Teacher Leadership, What’s the Difference?

Recently I’ve been curious about the whole notion of teacher leaders. There is one school of thought that “teacher leader” is just a title with a little oomph. There’s another school of thought that believes it is the teacher leaders who embrace a lead-up approach who are truly the force behind the innovation in schools. (As someone who considers herself a teacher leader, I would ascribe to the latter!) Certainly college of educations across the globe are capitalizing on the moniker “teacher leader” through new programs leading to advanced degrees. But who are the teacher leaders? What is different about us?

There is a certain “je ne sais quoi” that separates teachers and teacher leaders, and it’s not as elusive as people think. What is it that sets apart those of us in education who take on the extra burden, challenge, celebration, task (you name it) of being a leader?

We are deep learners. Teacher leaders are deeply invested in learning. We delve into content and topics and expand our own learning repertoire to really gain meaning. We dissect things, we make connections and we tend to always look for the loopholes, the antithesis of ideas to make certain we truly get more than just the gist of a teaching or viewpoint. This is not limited to education. We do this with everything. Look at a teacher leader’s bookshelf, nightstand, car trunk, junk drawer or basement.

We question. Because we are deep set in learning, we question things. If a method or idea or curriculum piece doesn’t resonate with us, we question. We ask, “Why is this better?” We challenge, “What difference will this make?” We wonder, “How can I take this and incorporate it into something I am already doing?” We know what is right for our schools and we are steadfast in getting the answers to the questions. When we don’t get the answers we are diligent in asking…repeatedly. When we don’t like the answers we become change agents.

We embrace failure. We are the first ones to try that one idea that made us think during the last professional learning workshop. We dog-ear and highlight pages in books to “try this out” or “remember this the next time.” We are willing to try anything once for the sake of learning. We don’t mind being uncomfortable. We have an interesting definition of failure. We see failures as growing and as the potential for improvement. We use our failures as a time to polish our practice and show persistence, patience and a true grasp on the big learning picture. Our failures become talking points to make us vulnerable and approachable.

We problem solve. We are invigorated by problems. We are problem seekers looking for the frayed edges before they start to show. We use our resources and enthusiasm to approach challenges with what is possible, not what is impossible. When others focus on the flaws and shortfalls—the things that are wrong, we focus on the successes, what things are going right, and we get the most out of those things.

We have a sense of urgency. We don’t let grass grow under our feet. We are proactive and exhibit a continual sense of urgency versus a knee jerk state of panic approach. Even when things are good and moving in the direction we want them to, the necessity is steadfast. We move quickly so that when things don’t work out, we can try it again.

We listen. The best leaders are extroverted introverts. We know when to be a voice and we know when to listen. We understand that our leadership should resonate when we are not present inasmuch as when we are present. We have the ability to close out the noise and focus. We read people well. We understand the implicit meaning behind words. We are intuitive. We listen with our eyes and our hearts, not just our ears.

We are reflective. Our learning is a perpetual conversation in our heads (and with others!). We ruminate. We embrace a growth mindset and are fully aware when our thinking is not growth minded. We thrive on tweaking and adapting and changing small parts of ideas. We recognize when things do not work but see that as potential. We do not let perfect get in the way of the good. We understand learning as a process and embrace the messiness of the progression.

We Evolve. On evolving, the musician Usher shares, “If you don’t evolve, you dissolve. If you don’t evolve, you evaporate.” This is so true. Teacher leaders evolve. We expand our repertoire. We advance. We morph. We contort. We transform. Look back on your tenure as an educator. What nook and crannies of your story have changed? What is different? Better? More pronounced?

That indescribable “je ne sais quoi,” the mysterious force that fuels teacher leaders’ success is not really a secret potion. We all have the potential to possess these eight interlocking traits. Imagine the climate and culture of classrooms and buildings and districts, and education, if each of us tapped into just one of these attributes. Then imagine the magic when all of these qualities are sharpened to harmonize and complement our daily actions.


What it Means to have Summer Off…Really

“Oh, you’re a teacher? It must be so great to have summers off.”

I bite my tongue and smile and confidently respond, “It is perfect.” But what I really want to share is, that in the nearly two decades I have been in education? I have never had a summer off.

Do I go on vacation? Sure. But my vacation time is a perpetual context for, “What can I bring back to my classroom?”

My summers off are littered with things like mermaid’s purses found on every coastline neatly preserved in beach bags, professional learning conferences on topics I might incorporate into my repertoire, dollar store seasonal purchases (dissected pool noodles make great anythings), visiting thrift stores for books that will need recovering and furniture that will need repurposed for next year’s classroom, oh and that really cool taxidermy..wait what is that?

My summer is dotted with collecting pamphlets and maps and leaflets that will wallpaper a nook in the room for my kids that don’t travel or can’t share what they did on their summer vacation. I read. Goodness do I read. I have a stack of a dozen educational books and a dozen or so pleasure books. The educational books impact my teaching. The pleasure books enhance my understanding of author’s craft, vocabulary and ideas, which enhance my teaching.

It’s the uninterrupted silence of summer that allows teachers to focus and absorb and be inspired. I visit other teacher friends and what do we do? Talk about teaching. Teachers never have enough time to collaborate and just chew over the things we are doing. Summer is our stage for bonding.

I travel, of course. But my travels are always laced with “how will this experience impact the experiences I share with children?” What book can I bring back, what story, what photograph…what will translate to learning in my classroom. What questions can I ask? What ideas will this spur?

I plan. Over and over I plan. Schedules and groups and ideas. I write ideas down and cross them out. I even read through this last year’s lesson plans. I think of how to make things better. I shop. I buy new pillows and lap desks and wait, have you seen the stability balls that are shaped like cows and they come in colors and have polka dots on them?

I search for funding. Grants. Freebies. Resources. I spend time writing. Sharing my demographics, writing my class’ story, explaining why I need, “4,000 craft sticks, 12 skeins of yarn, 8 flashlights an abundance of aluminum foil and a groundhog.” Wait…a groundhog? Yes. How can my students possibly build shadow blockers for a groundhog without knowing what a groundhog is?

I am a zookeeper in the summer. I have to tend to the menagerie that during the school year is lovingly cared for by my students. I have forgotten the debate lesson on whether a chinchilla would make a good pet or not until his nocturnal instincts kick in and I hear him chirping night after night.

I teach a class of teachers. You know others of us that have all summer off. Teachers that want to do more for their learners. More differentiation, more authentic assessment and more relationship building. I spend an enormous amount of time writing feedback on endless papers to cheer these teachers on.

I’m in graduate school. I take classes on data analysis and leadership and professional development and 21st Century Learning. I want my students to understand what being a perpetual learner looks like, so I model it. I want to be on the cutting edge of theory and practice, so I do it.

I come to school. If you’ve never been in a school building in the summer? It’s an amazing perspective. It’s quiet, but expecting. I clean out cabinets. I move furniture. I change the theme. I dust. I reflect and picture the faces of the kiddoes who have created the memories. I walk on my knees to make sure the things I want the kids to see and touch and behold are at their height. I dream of an HGTV classroom swap and add that to the list of ideas for a lesson on letter writing and persuasion and design and color and math and advertising and properties of materials and best environments for learning and wait! What if I started with nothing in my room next year and my students spent their first few days in an HGTV experience and flipped our room. Eureka! I start to pack up my room, again.

So you see, teachers don’t really have summers off. I’m not sure how we could have summers off. Even laying on the beach, disconnected from anything categorized as technically “education,” some of us are counting the waves per second, imagining the life beneath the ocean, wondering how much salt is in the ocean—and for me, my summers off tend to be the most rejuvenating, authentically inspired times—because it’s not really a summer off. It’s a summer ON.

Summer gives me the change of pace, but not changed learning. My audience isn’t a finite group of learners but a possible group of kiddoes that will come into my classroom at the beginning of the year bright-eyed and eager and ask me, “What did you do all summer?” I need to be prepared.

So, I guess when I am greeted with, “Oh, you’re a teacher? It must be so great to have summers off.” My response is absolutely honest and not said with haste. My summer, quite simply, is “Perfect.”

Learning with Heart

Getting kids to connect their learning so they see the relevance to their lives is paramount to enduring understanding. But how do we do that? I mean when you think about it, most of the standards required of learners today—have little or no meaning to them. Kids aren’t interested in things they have no schema for, don’t choose or are void of innovation. Similarly, some classroom methodologies are so concentrated on factoids that can easily be retrieved from Google that any chance of relating learning to their lives is moot. How do we get kids to start understanding, “So what, why does this matter?” in a purposeful, intentional and expective way?

What I’ve learned is kids have heart. They are easily moved to a gamut of emotion if you give them the platform to express themselves. Recently, while planning the reflection of a lengthy service learning project with my second graders, I really wanted to know if the point of the project was understood. I wanted to make sure the affective learning transpired, even though it was not explicit in its manifestation. I knew what I was feeling as their teacher seeing the project come full circle.

In typical informal fashion, I simply asked the kids after reframing the beginning of the project to where we were right now, “Tell me what you learned.” I was somewhat disheartened that they all started regurgitating facts about water over and over again. It’s precious. There’s only 1% that’s usable. The water on earth is the only water we have. And on and on. I was discouraged that we had spent months on an integrated, meaningful, engaging and more importantly student-driven service learning project where ultimately my littles had raised enough money to have a hand dug well built in Burkina Faso and yet they were limited by a small scope of facts that were seemingly so disjointed. Their answers were compliant. Their responses showed learning. But they missed the heart piece that long after this project would carry them through life. Ugh.

I sat in our meeting circle feeling that they had missed things like compassion and worry and choice and voice and determination and pride— knowing those were my adult words, but feeling they could have said something heartfelt. I had to know that there was something more than the cognitive stretch they were sharing. Then I said, “I get it. We learned a lot about water. We know we have to conserve water. We know we are fortunate to have water in our homes. But what about our hearts? What did our hearts learn?”

I employed impeccable wait time even forming a heart with my fingers and placing it over my chest. I repeated, “Think about your heart. What did you feel?” I wanted to sound out the first word or give them a hint. But I knew I had to really let the question resonate with them. Perhaps, after all, they missed the rapture of this learning.

And then it happened. One student said, “My heart learned that I could do something for someone else that I didn’t even know who it was.” Another voice, “My heart learned that I could be sad about something and then do something to make me happy.” And another, “My heart learned that I could look back.” “Interesting, what do you mean ‘look back?’” I nudged. “I mean when I was walking on our walk, I was looking back in my brain and remembering all the people that don’t choose to walk like we did, they have to walk.” Yes. The connections were being made. The “so what” was being answered. My littles revealed things that they felt through the knowledge within the learning process.

I wanted to memorialize their heart and brain learning. As I unfurled stark butcher paper and scribbled the theme of the service learning project, they couldn’t wait to handle the markers and write what their heart and brain learned. Their responses were poignant and framed by the realization that yes, water is a precious resource that we really have so little of in this world.

heart1brain dump







I fully accept that leading kids through a service learning project has the potential for many more heart learnings than let’s say learning about variables in algebra. However, what if we framed each lesson as a heart lesson and a brain lesson? Maybe with variables your heart learns to be persistent. Or what if your heart learns to ask for help when you’re stumped? Or what if your heart learns that you’re really not as bad at variables as you thought? These ideas are the social-emotional, growth mindset, and affective learning pieces that we can’t forego in today’s classrooms. If we want kids to really connect to their learning we need to lead them to find the pathway to their heart. We need to allow that individualized, affective expression in order for the cognition to have enduring ownership.


With Soul, Love & Creativity

Imagine a word that cannot be translated into another single word. Meraki is a greek term that is untranslatable as we tend to think of translations.

Simply put, meraki is used to describe something with soul, creativity or love. You know when you put yourself completely into something and even leave a little bit behind in the process.

For me? Teaching is my meraki. It would be impossible for me to do what I do each day void of soul, lacking creativity or without love.

What’s to follow is my story of learning and leading. My successes and failures, celebrations and challenges that are all part of the recognizable fringe when you tackle things with meraki.