A r c h i v e d  I n f o r m a t i o n

Teachers Leading the Way: Voices from the National Teacher Forum - April 1998

Forms of Teacher Leadership

Forum participants identified many ways in which teachers can lead.
  1. Participating in professional teacher organizations. Traditionally, being a teacher leader meant holding a position of influence in an organization or a union. For many teachers, these roles continue to be important. Many positions in these organizations have broadened in scope to provide opportunities for teachers to influence a wide range of policies.

    • While president of Wisconsin's science teachers' association, Sharon Nelson led efforts to develop and implement science education standards. She worked with the National Science Teachers Association, Goals 2000, and local teachers to bring copies of the national science education standards to her state. She also worked with Wisconsin's Department of Public Instruction to establish state science standards and have them implemented in Wisconsin's science classrooms.

  2. Taking part in school decisions. Some teachers are working on teams with administrators to plan improvements within their schools.

    • They go by many names--site-based management teams, school improvement teams... But their goal is the same--to expand the decision-making opportunities from the administrative team to the classroom teacher," Renee Higdon Coward from North Carolina explained. "What a valuable resource!! As a fledging teacher I saw the principal come to the veteran teachers on an informal basis to get their opinions on administrative and curricular decisions. The principal knew that the best way to determine how policy affects students was to ask the person who was most directly involved with students--the classroom teacher. I was very fortunate to have a forward-thinking principal who embraced the concept of site-based decision making... Unfortunately, many school systems do not encourage this practice."

  3. Defining what students need to know and be able to do. In many states and schools, teachers have developed academic standards and rewritten the curriculum and assessments to reflect the new standards.

    • Teachers took leadership roles on Delaware commissions established to make education improvements and write standards for a range of subjects, including math, science, social studies, and language arts. In each district, teachers were later involved in rewriting the curriculum to be consistent with the new standards. Teachers also wrote and piloted new statewide assessments that were in line with the standards. Delaware teacher Jan Parsons reported, "This truly was a reform movement that began and continued with teachers."

  4. Sharing ideas with colleagues. Some experienced teachers have developed and led professional development programs for their colleagues, aimed at helping them improve skills needed to help students reach high standards. Some successful professional development programs enable teachers to share ideas with one another.

    • Tom Howe's school in Wisconsin has a "Share Net Program" which allows teachers to share their best education practices. "We do this informally, all of us, as good teachers," Mr. Howe observed. "But we rarely sit down and take time to do it formally." Share Net participants write out their successes and make formal presentations. Within a week of Mr. Howe's Share Net presentation, a dozen or more teachers in his high school had begun using his ideas in their classrooms.

  5. Being a mentor to new teachers. Veteran teachers provide critically needed support and advice to colleagues who are either new altogether to teaching or new to their area of teaching. For some inexperienced teachers, support from mentors has been key to their decision to remain teachers and to their professional competence.

    • "In 1973, when I first started teaching, a science teacher named Dick Reagan changed my life through mentorship," said Fie Budzinsky of Connecticut. "That was long before the word was popular. He spent every afternoon of every day, two to three hours, teaching me how to teach science. His support was invaluable. Today, 20 years later, I'm a mentor for the State of Connecticut."

  6. Helping to make personnel decisions. In some districts, teachers are consulted in hiring new teachers and administrators.

    • Mary Ostwalt from Blowing Rock, North Carolina, served on a selection committee formed to replace a teacher who resigned. "The hiring of new faculty members is a tremendous responsibility, and the makeup of a faculty certainly affects school climate, " she says. "The administrators send a strong message when giving teachers this responsibility... Teachers are also on the selection committee for the hiring of principals in our system."

  7. Improving facilities and technology. Teachers have played important roles in improving education facilities.

    • In Redmond, Oregon, teachers were the driving force behind a new $3.5 million technology facility. "We had a great team in Redmond," teacher Ray Hasart explained. "It took us five years to get it done. We had to sell it to the community and sell it to educators. We went and did all the Chamber meetings, all the Kiwanis meetings. . . The dog and pony show, our team called it. We used students to help us show off the curriculum. Right now we have one of the finest technology facilities in a comprehensive high school in the West, and we've had people from all over the West Coast come and visit."

  8. Working with parents. Teachers encourage mothers, fathers, and other adults to be involved in schools as well as give ideas to better link schools and home.

    • Martina Marquez has formed a team with fellow teachers in New Mexico to go into Indian villages and surrounding communities to speak with parents. "Many of our children are from (English) language-deficient homes, so we need to reach the parents," she explained. "We go out and do math and reading activities with the parents and say, 'Why don't you do this with your child at home?' There are kits we give out in the hospitals, which include a book and a little bib that says 'Read to Me' and a little brochure with activities that they can do with their children. If we don't start early, by the time they reach school it's already too late."

    • Linda Gojak from Ohio works with parents to help them understand the school's math program and trains parents so that they can help their children learn math. She has also provided elementary school teachers who lack a strong math background with guidance on how to use the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) Curriculum Standards to reexamine and improve their teaching of math.

  9. Creating partnerships with the community. Some teachers have worked with their communities to improve the schools.

    • Scott Griffin from North Carolina spurred the overhaul of his community's fire safety program and volunteer fire department. "The volunteer fire department...was pretty much the joke of the community," he said. "They weren't very good at putting out fires, and teachers began to complain and whine when volunteers visited our kindergarten--all they did was have the kids squirt water. There really was no fire safety program." To remedy this situation, Mr. Griffin joined the volunteer fire department and worked his way up through the system. Eventually he won the firemen's trust and worked with them to structure a training program which included the establishment of physical fitness standards. The firemen then got interested in how they could share their new knowledge with children, which led to a restructuring of the district's fire safety curriculum. Mr. Griffin's efforts had an unanticipated additional benefit--a partnership between the school district and volunteer firemen that stretched beyond fire safety. "When there was a project within the school that we needed help on, I didn't have to ask very much," Griffin noted. "I had a whole group of men and their wives who would come in and work with our school. . . I've found that by getting involved in my community, it's much easier to get my community involved back into my school."

  10. Creating partnerships with business and organizations. Teachers take the lead in forming partnerships with businesses and other organizations. As outgrowths of these partnerships, schools and teachers gain everything from financial resources to business and other specialized expertise, and the businesses and organizations gain high school graduates who are better prepared for the workplace.

    • Stephanie Blakney was concerned that low-income students in her school in Georgia had few opportunities to go on field trips. "I took the phone book and started calling several businesses to tell them about our needs," she reported. These ranged from needing money to send students on field trips to basic necessities like food and clothing for her students. Her efforts lead to establishing the school system's Partnership with Education. As a part of this partnership, the Atlanta Coca-Cola Bottling Company "adopted" her school. "We had several kids whose houses were burned, or who did not have food, so together we started a food bank," she said. "Now we have a place to send parents and families in need. I am very proud of what we have accomplished."

  11. Creating partnerships with colleges and universities to prepare future teachers. Experienced teachers help colleges and universities develop their teacher education curriculum and encourage teachers-in-training.

    • Christy McNally wished to share some of her teaching experiences with college students preparing to become teachers. So the former Kansas Teacher of the Year, together with other award-winning teachers, organized a partnership with teacher education programs throughout Kansas. The partnership, now in its fourth year, has been a big hit. The present and future teachers have talked about the national education trends and issues and about teachers as leaders. They have talked about how much the profession expands beyond regular school hours and the schools and into the community. They have talked about the need to act professionally in order to gain community support and respect. "It's a kind of mini-teaching forum for future teachers in the college, and it's been wonderful," Ms. McNally said.

  12. Becoming leaders in the community. Teachers lead community groups and organizations. By doing so teachers and their schools gain support; as residents get to know teachers and schools better, their confidence in them improves. Teachers who become involved in the community also come to understand it better, which helps them address the needs of their students more effectively.

    • "I'm fortunate to live in a very, very rural state," Jacqueline Omland from Aberdeen, South Dakota reported. "I teach in the third largest school district in the state, and there are only 25,000 people in the town. In fact, we got on David Letterman for having two students in the graduating class in the town that's 30 miles away from us. So we have very, very small schools. Part of our evaluation as a teacher is community service--what we do in the community. So we have to take leadership roles in the community. This year, I'm the president of the Legion auxiliary, and the guy I teach with is the chairman of the Legion."

    • Chip Brown from South Carolina recognizes the importance of having more teachers assume leadership roles in their communities. "If one can serve on the local city council, one should," he advised. "If one can serve on the Salvation Army board, one should. If teachers use lack of time as an excuse--valid as it may be--they will never be able to demonstrate the strength of their leadership in settings other than the schools. . . Teachers will have to seek out these roles and work to get them, because teachers will not, as a rule, be sought out."

  13. Becoming politically involved. Teachers participate in the political process by running for and being elected to offices that range from state legislator to school board member. Other teachers have influenced education policy--for example, by testifying at their state legislatures, working on political campaigns, or serving on education advisory boards that report to their governor or their state department of education.

    • Ivy Chan from Washington served one summer as treasurer in the campaign of a man running to become her state's Superintendent of Public Instruction. She was driven to do so because she objected vigorously to statements that her candidate's opponent made during the campaign. "I learned all kinds of things," Chan said. "This was a wealthy experience for me to take back to the classroom." The small downside to her foray into politics was that she committed so much time to it that her garden went neglected and, she chuckled, "My roses died."

    • A South Carolina teacher, Kelly McCalla, described an important contribution that teachers can make to the political process. "Politicians want solutions. Teachers know how to state the problems. What teachers must do is learn how to state the problems in a language that politicians understand and that will lead to solutions. It is up to the teachers."

  14. Leading efforts to make teachers more visible and communicate positive information. Many teachers aren't by nature self-promoters, so other educators, parents, policy makers and members of the community often aren't aware of teachers' abilities and accomplishments. Visibility is critical if teachers want their work to be recognized and if they want to take on leadership responsibilities outside the classroom.

    • "In order for us to be viewed as leaders, we must be visible," said Annette Anderson from Washington, D.C. "We need to make use of the media. "I know as a teacher that there are great things happening in the District of Columbia Public Schools, but we never hear about these things. We need to focus on the positive, write articles to the newspaper, get involved with various public awareness programs to discuss what is happening in our particular area."

    • Larry Torres started a weekly news column in his New Mexico community that reports all the good things that happen in education. His initial focus was on high school events and activities, but a wealth of contributions from elementary schools has enabled him to broaden the grade span of his reporting. His column evolved into a full page of information which runs each week. "One full page devoted to what is positive, what is right with the community--that is something that I'm very proud of," he said.


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