In the midst of challenges in the educational system delivery as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, educators at all academic levels were called to exhibit characteristics of teacher leaders. As teachers strove to balance instruction in face-to-face, hybrid and virtual settings, professionalism and flexibility were imperative. In reflecting upon the continuum of teacher leadership, it became apparent to me that all teachers must become classroom and school leaders in order to effectively deliver instruction.
In the midst of the pandemic, teachers were thrust into new understandings and definitions of their roles and their leadership abilities. They learned new and creative ways to provide instruction, locate appropriate materials and resources, and communicate with students, parents, and colleagues.
While teacher leadership is typically a gradual process in which teachers move from classroom leadership to team leadership influencing a few colleagues to school and district leadership influencing many colleagues, teachers moved quickly along the leadership continuum out of necessity during the pandemic. They continuously assessed and reassessed their practices in response to ever-changing conditions. Considering this rapid ascension to teacher leader, it raised a pertinent question: What is the profile of a teacher leader and how are teacher leaders developed?
Descriptors of teacher leaders include the following:
- Reflective practitioner
- Risk taker
Administrators want these teacher leadership qualities in their teachers and should seek to recognize these qualities in their faculty.
(Behrstock-Sherratt et al., 2020; Cheung et al., 2018; Harris & Jones, 2019; Hunzicker, 2017; Wieczorek & Lear, 2018).
Teacher leaders are collaborators. As collaborators, they learn from one another, share knowledge, share resources and support one another in carrying out the vision and expectations for effective student learning. Teacher leaders develop skills to collaborate with teachers, administrators, paraprofessionals, parents and students. Teachers become teacher leaders when they experiment with instructional delivery and teaching practices and then collaborate with others to fine tune their experimentations. They collaborate within the context of professional learning community teams, university courses and through informal conversations with colleagues and stakeholders.
Teacher leaders are models. To be an effective model, teacher leaders need content and pedagogical knowledge, they need to be open to improving teacher practice and they need to make their instruction visible to others. As part of the modeling process, teacher leaders analyze and discuss teaching practices. In this way, teacher leaders discuss their knowledge and become agents of instructional change within their schools and districts. When modeling techniques for others, teacher leaders are aware of adult learning theories and appropriate means for conveying their content and pedagogical knowledge. Modeling happens through demonstration lessons, analysis of teaching videos and professional learning communities.
Teacher leaders are advocates. As advocates, teacher leaders make their voices heard in academic conversations and hold themselves and others to high standards of professionalism. In order to advocate effectively, teacher leaders engage in conversation and communication with a variety of stakeholders and advocate for improved instruction to promote the teaching profession. Advocates address issues so that students and the learning environment are the central focus. At times, advocates must challenge existing practices, policies and pre-existing cultural beliefs based on their knowledge of student learning and best practices.
Teacher leaders are entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurs possess a positive attitude, a passion for the profession and confidence in their abilities (Leffler, 2020). As an entrepreneur, teacher leaders are knowledgeable about the subject matter, continuously engage in professional learning experiences and work to develop entrepreneurial skills and attitudes in their students. They seek new materials, new approaches and differentiated lesson delivery to meet the needs of students in varied contexts.
Teacher leaders are reflective practitioners. Through a cycle of professional learning, experimentation, honest assessment and reflection, teacher leaders hone their content knowledge and pedagogical knowledge to best meet the instructional needs of their students. Reflection must be based on knowledge of best practice, input from colleagues and continued application over time. Reflection occurs through journaling, blogging, video analysis, peer sharing and action research practices.
Teacher leaders are motivators. Teacher leaders are motivated to collaborate with and support colleagues. Key aspects of motivation are that teachers engage in experimentation, share their ideas and understandings, and then make decisions to take action or institute changes. They motivate their students and colleagues in inquiry and acting upon their curiosities.
Teacher leaders are risk takers. Teacher leaders have a natural curiosity and eagerness to learn new techniques and experiment. When switching to virtual and hybrid lesson deliver, teachers had to take risks and experiment with various forms of technology to design and implement lessons for their students. They stepped outside their comfort zones and sought innovative ways to deliver instruction. Risk takers share experiences within a culture of mutual acceptance.
Why is it necessary to consider all teachers as leaders? Teachers exhibit the above mentioned teacher leadership qualities to various degrees. While some prefer to limit their leadership skills within the context of their own classroom, others extend these qualities to their grade level or content team, and others assume leadership roles and responsibilities at the school or district level. No matter the context, assuming leadership roles contributes to teacher efficacy and collective efficacy and contributes to the positive learning culture of a school.
When all teachers see themselves through the lens of a teacher leader, the school as an organization can experience positive transformation. The learning culture is enhanced as teachers engage in inquiry and professional learning through a cyclical process of examining, designing, adapting, evaluating, and reflecting upon their instructional knowledge, practices and approaches (DiGisi et al., 2020). Recognizing teachers as leaders supports and enhances a teacher’s self-efficacy and teachers’ collective efficacy. A teacher’s self-efficacy, or judgment of teaching capabilities, is related to many of the teacher leader qualities discussed. The sense of success and accomplishment is commonly related to motivation, challenges, experimentation and persistence (Tschannen-Moran & Chen, 2014; Walpole & Vitale, 2020). Collaboration among teachers leads to collective efficacy, the beliefs of teachers that their combined efforts and roles can impact student outcomes.
In the midst of the pandemic, teachers were thrust into new understandings and definitions of their roles and their leadership abilities. They learned new and creative ways to provide instruction, locate appropriate materials and resources, and communicate with students, parents, and colleagues. When schools return to “normal” and decide which aspects of hybrid and virtual learning are important to maintain, the leadership qualities developed in teachers need to be recognized, supported and nourished. There is a teacher leader in every teacher.
Susan L. Massey, Ph.D. is an assistant professor and Master of Education Program Director at Upper Iowa University. She teaches online graduate level courses in teacher leadership and literacy. In addition, she directs the Master of Education Program which includes emphasis areas in Teacher Leadership, Higher Education, Early Childhood Education, Reading, Special Education, English as a Second Language, and Talented and Gifted Education. For more information about the online Master of Education program at Upper Iowa University, please explore the website at https://uiu.edu/academics/programs/med/.