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.


Author: Dr. Valerie King

Quirky thinker. Joyful teacher. Perpetual learner. For the Kids.

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