What is Teacher Leadership? A Candid Conversation

Tch Laureate Team

Last April, a group of colleagues and I applied to the New York Teacher Leadership Summit (powered by Teach to Lead). It was billed as an opportunity to:

  • Develop the skills to design and advocate for a teacher-led initiative  
  • Network and build relationships with critical national thought partners    
  • Connect with teacher leaders and administrators from across the NY Metro region

Driven by our love for our south Bronx public middle and high school students, we aspired to improve our practice. To do so, we wanted more professional learning opportunities and a structure to help us share what we learned with each other. We submitted a proposal that would allow us to do just that. Our proposal was one of twenty selected from across New York State, and we were excited to join other teams working to create opportunities for teacher-led learning and leadership at their schools, in their districts, or across the state.

It’s now six months later and we’re (deep) in the work. Our small team has grown and we’re about to support the launch of Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) in our school. I sat down with two of my colleagues from our original team: Sonia Rivera-Gomez, a social studies teacher in her 22nd year, and Linda Aldebot, a second year special education teacher (and my co-teacher) to talk about how they became teacher leaders, what it means to be a teacher leader in a high-need school, and the role networks have played along the way.

Excerpts from our conversation are below.


Question 1:

Geneviève: What do you think it means to be a teacher leader today?

Linda: It means we have the ability, but also the desire, to advocate for our space, our classroom, our children, our school. Just being mindful to make sure that everything we stand for is for improvement in our practice — whether that means in our building, with our colleagues, or our students. Just making sure that our desire is there to move forward.

Sonia: I concur. Teacher leadership requires a desire to identify a problem or an issue and to speak on it. To collaborate with people, problem-solve. You have to be willing to speak up about it. I think that takes time. I think it’s also personality. It requires a space where you’re allowed to speak freely.


Question 2:

Geneviève: You can lead in lots of different ways. Because our profession has few official titles, for me, the biggest piece is thinking about leading by being yourself, modeling. I think of different people in our building as leaders in different ways. Because there aren’t official titles, being a teacher leader today means identifying something in your practice that you’re really good at and just modeling that for others. Sharing your expertise in a way that is authentic for you.

How did you become a teacher leader?

Sonia: I started teaching with super veteran teachers and no one wanted to lead. So, by default, I became the team leader. Like, oh my. It was accidental.

Geneviève: Or was it?

Laughter.

Sonia: I also think it’s part of my personality as well, and my life experience. Again, it was a willingness to speak on issues that were affecting students, our work environment, colleagues. It was my first year and I was a leader.

But after awhile, when I became more comfortable in my practice, I sought out leadership opportunities. Part of that came from feeling stuck. I was comfortable, but I felt that leading would give me a renewed spirit and renewed energy, so I started to seek out those opportunities. It started with opportunities seeking me, and then me seeking opportunities.

Linda: When I first heard this question I was like, “Um, Geneviève made me.”

Laughter.

I don’t really know why, but just hearing what you’re saying makes me think of my personality. This is just how I am. I’m very outspoken. I feel the need to make sure that things are OK. I feel like we need to do more to ensure that things are working in a way that meets the needs of our students or our colleagues. We’re taking that initiative to help our community and make sure everybody is doing OK. I’ve never been scared to say, “Hey, this is not working.”

Sonia: Well, that’s the essence of being a teacher, right? I mean, that’s what teachers do. We think on our feet. We teach first period and think, “Oh that didn’t work too well. I’ve got to do something different for second period.” We’re identifying issues and places for improvement. That’s the essence of who we are. We’re teachers. And that’s connected to being a teacher leader. I almost feel like it’s a natural progression or trajectory.

Linda: I like that. It comes naturally but I also think some people will stay back and won’t say anything. I think our personalities really make us take that leadership role. No one else is saying anything. Somebody’s got to say something, so…

Sonia: Yes, and as a teacher, if you have that child sitting quietly in the corner, you recognize that and say, “OK. Let me go address whatever issue this is.” Same with our colleagues. If they’re not comfortable speaking up about this, let me go ask them. Let’s talk, let me speak on it. Because we do that for our students, right? It’s all connected.

Geneviève: I agree that it’s a personality thing, but I think everyone has the potential to be a leader in some way. Do you guys feel like every teacher should be a leader? Is a leader? What are your thoughts on that?

Sonia: Every teacher has the potential to be a leader, but people are leaders in different ways. It could be modeling things, and I’m watching that and learning from that.

Linda: I think all teachers are leaders in certain ways. Like Mr. Callendar, he’s certainly a leader. Kids look up to him, there’s a lot of high school students who still come down looking for him.

Sonia: Exactly.

Linda: So I feel like all of us are leaders in a certain way. It’s just people display or portray their leadership differently and sometimes we can’t see it. We might not see where they’re leading.

Geneviève: I never really thought of myself as a teacher leader or used this term, until after my tenth year of teaching. That was when I got a U.S. Department of Education fellowship in Washington. I left my classroom, went to DC, and was one of five teachers from across the country working for the Office of the Secretary of Education. And people were asking, “What is it like in schools? What are your thoughts on this?” And we were like, “Oh, you want to hear what I have to say?” It took the five of us about six months, about half of the fellowship, to find our voice, because it was a really different environment.

In that instance, I learned something. I went in thinking, “Duh, everybody knows this. It’s obvious.” But I learned that’s not the truth. People don’t know what we do. That blew my mind. But it was there at the Department of Education that the term teacher leader was put on us. And I thought, “OK, yeah, I am a teacher leader, and what I have to say is important, and my experience as a teacher in L.A., in Oakland, and the Bronx needs to inform what you’re doing at this policy level.”

That was when the term first came to me. But then, when I thought about it, I knew I was definitely leading in different ways. It came very organically. It wasn’t a formal role. It was, “Something’s wrong. Let’s fix it,” or “Hey, I want to try something with my kids. Who wants to try it with me?”

So I think part of that is making your learning visible for others, and it makes me think of vulnerability. I think as a teacher leader you do have to be vulnerable and make your practice public. And it’s OK. It’s a form of leadership to show that you’ve messed up. Can you mess up with me? Let’s learn from our mistakes.


Question 3:

What does it mean to be a teacher leader at a high-need school like ours?

Linda: For me, as a second year teacher, it really means I have to be my students’ voice. All day. All the time. And I’m not going sit here and take no. We’re going to figure out how this is going to happen and, if I’m the only one yelling about it, I’m the only one yelling about it.

We’re going to figure out a way to service our students in the best way we can, but we’re not going to sit here and just let it be. In a high-need school we don’t have the same resources other schools have to see that our students succeed. However, we have the same standards and we still have similar expectations from the state or the city. We don’t get exemptions just because we’re a high-need school so I don’t feel like I, as a teacher, should hold my expectations lower because we’re a high-need school. If your expectations for our students with disabilities or those who are learning English is up here (motions with her hand), then I, as a teacher leader, need to figure out how we’re going to get there if we don’t have the resources, what resources can be put into play, and how is my voice going to help in order to get those resources.

Sonia: Going back to what Geneviève was saying, she made an assumption and I did, too, that everyone knows what we’re going through, what we do. But I don’t think I knew what I was going to go through until I was in it, right?

Laughter.

I mean, I did my student teaching, got my Masters, I’m here. I was handed keys and told, “Good luck.” And, I was lucky to have keys.

Laughter.

I think that in a high-need school you have to understand that you’re going to wear multiple hats, multiple leadership hats. So, you’re leading in the classroom, but then you may also be called upon to lead a team of teachers at different stages. You’re going to be a counselor, an advocate, a social worker, a police officer — being in a school like this, there are things you have to do that you would have no idea how to do until you do them. And all of those are leadership opportunities.

What drives me is injustice. So everything is framed around that. It’s an injustice if our students don’t have the same resources. You play advocate. For me, that’s what being at a high-need school means. You’re a leader automatically whether you want to be or not. You wear a lot of different hats and people are going to come and go — and I’m not just talking about students, right? So, that’s part of being in a high-need school. People come and go. There’s like a revolving door at the front. So it’s this constant movement of people, in and out, in and out. But the children stay the same. Their needs are the same, with some variations.

Leadership in schools is to bring justice to our kids, right? And there is a lot of injustice.

Geneviève: Being a teacher leader in a high-need school is just like being a teacher in a high-need school, in that everything is amplified. Like the rotating door you spoke of, Sonia.

(Looking at Linda) Before you got here, I used to complain to Sonia and say, “I’m not co-teaching with a first year teacher.” Because I have — multiple times — and it’s so much work. You have to do a whole other job of coaching someone, supporting them, but I was singing your praises the other night because you were hands-down the best first-year teacher I ever worked with, because you were just a good teacher. And I think what makes you a good teacher is that willingness to learn, that willingness to advocate. It’s just who you are. You’re a hard worker. But if you weren’t the way you are and you were more resistant, or someone who says, “Oh, these kids can’t learn” type of person, that would make my job so much harder. But because we work in a high-need school, we get so many new teachers all the time. Teachers who, like you and me, went or are are going through alternative certification programs. Everything is just amplified. Everything is not only more intense because you don’t have the same human or financial resources, but also because the stakes are so high for our kids.

Sonia: So instruction becomes almost the least of what you do, right? It takes a lot, but because we’re in a high-need school we have to constantly take attendance, because there’s an attendance issue. We have to make sure this kid gets to the nurse daily, because there are health issues. We have to make sure this child goes to counseling, because they’ve witnessed a traumatic event. So the actual instruction is like a very tiny part — but of course, it’s massive. I’ve got to lend my kid my laptop because they don’t speak English, so maybe we can translate here because you don’t have access to technology in your home. And then the money that you spend because they need this or that.

So, it’s a lot.


Question 4:

What advice do you have for teacher leaders in high-need schools or folks who are trying to step into that leadership role?

Linda: My advice is two-fold. Don’t be scared and don’t give up. Not everyone is going to think what you’re saying is important or feasible or reasonable or whatever the case. Some people may think, “You’re crazy. This is how we’ve always done it.” But for me, it’s like, “And? So what? Good for you.” The issue of not having rooms for my students to go to for their modifications for an exam was unacceptable. So now we have a schedule, because I was complaining all day. And I was going to keep complaining because it made no sense.

If you only say something once, you might be heard, but people are busy. So maybe if I say it four times, one of those people will actually hear me, and then we can move forward and do things.

I often hear, “Oh, but admin says…” And I get it. Admin is your boss, but admin is a human, too. They don’t have all the answers. And maybe they don’t have all the thoughts that we have either. Admin doesn’t see the 24/7 — but we do. Therefore, you need to be the person that goes ahead and says it five times, or as many times as it takes, for someone to hear you.

Or you might just have to do it.

Sonia: Identify your allies. Also identify your detractors, because you will have them. But identify your allies because it’s good to have help. You can’t do it all yourself.

With that in mind, especially in a high-need school, because there are so many things — choose which hill you want to die on.

Laughter.

Linda: It’s true.

Sonia: Because there are battles where I think, “That’s not the hill I want to die on.” So I prioritize.

My third piece of advice is to be prepared to stand alone. And I had to learn that. People talk a good game, but at the end of the day I’d look behind me and there was nobody there. I had to get to a point where I was OK with that. You’re coming with me or you’re not, but this is a matter of justice so whatever it is, I’m going to speak on it.

So, be prepared to die on that hill by yourself.

Geneviève: I love all the advice you’ve given here. I would add stay true to your core. Because there will be people who think you’re crazy, and I’ve also experienced some haters. “Oh, you want to do that? You do this and you do that?” And I’m thinking, “I’m just doing my job.” Stay true to what you know is right for kids, because that’s all you can do.


Question 5:

Last question. What role do networks and networking play in being or becoming a teacher leader?

Linda: I’m still learning how to network and what networking really means. I often just sit and listen because I don’t know what to say, or I feel as though I’m not experienced enough to say much. So I listen and I learn so much.

And I tell people in my personal life I wouldn’t be such a great teacher if I didn’t have people that I listened to. If I didn’t listen to your stories and your advice, your protocols and your management, and all these things, I wouldn’t know what to do half the time. I wouldn’t have absorbed so much.

Yes, I have a personality that gears me there. However, I can’t do it myself because I’m learning. I mean, I got thrown into this just like you (motioning to Sonia), “Here’s some keys. Here you go!”

So I think listening to my networks really helped me develop.

Sonia: Networking amongst each other and being open to that. There’s nothing officially in place that I’ve seen for a sustained amount of time that really cultivates teacher leaders. I’ve just seen people taking it upon themselves — whether it’s listening in as a part of a team, listening at the union meeting or whatever it is, and taking those experiences and shaping your role in these institutions.

Unfortunately, I have not seen these institutions cultivate teacher leaders. I think it’s something people take upon themselves. They absorb what people are saying or doing and are watching and developing themselves. I don’t necessarily think it’s cultivated by the powers that be or by the institution, unfortunately. I think that would be powerful. Administrators try to, but that usually means making you into another administrator. It’s not about cultivating your talent as a teacher leader. It’s cultivating your potential to be a leader outside of the classroom as an administrator, and I think that’s unfortunate.

Geneviève: I think by nature I am a natural networker because I love people.

When I applied for the ED job, one of the questions you had to answer was what were the networks you were a part of and how could you use those networks to share what the department was doing. And I thought of the different networks I was a part of as a National Board Certified Teacher, as a Teach for America alum, and in other groups.

I realized that they’re really wonderful resources to have, not only for my personal benefit and the benefit of my students, but just to connect people with other people. I’m of the mindset, “Let’s all be amazing!”

For me, the networks have helped me expand my knowledge as a teacher, but more importantly, it’s expanded my support group, because this work is really hard.

Even just talking with you tonight has been really inspiring. You guys are one of my networks.

For me, it’s about getting better as an educator, but also about the notion of being supported.

Thank you both so much for your time. This was awesome.

Sonia and Linda: It was!

Geneviève is an educator, artist, and activist who has taught middle school for over a decade. She is a proud National Board Certified Teacher and U.S. Department of Education Teaching Ambassador Fellow. Geneviève strongly believes that education is a tool for social justice and empowerment, and that learning experiences for children should be culturally relevant, student-centered, and interactive. She started her teaching career as a 1999 Teach for America corps member and currently serves as a commissioner on the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future. Geneviève is a seventh grade English Language Arts teacher at Bronx Studio School for Writers and Artists in New York City. Connect with Geneviève on Twitter: @GenevieveDeBose.

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