Today’s Teacher Leaders: Who They Are, What They Do, and How To Be One For Your At-Promise Students

Alex KajitaniBy Alex Kajitani, California State Teacher of the Year 2009


“Anytime you influence the thinking, beliefs, or development of another person, you’re engaging in leadership.” -Ken Blanchard.

While the Common Core Standards have been parading down education’s Main Street over the past two years, often surrounded by much debate and controversy, another set of standards has, at the same time, quietly slipped in the back door.

Like a bandleader in colorful uniform (picture Harold Hill in The Music Man), the Common Core Standards are bold and broad, aiming to transform what students will learn across the nation. In contrast, this other new set of standards — the Teacher Leader Model Standards — is like the sheet music from which the band learns: unseen in the parade, but foundational and absolutely critical to the band’s successful performance.

These lesser-known Teacher Leader Model Standards aim to transform how teachers act. And while they may be quieter than the Common Core, I would argue that their role is as important — especially for teachers who will lead our at-promise schools and the communities they serve.

As I see it, developing teacher leaders is the necessary foundation to keep American education alive and thriving over the next decade.

Why Does Teacher-Leadership Matter?

We live in a time of what some theorists call “accelerating change” — with exponentially faster technological, cultural, social and environmental change than any other period in the known history of our planet. We’re feeling this firsthand in our schools, and in our profession.

Teaching today requires a masterful blend of content knowledge and innovative teaching methods, mixed with the ability to function in a system that requires us to be highly collaborative, technologically savvy, and outspoken about the needs of our students and profession.

That’s a lot to deal with all at once — especially for those of us teaching at-promise students, who often face the additional challenges of living in communities where low-income, low-literacy, and high rates of dropout are the norm. Teaching our students today is more complex than ever, and this requires us to step up to a new way of doing our work.

What teaching today really requires is leadership. Leadership that transforms the way we interact with our students, our colleagues and the communities we serve. Leadership that puts us in control of what we do, and how we do it, and allows us to step out of the “my hands are tied” culture that has permeated our profession for the past decade under No Child Left Behind.

Instead of old-guard, top-down leadership, the Teacher Leader Model Standards “imagine school cultures in which teacher leaders and administrators have reciprocal relationships, supporting one another’s work and sharing responsibility for outcomes.” A new era has come to education, and teacher leaders will be key players in it.

Who Are Today’s Teacher Leaders?

Today’s teacher leaders are collaborators, connectors, communicators, and forward- thinkers.

Time and time again, research has shown that an effective teacher is the strongest in-school predictor of student achievement. However, to keep an effective teacher effective requires a school culture that is collaborative, and where teachers’ work is valued more broadly than just by their students.

Research also shows us that collective leadership has a stronger influence on student achievement than individual leadership. Thus, teacher leadership opportunities exist at all levels of experience, from the beginning teacher to the seasoned veteran. Any teacher can be a leader, by finding ways to work together, with all kinds of stakeholders, toward the common goal of student success.

Teacher leadership is not so much a checklist of tasks as it is a mindset that is fundamental for successfully handling the challenges we face in our classrooms, across our campuses and throughout our communities.

What Do Today’s Teacher Leaders Do?

Today’s teacher leaders put this collaborative, forward-thinking mindset into action.

And the Teacher Leader Model Standards — created by the Teacher Leadership Exploratory Consortium, which includes education stakeholders such as union representatives, teachers, school administrators, policy organizations, and leaders in higher education — clearly define the actions necessary to promote effective teacher leadership, all with the end-goal of improving student learning.

You can read these standards in full at http://www.teacherleaderstandards.org/. Here, I’ll introduce you to the basics of their seven “domains” of teacher leadership what teacher leaders do), and briefly discuss how each applies specifically to teaching at-promise students.

1) Foster a Collaborative School Culture

While the most important factor in student success is the effectiveness of the teacher in the classroom, the most important factor in the success or failure of a school is the relationship of the adults in the building. According to the standards: “Today’s teacher leader is well versed in adult learning theory and uses that knowledge to create a community of collective responsibility within his or her school.”

As teachers of at-promise students, we all know what’s at stake for our students, and this collective responsibility can bond us together in our work. It is critical that we collaborate effectively, and give each other feedback that is real and relevant. We simply must be able to productively manage conflict, creatively solve problems, and promote meaningful change, together, in our schools.

2) Effectively Integrate Current Educational Research

Let’s be honest: for teachers of at-promise students, the typical teaching strategies don’t always work as they’re supposed to. Ethnicity, poverty, and unstable families affect the way our students learn, and thus, the way we teach. We need an entire tool belt of specialized strategies that are creative and engaging, while grounded in solid research.

Today’s teacher leaders must be able to access and implement best practices from the latest research about teaching effectiveness and student learning. Furthermore, they must be willing to offer data and results from their own classrooms to advance their entire school’s (and profession’s) teaching and learning. In short, we need to study best practices, find what works for our students, use it, and share it with one another.

3) Continually Pursue Professional Development

Teacher leaders own our role as professionals, and continually advocate for, design, and facilitate high-quality professional development to keep us learning and innovating.

This past year, I’ve worked with countless teachers of at-promise students around the country who report that as few as five years ago, their schools were high- achieving, with students motivated to learn. Due to changing demographics and the country’s economic rollercoaster, these teachers now report classrooms filled with at-promise students who struggle academically, and often don’t speak English.

This situation begs for professional development, to support teachers in finding new ways, as a team, to connect with all students and enhance their learning. Today’s teacher leader is aware of these shifts, and advocates for professional learning that is team-based, job-embedded, and sustainable over time.

4) Constantly Improve Classroom Instruction

Effective classroom instruction is the perennial staple of successful teaching, and it remains so. Today’s teacher leader realizes, however, that in this time of accelerated change, the way we teach in our classrooms must also be evolving at a more rapid pace than ever before.

Each year, the group of students that enters our classrooms is vastly different from the group a year before. They are deeply influenced by the latest technology, the year’s hit television (or Internet) show, and new ways of thinking and operating in society. Shouldn’t our teaching reflect similar changes?

As Ken Blanchard states, “Our capacity to grow determines our capacity to lead.” We must continuously learn, reflect and improve upon our classroom practices. Effective teacher leadership requires us to grow with our at-promise students, to help them be successful in this rapidly changing world.

5) Productively Utilize Assessments and Data

It’s not their ethnicity, gender or income level alone that determines whether a student is considered at-promise, or at-risk. Ultimately, this label is determined by the data we have collected on them. Low test scores, year after year, have labeled more students “at-risk” for dropping out of school than any other single factor.

Today’s teacher leaders have a mature relationship with assessments and the data from them, seeking ways to use them to students’ advantage. They understand that embedded in data are a multitude of complex factors such as work ethic, home life, socioeconomics and ethnicity — and that within the numbers we can find clues to where students need more support.

We must use this knowledge from and about assessment data, in forward-thinking, nuanced ways, to actively help our at-promise students set and achieve their goals and dreams. We also must be willing to share our data with one another, setting aside ego, always with our collective goal of student learning in mind.

6) Partner With Families and Communities

Schools, students, and teachers cannot survive in isolation. Today’s teacher leaders look beyond the classroom and school to make connections with the many stakeholders in their students’ education. These stakeholders can include parents, community members, and outside service-providers such as social workers, after-school programs and medical professionals. One of my favorite field trips ever, which earned our school a generous grant, was when my colleagues and I took our at-promise middle school students walking through their own poverty-stricken, gang-ridden neighborhood to a show at the beautiful arts center just a couple miles outside of it. We used the experience to collaborate with local parents, elders, shop owners, police officers, and others to connect our school with the broader community and empower neighborhood pride. The students (and we teachers) felt like rock stars, and the connection was palpable. Teacher leadership requires true understanding of the impact that families, cultures, and communities have on student learning — and actively creates partnerships with these key stakeholders in students’ success.

7) Advocate Publicly for Education and the Teaching Profession

As teachers, the majority of our days are spent designing, delivering and assessing the curriculum our students need to be successful. Add in the extra responsibilities of teaching at-promise students, and this leaves little time for engaging in educational policy and advocacy beyond our classrooms.

However, until we step out of our schools, step up as teacher leaders, and concern ourselves with the policies and public rhetoric that shape the work we do, true reform can never happen. Today’s teacher leaders need to evolve beyond old “teachers vs. policymakers” thinking, beyond seeing them as separate. Just as we need policymakers to understand the complex work we do, we need teachers to understand the complex work they do, and we need to work together to do this.

Teacher leadership means serving as a bridge between the front lines of our schools and the shaping of public policies that affect them. It means having a stake in education beyond our day-to-day classroom experience, knowing this also serves our students. In addition, it means considering ourselves as public professionals, representing our profession in the public eye, and advocating publicly for high quality education for all students.

Bringing Teacher Leadership To Main Street

So, perhaps as we learn more about these new standards and the impact they can have on education, we may find that they have a bit of Harold Hill bandleader-flair in them after all. While teacher leadership serves well as the foundational sheet music for improving education today, it also deserves to march in the Main Street parade.

Thankfully, there have always been teacher leaders who advocate for our at- promise students in a multitude of ways. The Teacher Leader Model Standards represent an important development in making those roles recognized and respected, and they offer a great opportunity to help our profession thrive in this new era.

Alex Kajitani is the 2009 California Teacher of the Year, and a Top-4 Finalist for National Teacher of the Year. A leading authority on teacher-leadership, he is the author of Owning It: Proven Strategies for Success in ALL of Your Roles as a Teacher Today, which was named “Recommended Reading” by the U.S. Department of Education. He is a highly sought-after speaker, with a popular TED Talk, and is the ideal speaker for your next conference or event. Alex is also creator of The Rappin’ Mathematician and author of The Teacher of the Year Handbook, and has been featured in many books and media outlets, including the CBS Evening News. Learn more at www.AlexKajitani.com

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