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Professional Development & the Teacher Leader

Jordan Catapano

A teacher leader is a teacher who leads colleagues toward positive change, either through traditional professional development means or as part of more grass-roots efforts. This teacher still maintains normal classroom responsibilities; however, they also become proactive in making their school – not just their class – a better place. And the good news is that schools benefit enormously when their teachers step into these informal leadership and professional development roles.

Professional Development: Who Can Be a Leader?

A teacher leader can have a formal or informal role in their school. Formally, teacher leaders might be department chairs, committee members, head coaches, team leaders, union reps, or other officially recognized positions.

But at the same time, there are always those informal leaders in any organization who have that personal magnetism that designates them as a leader. They have no formal title, but the reputation they’ve earned and they way they conduct themselves makes them the type of teacher who others instinctively look to.

Ultimately, any teacher can be a leader, even in a small regard. Anytime someone steps up to make decision, implement an idea, or just share an example of making a better impact on their students, they are a teacher leader.

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The Need for Teacher Leaders

Every organization needs strong leadership to function. But also, many organizations have a stratification that separates the top-level decision makers from the ground-level workers. This is especially true in schools, when administrators have often not taught in the classroom in years and have questionable insights into the needs of their teachers.

And at the same time, any organization – especially schools – functions better when there are formal and informal leaders taking steps to operate and improve the organization. When teachers take the initiative to care about more than just their class and their students, big differences can be made.

First, teachers’ tenure at an institution often outlasts that of any administrator. Administrators – even ones that lead for decades – don’t often stay in the same position comparable to the 20-35 years a teacher might put into an organization. This fact alone implies that teachers should feel more ownership and responsibility over their school.

Also, teachers actually possess more credibility when it comes to implementing changes in their school. Administrators can set goals and mandate changes, but that is only “the boss” telling “the employees” what to do. Teachers may do it, but the support, understanding, and ownership might not follow. However, when a teacher works among their own colleagues to establish a vision and lead, teachers see this as a peer-to-peer horizontal goal and are more likely to accept it. This presents a “For us, by us” perception that can potentially go much further.

Finally, teachers can just know their own needs best. If they are the ones working at the ground level of education every day, they’re the ones who see the problems, needs, and solutions that administrators may not have the same advantage of perceiving. If teachers know teachers’ needs, then it makes sense that the teachers are the advocates for leading change as well.

The Mind of a Teacher Leader

The first difference between a teacher and a teacher leader is how they view their school. A teacher often possesses a staunch “My classroom, my students” mentality. This mentality focuses on how a teacher can best serve the students entrusted to them, and it implies a high degree of ownership over their classroom, curriculum, and student success.

The teacher leader, on the other hand, thinks “Our students, our school.” This mentality embraces a bigger picture. Instead of strictly thinking about their individual classrooms, their focus is on the entire system that facilitates their teaching. While the teacher rightly feels ownership and responsibility for their classroom, the teacher leader feels ownership and responsibility over the school.

This mentality inspires the teacher leader to do a few things that the ordinary teacher might not:

  • First, they share. When something works well in their classroom, they are willing to help lead others to replicate that success.
  • Second, they collaborate with a team-oriented mindset. Teachers often feel like private contractors who do some “give and take” to get what they want. But a leader understands that when the success of the team trumps the success of the individual every time.
  • Third, they envision it better. When the teacher leader looks at their school, they reflect on what problems exist or what aspects might work even better. This does not lead to complaining – complaining is the job of someone who doesn’t want improvement. The teacher leader can see how improvements can be made and then takes realistic steps to achieve them.
  • Fourth, they take on responsibilities beyond just their contractual obligations. The phrase “That’s not my job” doesn’t come from a teacher leader’s lips often. Instead, if there’s an opportunity to get behind a good cause in the school, they like to participate in that. Even without extra pay.

The list could go further – there’s no limit to how teachers can become leaders in their schools. Teacher leaders begin to assume the same characteristics of any other formal leader. They strive for a better tomorrow, and create a vision and action plan that helps coalesce others into a unified team. They love to listen, learn, collaborate, mediate, discuss, convince, and facilitate.

How to Become a Teacher Leader

Becoming a teacher leader comes with the same challenges as any other leadership position. But you’ll also experience many of the same rewards – as long as you’re not in it for the money.

Becoming a teacher leader is not difficult at all, but it requires a few simple behaviors:

  • Be as excellent a teacher as you can be. There’s no point in trying to change the world if you pay little attention to your own primary responsibility of teaching.
  • Identify problems, weaknesses, or opportunities. Every school can be a little better. Where do you see a need? Be willing to call it like it is and be a proactive part of a solution.
  • Create concrete, realistic plans. We can all dream big, but few can create the realistic, step-by-step solutions necessary to make a dream into a reality. Take time to develop specific, practical steps along a realistic, practical timeline.
  • Do the work. Winston Churchill said, “Responsibility is the price of greatness.” If you desire to lead, be the first one to put on your work gloves and dig in.
  • Share your vision, and LISTEN. You’ll go nowhere on your own. You, army of one, are useless on your own. Have a vision, but listen carefully to what others think, feel, and need.
  • Be a professional, always. When unprofessional behavior – like complaining, gossiping, taking shortcuts, missing responsibilities, and just producing poor work – sneak into your life, it undercuts everything else you might be aspiring towards.

Being a leader of teachers is no easy task. But once you commit to having the mentality and assuming the responsibility of the teacher leader, then you are offering your services for the continual betterment of your school. And you know, as a teacher leader, that as your school improves, so too does its overall impact on your students. So will you answer the call? Will you step out and lead? Will you broaden your sphere of influence? We need you to lead us.

What do you think about teacher leadership through professional development or other means? What other qualities define a teacher leader?

Jordan Catapano is a high school English teacher in a Chicago suburb. In addition to being National Board Certificated and head of his school’s Instructional Development Committee, he also has worked with the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and has experience as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website

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