Teacher Leadership: Why It’s More Important Than Ever

Teacher Leader illustration by Madelyn Flanagan

Talk to almost anyone who teaches students in Pre-K through 12th grade and you’ll hear a common theme: Year after year, teaching is becoming increasingly challenging. The reasons for this vary and include everything from teaching shortages to increasing class sizes to lack of funding to differences in student learning styles.

Add to that the challenges resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic — sudden shifts to online learning, health and safety concerns for teachers, students and families, and the havoc created in school academic calendars and schedules — and it becomes pretty clear that educational leadership at every level is needed to surmount continuing and complex issues. Today, the need for individuals to step up and step into the role of a teacher leader is more important than ever before.

What Is a Teacher Leader?

“A teacher leader is one who steps up and takes initiative to improve not only themselves and their own classroom but is willing to help and mentor other teachers to provide the best quality education for the students they serve,” says Dr. Brittany Spillman, a graduate of the Troy University Teacher Leader-Education Specialist program.

For teacher leaders, providing “the best quality education” can encompass direct instruction or administrative duties — or a combination of both. Depending on the school district in which they work, a teacher leader might spend the majority of time teaching in the classroom and only be involved with a minimal number of curriculum tasks — such as peer-to-peer coaching.

In other districts, a teacher leader might have a hybrid schedule that allows them to spend most of their time working on leadership tasks and only a limited amount of time teaching in the classroom.

According to Dr. Tonya Dawn Conner,  Associate Professor and Interim Department Chair for Leadership Development and Professional Studies at Troy University, the option of moving into teacher leadership is very appealing to educators who are already serving in leadership roles within their school, but who don’t want to become full-time administrators.

“The very best teachers were leaving the classroom to become principals,” she explains. “However, many found they didn’t like it and wanted to go back to the classroom. Becoming a teacher leader gives them that option. It allows them to focus on things like curriculum development and instruction, while also allowing them to engage with students in the classroom.”

Those in teacher leadership are uniquely positioned to work in the areas of educational advancement they’re most interested in without having to make an either/or choice between being a classroom teacher or a full-time administrator. As teacher leaders, they can essentially have a foot in both worlds.

Although the roles teacher leaders play vary from district to district and state to state, they typically serve as instructional coaches. “They model by teaching lessons and techniques for their peers, provide staff development, assist with classroom management and provide instructional coaching,” says Dr. Conner.

“This job is embedded professional development — not professional development you put on a shelf after a workshop. It’s all about working cooperatively and collaboratively. A teacher leader helps their fellow faculty members reach individual and shared goals.”

Dr. Spillman agrees that collaboration is crucial. “My greatest professional development has been the conversations in the hall between classes from other educators who have been through my same struggles,” she says. “We need to foster these professional relationships with fellow teachers so we can all grow and learn.”

Although much of the work they do involves instructional coaching and providing teacher mentorship to educators who are either new to the profession or new to the school, teacher leaders also work with seasoned teachers.

“You can’t become stagnant and stop learning about new ways of doing things,” explains Dr. Conner. Innovation in any field spurs demand for continuous learning. “Take surgeons, for example. It used to be that removing a gallbladder was a very invasive procedure. But now surgeons can make three small incisions, remove the gallbladder, and then the patient can go home.”

Over time, in almost every profession, techniques and approaches change — and that includes the way we teach. “Teacher leaders can introduce these advancements and the teachers themselves have to do a little bit of work to learn how to apply them in their classroom,” says Dr. Conner. “Then, just like patients who benefit from the new approach used by a surgeon, students benefit when teachers are staying on top of the most recent developments in instructional design and delivery.”

Expanding Your Impact Through Teacher Leadership

In addition to being part of improving how teaching and learning take place, being a teacher leader enables you to expand your reach and impact as an educator — and it gets you a seat at the table. “Whatever their gifts and talents are,” says Dr. Conner, “teacher leaders are able to share them with more people. For example, instead of just helping 30 students in a classroom during any given year, you can now help 500 within the school or throughout the district.”

Dr. Spillman agrees that teacher leadership expands the reach of an educator’s impact: “I wanted to be in conversations that impacted the entire school, not just my classroom. I wanted to make a greater difference in the lives of all of the students at my school, not just the ones that came through my classroom.”

Teacher leaders also play a critical role in identifying specific areas of need — whether it’s in a classroom, a school or an entire district — and they can be active participants in designing solutions to address them. Some of the more common issues teacher leaders tackle include improving recruitment and retention of highly qualified educators, improving student outcomes by bolstering the quality of instruction, providing support to at-risk and/or disadvantaged students, and augmenting school leadership teams.

Teachers are the ones who are at the frontline of education and, because of that, they are often the ones who are best suited to help identify needs and create solutions that impact students both inside and outside of the classroom.

What It Takes To Be an Effective Teacher Leader

As the term implies, teacher leaders need strong skills in two distinct — yet inextricably connected — areas: teaching and leadership.

Beyond being an exceptional educator, “the most important skill required to be a teacher leader is having winsome human relations,” says Dr. Conner. “Teacher leaders have to be able to get along with people.”

On any given day, teacher leaders interact with students, parents, administrators, staff members and fellow faculty members. Being able to build trust with the various groups of individuals you interact with regularly is crucial to being an effective leader. This includes building trust between you and the teachers you work with. “Some teachers don’t want you to come into their room and observe them,” explains Dr. Conner. “So, you have to find a way to get them on board without making them feel less than.”

Dr. Spillman agrees. “A good teacher leader knows how to meet others where they are and provide guidance and leadership in a way that supports their needs and helps them grow.”

Instructional coaching is an area in which effective teacher leaders excel. They must be able to step into an instructional challenge and help determine what is missing, what needs to be changed and what needs to be done to find and implement a solution. “Teacher leaders help those they serve come up with a plan and come up with an area of improvement to focus on,” says Dr. Conner. “This is where modeling happens. Then, feedback is provided by the teacher leader and next steps are determined.”

Excellent communication and organizational skills are also hallmarks of effective teacher leaders. Both are needed to be successful in balancing demands that are likely to differ from day to day.

Is Leadership Innate or Can It Be Learned?

“The main thing you have to realize as a teacher leader is that leadership isn’t about managing people — it’s about leading them,” says Dr. Conner. “You manage things and tasks. But you lead people. I believe that you can be taught leadership skills.”

Identifying and solving problems, delivering feedback that’s both constructive and effective, organizing schedules and tasks for maximum efficiency, mentoring fellow faculty and staff members, developing innovative curricula and advocating for school improvements are all skills that define effective teacher leaders. And each of them can be taught and learned.

Dr. Conner also shares her philosophy that teacher leaders should be servant leaders. “For example, don’t ask others to do something you wouldn’t do,” she explains. “Instead, do things that show others you respect them and value their time.”

Servant leadership creates learning opportunities on both sides.

“I’m not afraid to jump into situations and conversations,” says Dr. Spillman. “I love mentoring new teachers because I have been there, but also I end up learning something from them as a result, making me a better teacher and leader.”

Learning To Lead at TROY

Teaching leadership skills and concepts is at the core of the Teacher Leader Program at TROY.

Certified P-12 teachers who are looking for an opportunity to expand their roles beyond the classroom — but without becoming full-time administrators — find the fully online teacher leadership program offered by TROY a perfect option. In the program, they can earn advanced certification (Class AA) and learn the skills required to serve as effective teacher leaders in their school and/or district.

“Our teacher leadership program is 30 hours, all online, and allows students to earn an educational specialist degree that can be completed in one year,” says Dr. Conner. “It meets the demands of working parents.”

“I loved the flexibility of the online program,” adds Dr. Spillman. “I was able to continue teaching while pursuing my degree.”

To apply to the teacher leadership program offered by TROY, a student must be a certified teacher and hold a master’s degree. If accepted, they have the option of beginning the program either in the fall or spring. “During each term — which lasts nine weeks — students take two, three-credit-hour classes,” explains Dr. Conner. “So, in total, they take 10 classes throughout the course of the program.”

For Dr. Spillman, the program proved to be a real confidence booster. “My confidence and leadership skills improved as a result of this program,” she says. “After the program, I didn’t question my place and abilities and ultimately was invited into more leadership roles and conversations. This program allowed me to sharpen my servant leadership style and determine what that looks like in a K-12 setting.”

In addition to what they learn in their classes, students also participate in a field experience. “These experiences could include providing professional development to peers, doing a coaching cycle with other teachers or coming up with a data-driven plan for instructional improvement,” says Dr. Conner.

Finding practical solutions to problems can also be part of the fieldwork experience. “Other examples of teacher leadership field experiences might be finding two areas in the school that need improvement regarding diversity and coming up with resources for parents,” says Dr. Conner. “Or developing a plan that encourages parents to become more involved with the school. It could include activities designed to make that happen — such as holding a book fair, hosting a hotdog supper, participating in Read Across America or showcasing student performances.”

The field experience is done in a student’s own school or one that’s close by. “They can even use their own classroom,” says Dr. Conner. To support them through the process, students are assigned a mentor who has served as some type of leader within a school for at least four years. These mentors, along with TROY faculty, evaluate and provide guidance regarding a student’s fieldwork.

While the rigor of the teacher leadership program at TROY is substantial, faculty also understand the challenges their students face. “Because of that, we’re very flexible with our students,” says Dr. Conner. “I know what it’s like to go to school and work at the same time.” Faculty members meet with students online using Teams and some instructors provide students with their personal cellphone numbers to facilitate communication.

A Path for Born Teachers

While great leaders aren’t necessarily born, great teachers often are. They have an innate drive to learn, share, advance and lead change. And these are the types of teachers who recognize the value and the opportunities of teacher leadership.

Teachers as leaders isn’t a new concept. Teachers have always led — not just at the front of the classroom, but as champions for their students, for their schools and for their communities. By becoming a trained teacher leader, you increase your ability to identify changes that will enhance where and how students learn, be a voice for your fellow educators when decisions are being made and be an effective advocate for the teaching profession.

“Being a teacher leader allows an educator to reach so many more students and teachers,” says Dr. Conner. “It’s incredibly rewarding.”

Dr. Spillman highly recommends the TROY Teacher Leader program. “It challenged me and helped me grow into the educator I am today. It gave me the knowledge and confidence to step into leadership roles and make a difference in my school and in the lives of all the students we serve. The Teacher Leader program inspired me to get my doctorate in educational leadership so I can continue to make a difference in education today.”

For students considering the program, Dr. Spillman has one piece of advice: “Do it; you won’t regret it! Leadership roles allow you to impact a greater number of students and provide change for the future. Leave a legacy wherever you go.”

If you’re interested in becoming a teacher leader and making a positive impact in the lives of more students, helping your fellow teachers elevate their instructional skills and being at the forefront of change within your educational system, learn more by visiting TROY’s Teacher Leader – Education Specialist program page.