith. Eventually, every leader finds footing. And we have many steps to walk together.

Step out leaders! The time is NOW. And there is much work to do.

I encourage you to leave comments about your own teacher leadership journey. When did you know that you were a teacher leader? How do you encourage others to step into their own leadership roles?

If you would like to dive deep into a document about teacher leadership to reflect on your own areas of strength and opportunities for growth, I highly recommend reading the Teacher Leadership Competencies from the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards.


Dr. Jess Ledbetter teaches preschool students with developmental delays in a Title I school in Glendale, Arizona. She is a National Board Certified Teacher (ENS-ECYA), an Arizona Hope Street Group Teacher Fellow Alumni, and a Candidate Support Provider for teachers seeking their National Board Certification. She earned her doctorate in Educational Leadership and Innovation at ASU in 2016. Her mixed methods research used a Communities of Practice model as a strategy for early career special education teachers to collaborate with peers to increase their team leadership skills working with paraeducators in their individual classrooms. Dr. Ledbetter is guided by the belief that all teachers are leaders in their classrooms and possess the skills to be leaders within their schools, districts, communities, and greater context. She hopes you will contribute to the dialogue by leaving comments about your own experiences, opinions, and insights so that real-life stories from our schools can inform the policies that affect students, teachers, and their communities.

Comments 10

  1. Leah Clark

    When I initially heard the term “teacher leader,” I was completely intimidated! I am sixth year teacher, hardly experienced compared to many of colleagues. However, I believe leaders take risks and encourage others to do so too regardless of their experience or seniority. Under this definition, I do consider myself a leader. Today, I tried a completely new strategy knowing it could either fly or flop with my students. But as leaders, we must be willing to take the risk and learn from the failure or celebrate the success. Thank you for sharing this! We need to open the doors to teacher leaders to keep our profession going!

    1. Jess Ledbetter

      Absolutely Leah! As a profession, I think we need to revise the definition of teacher leader to break through the intimidating aspects so all teachers can embrace their leadership qualities and enhance our schools with their unique gifts. Way to go for taking those risks in the classroom that push students further and give you opportunities to show off your creativity as the instructional leader! :) Lead on!

  2. Susan Collins

    Thank you Jess, for defining teacher leadership as a state of mind rather than a title. I used to believe that only those in “leadership positions” were leaders. I’ve come to realize that I have been a teacher leader for many years, I simply did not view myself as a leader. Realizing my role as a leader has lead me to consider how decisions I make influence my peers. I want to set a strong example of integrity as I advocate for students and the education profession.

  3. Sandy Merz

    I’ll mix things up a little here and ask, who is a teacher? I favor a much more narrowly defined description that pivots on the criterion: You spend time teaching students as a major part of your professional duty. That would exclude many support professionals who’s contribution to schools is immeasurable, but whom I still wouldn’t call a teacher, even though some would. Educator, ok, teacher, no. So getting to Teacher Leader, our innate credibility comes from working face to face at the point where policy and practice meet, and I would say gets diluted if we leave the classroom.

    1. Jess Ledbetter

      I agree on this. I know teachers who move to positions outside the classroom still feel connected to the term “teacher” and they are teaching things to others. However, I think it’s important to define “teacher” as you have above so that we can be even more clear that Teacher leadership is for TEACHERS in classrooms working with kids. These individuals should feel credible and able to act as leaders. There is no need to wait to be appointed to some other position to embrace the call to lead and have a voice :) Great comment Sandy!

  4. Jen Robinson

    Hi Jess. Thank you for sharing this post. It’s time teachers realize they are leaders and the title teacher leader should be embraced. This year on our campus I have began addressing all teachers as teacher leaders.

  5. Treva Jenkins

    Thanks Jess for this. It is so important that all teachers recognize their own greatness and find their voice. For me, I was very comfortable remaining in my comfort zone, in the classroom with my scholars. Very slowly I began to imagine the possibilities of taking more of a leadership role outside the classroom. Teachers often need to be reminded of the tremendous capacity they have to be professional leaders–even from within their classroom. All teachers bring their own unique perspectives, thoughtful-creative solutions, and inspiration to their schools.

  6. Sterling Colvin

    I loved your take on what it means to be a teacher leader and the idea that we should encourage new teachers to act like teacher leaders from the start as well. I think that the more we encourage each other to engage in leadership activities, the stronger the learning community becomes. Do you have any suggestions on ways to get every educator to engage in leadership activities?

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