When Valda Valbrun had success as a teacher, it didn’t take long before she was tapped to move up the ladder into administration. But the bigger job wasn’t necessarily better, she says, because it meant she had to leave her students.
“I was encouraged to leave the classroom,” says Valbrun, now a director of professional development at the education nonprofit ASCD. “In hindsight, I’m thinking, Wow, I’m really missing the classroom.”
But do you have to leave teaching to demonstrate leadership? More and more, the answer is no. Teachers are stepping into a variety of roles that help to shape how their schools are run. Read on to see how you can take the lead in your school while continuing to do what you love most.
1 | Start a Student Incentive Program
Craig Martin and his colleagues at a Boston elementary school created a sticker incentive program to promote good citizenship. A teacher-led initiative has the advantage of coming with instant buy-in from the staff, he says.
Daina Lieberman, a Fairfax County, Virginia, high school teacher who sits on a committee that runs a program rewarding positive student behavior, agrees. And her program gets results. “The feel here is very welcoming,” she says. “Kids will offer to carry things and hold doors open for you.”
2 | Get Parents (Especially Dads) More Engaged
If parents show up at your school only for open house night, conferences, and when their kids are in trouble, consider starting an initiative to get them more involved in the school and with their children’s education.
Martin has worked to bring fathers in for monthly breakfast meetings to discuss simple ways they can help their kids learn math, like talking about measurements and nutritional labels while cooking meals.
“The fathers really responded to that,” Martin says. “I believe that parents do want to know that they add value.”
3 | Develop Curriculum
Some schools hire teachers to work on curriculum over the summer. If that’s not an option for you, consider approaching curriculum changes more informally, by pioneering creative units of study.
Charlotte Danielson, author of Teacher Leadership That Strengthens Professional Practice, tells the story of one teacher who designed a whole week of curriculum around bringing her students to the zoo every day.
“It was enormously more valuable for the kids than just going to the zoo one day and wandering around,” says Danielson. “The whole point is to figure out, What is it that I want kids to learn, and how can this help? It’s the teacher not just taking the teacher’s guide and doing a lesson, but taking initiative.”
4 | Chair a Team
Christine Valenti, an elementary teacher in Boston, says leading grade-level team meetings has been an ideal way to take a step forward in her career. “I can work with teachers and lead them, but I’m still in the classroom.”
When suggesting potential improvements, team leaders can build trust by looking to their own practice first, rather than immediately calling out their colleagues. “If people don’t trust each other, they’re not going to put themselves out there,” Valenti says.
Jon Reid, a team leader at another Boston elementary school, says he keeps his colleagues involved by delegating responsibilities and encouraging everyone to share ideas. “We’re all teachers here, and we can all benefit from one another,” he says.
5 | Spearhead, and Share, Research
Lieberman took a course on how to be a teacher researcher and ran two studies in her classroom—one on remediation and another on using nonprint texts with at-risk students.
Once you’ve compiled research from your classroom observations, don’t keep it to yourself, says Lieberman, who shared her findings at a countywide conference.
6 | Become a Policy Wonk
If you want to make your voice heard beyond the walls of your school, apply for organized teacher leadership programs.
Lieberman says her participation in such programs has given her the chance to talk about education to policymakers in the federal government.
Or, says Tampa, Florida, fifth-grade teacher Megan Allen, teachers can try to influence policy in less formal ways, like attending school committee meetings. “It can be as small as crafting an e-mail, writing an op-ed, or looking for opportunities to get involved at the district level,” Allen says.
Allen argues that it’s vitally important for teachers to have a say in the policies that affect them and their schools. “In many situations, decisions are made by people who don’t teach. The huge missing piece is that teachers are the experts. They’re the ones who know how the policy and curriculum impact students.”
7 | Crunch the Numbers
Most teachers know the value of using data to inform their instruction, but not all feel confident in their ability to comb through spreadsheets full of numbers. “I think a lot of teachers are like, ‘Ooh, data, I don’t do data,’” says Valenti.
She has spearheaded an effort to analyze test results, as well as “softer” data like student work, and use the findings to modify instruction. Teachers often think their teaching is “fine,” Valenti says, until they see the numbers. “Sometimes when you look at the data, you see it isn’t fine. So let’s take a look at this and figure out what we can do to improve it.”
8 | Lead Professional Development
Some teachers don’t take their professional days, preferring to skip out-of-school workshops in favor of more time with their students. But that approach may be robbing you of the opportunity to become an expert in new areas—and to share that expertise with your colleagues.
Valbrun, the ASCD professional development director, says that before teachers lead PD sessions for the first time, they should present their material to a small group of trusted peers and ask for feedback. Another tip—survey other teachers to find out what they already know about your subject and what they want to learn. “You’ll make sure you’re meeting the needs of your colleagues,” Valbrun says.
9 | Start a Peer-Observation Program
Lori Nazareno, who helped start a teacher-run school in Denver in 2009, says peer observation is a powerful tool because teachers work with colleagues to identify areas of improvement. That can be more productive than sweating it out while your boss takes notes in the back of the room.
“If I know you’re coming in to give me feedback to help me get better, it’s going to be easier to have trust than if you’re signing off on the final evaluation,” Nazareno says.
To start a peer-observation program in your school, you’ll likely need your administration’s help in organizing coverage for teachers to observe one another. You’ll also need a good rubric to keep debriefings focused.
10 | Write Grants
There’s one initiative no principal will ever fight you on—attempting to bring more money into your school.
Most grant writing is easier than you might think. Valbrun remembers a teacher who wrote a tiny blurb that turned into $16,000 in grant money.
“Some of those opportunities are so simple, they don’t really require a great deal of training,” Valbrun says. “Many of them are just a form. There are opportunities that range from $500 to thousands of dollars, if you’re looking for them.”
11 | Turn Your Classroom Into a Teaching Lab
Remember to keep the “teacher” in teacher leader. If there’s an instructional strategy you think your school should implement, test it out in your own classroom to make your case.
“Run a little pilot with another teacher or two,” advises Nazareno. “If you have evidence in your own class that it works, why not advocate for other kids to have that terrific learning experience?”
“The culture in schools has been, Yeah, yeah, I’m going to close my door and do my thing,” she adds. “Well, if you’ve closed your door and done your thing and it works, open your door and share it across the hall.”
Illustration: Ray Fenwick