About a year ago, I applied to serve on the board of a nonprofit in my city. During the interview process, the current board members asked me about relevant leadership experience.
Of course, I felt that initial jolt of imposter syndrome; except for a seasonal job I worked in my early twenties, I had never really had the title of “Leader” in my profession. I have not been in any administrative role, and when it comes to decisions that impact the entire school, I have only as much influence as my verbal contributions during faculty meetings.
Here I was – a high school teacher with at the time only six years of experience – sitting at a roundtable with corporate supervisors and professionals in law and medicine, about to justify how teaching has prepared me to lead an organization. But when I thought about it – and when I started answering the board members’ question – I realized that all the practices of good teaching align with the virtues of leadership.
Effective, innovative teachers may take for granted that they are leaders already.
Teachers take for granted that we are leaders. Every day, good teachers engage students in relevant, rigorous lessons. Teachers negotiate the relationship between their district’s written standards and the needs, gifts, and curiosities of the students in front of them. Teachers collaborate with colleagues on various objectives to advance the school. And it’s not just with those in their departments or grade levels, but also school counselors, psychologists, DEI coordinators, and teachers of other disciplines. Teachers ensure that their classroom culture and presence in the hallways aligns with the school’s mission.
You may already know that you want to earn more credentials and move into a role in school administration. You can start by applying to an EdD in educational leadership program, which will prompt you to study the qualities of effective leaders and develop those qualities in yourself so that you can make lasting change.
But you don’t need to wait until you have your degree to start becoming a leader in your school and a leading voice in education. And you don’t have to be a department head, team leader, principal, or superintendent to have influence and drive change.
Here are seven ways that you can practice leadership in your school, while remaining in your role as a classroom teacher.
1. Get to Know Your Colleagues and Learn About the Other Teachers in Your Building
In Give and Take, researcher and leadership expert Adam Grant argues that asking for help is not just a way of advocating for ourselves; it’s one of the best ways to build trust with those around us. Teachers are no different; as much as we want our students to be curious about our content, we want other teachers to be curious about our methods, knowledge, and approach to instruction.
Learning about your colleagues will not only help you refine your own teaching practices; it will also help you build relationships with the best people in your building.
In every school, we have those teachers that are legends. Think about the colleagues whose courses you always hear students talking about. Is there a math teacher that your students particularly respect? What about that second-grade teacher that all your fifth graders still talk about? What about the inspirational social studies teacher who also happens to speak three languages?
Look for the teachers in your building who are respected, admired, and who make students curious about their subject areas. Even if you’re already experienced, staying curious about what your fellow educators are doing in their classrooms will help others see you as a leader in your school. The next time you share an opinion or idea in a faculty meeting, your colleagues will see you as a respectable, professional presence in the room.
When you present yourself as someone who is willing to learn from others, you build rapport with your colleagues; you build a presence amongst the other professionals in the building, and you become a teacher-leader in your school.
2. Invite Others to Collaborate
The people in your building are your first – and most immediate – network of professionals. When you work with others, what you say during staff meetings carries more weight, and people have more respect for your ideas and approach to teaching. You begin to establish yourself as one of those pillar teachers in your school: an attribute which can help you later on if you choose to move into an administrative role.
Start by engaging your colleagues in conversations or ideas that impact everyone in your school. Is your building divided over ChatGPT? Send out an article that you found online (or even one that you wrote!) about what this AI will mean for the classroom and ask for others’ thoughts. Then, consider how you could collaborate with them as you refine your curriculum. Are you trying to teach a lesson about writing to different audiences? Invite a teacher from each department to share a blurb about how writing works in different fields. Have you noticed division amongst the student body? Ask other teachers – or student organizations, for that matter – if they have ideas for a school-wide initiative to create a more inclusive environment.
Remember that you can also collaborate with people outside of your building. Read on to learn more about networking beyond your school.
3. Share Your Ideas
If you’ve gone through any kind of professional development or teacher preparation program, you’ve heard this before: “Good teachers steal.”
It’s true – our students benefit when we learn about best practices from other teachers. But I also think that good teachers – especially teacher leaders – are excited to share what they’re doing in the classroom.
Many utilize Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok for networking and engaging in discussions about classroom management, best practices, or even educational policies. Accessible and intuitive, social media platforms become a way to feature your best lesson on teaching theme to your sixth grade ELA students. They can also be an outlet where you ask for advice or share your honest, humorous #teacherfails.
If you’re wanting to gain a following and are not already posting about your lessons on a teacher TikTok or Instagram, you can start small. Make a reel about how you greet your Kindergartners every day or an instructional post about how to engage parents. Study the trending education hashtags and think about how you may participate in the conversation.
Not Into Social Media? You Don’t Have to Be!
Here are some other ways that you can share your ideas and become a leader in the profession:
- Engage with the podcasting community. Listen to podcasts about education; check out Truth for Teachers, The Cult of Pedagogy, or, one of my personal favorites, Schurtz & Ties. Reach out to the hosts and ask a question or offer an idea for a topic that you’d like them to cover or send them an email to say thank you for a piece of advice they gave you.
- If you have a blog, book, or podcast of your own that you want to promote, consider making a profile on Podmatch. It’s like social media, but for podcasters and people who want to be on podcasts.
- Write a blog or start a Substack, where you can build a list of subscribers and even monetize on your writing.
- Consider posting about your ideas on LinkedIn (this is a version of social media, but I find it to be more thoughtful). During and in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, many teachers and #transitioningteachers used LinkedIn to build robust networks where we could share innovative, fresh ideas, especially for non-traditional classroom settings.
- Apply to write for an education blog or online magazine, like Education Week, Education News, or Teach Better… or this one!
- Sell your teaching materials on Teachers Pay Teachers or a similar platform. If you’re consistent about providing quality materials that teachers can use in a variety of classroom settings, you’ll be spreading your ideas and instructional approaches to educators across the country.
- Offer online mentoring or coaching for new teachers. This will require some additional marketing or promotion, but over time, you may be able to build a consistent clientele.
When it comes to sharing your ideas, don’t overthink it. Consider what you’re already doing in your classroom. Document it with some photos (adhering to your school’s policy about student privacy, of course), write a little bit about it, and consider linking any materials that you’ve made.
Sharing ideas is how we share that we are dynamic, capable – it’s how people come to see us as respectable, thoughtful leaders. By sharing your talents, questions, and even challenges with other educators, you position yourself as a prominent voice in the profession.
4. Mentor New Teachers
Many young teachers struggle to adjust to the demands of the profession. Between classroom management, differentiation, grading, and building rapport with parents, new teachers are vulnerable to burnout.
When young teachers choose to leave the profession, we miss out on the qualified, effective educators that they may become with even a few more years of experience.
Leaders understand the importance of creating a stable community of teachers, both within their schools and in the profession in general. Mentoring is a direct way of supporting those new to the profession, without being an administrator who officially evaluates their performance.
Many schools already have an official mentoring program for new teachers, and, in many cases, you don’t need to have decades of experience to become a mentor (usually five years of experience is enough to qualify as a mentor).
Even if your school doesn’t have an official program, there are plenty of things that you can do to bolster those who need it – and they don’t have to be formal. Stop into their classroom during lunch and ask them about their highlights and challenges of the day. Invite them out to coffee after school. Learn about their professional interests or hobbies outside of teaching and connect them with someone in your network. Offer to observe one of their lessons or give them feedback on one of their assignments.
Connect with your new colleagues by keeping your common objective at the forefront; you’re both trying to engage students, teach them what matters, and cultivate in them the habits of lifelong learning. When you mentor a young colleague, you’re contributing to your school’s mission and helping improve the experience for all students – whether those are students you’ve taught before or that you may teach next year.
5. Talk Frequently with Your Administrator
Your administrator is the official leader of your school; they hold the title, and the responsibilities. They can tell you what leadership in education is really like, and, if they’re effective, well-connected, and respected – and if they see you as someone with potential – they can begin to mentor you as a school leader.
Start by building a relationship with them. Invite your assistant principal or principal into your classroom to watch a lesson – even if it isn’t one that you’ve taught before. Show them that you’re comfortable taking risks by asking them for feedback on a lesson, unit, or project that you’re implementing. Your administrator is already doing formal evaluations of your performance; let them know that you are eager to grow by taking the initiative and asking for more input.
Many schools are also in an obligatory phase of transformation. If you’re reading this article, you’re the type of teacher who finds excitement and potential in this era of educational change. You’ve already noticed how your administrators and school leaders are approaching this challenge, and you want to participate. Ask your principal to sit down with you and share their vision for the school. Show them that you are interested in their ideas, and that you are eager to contribute some ideas of your own. Offer to serve on an advisory committee of teachers who can assist the principal with their new pursuits for the school. Offer to serve on the committee that engages with your school’s accreditation work. Keep a running catalogue of some of your ideas for the school’s improvement and share them with your administrator.
Effective leaders are visionaries who also demonstrate humility. Show your leaders that you have ideas and that you are also hungry to learn from them. In doing so, they will come to trust you and give you more responsibilities.
6. Keep Learning!
Many people have the potential to become leaders. What they don’t know yet is how to channel that potential, drive, and vision into action.
It is understood that a degree in educational leadership can cultivate the skills you need to lead others in meaningful work. While you’re building your network and establishing yourself as a leader in your school, search for a master’s or doctoral program in educational leadership.
Earning a degree will help you network with other school leaders. You will also take courses that will help you examine ethics in education so that you can be more thoughtful about the decisions that you make. You’ll learn about building systems within schools, so that you can have a more sustainable, unified school. You’ll learn about culturally responsive leading and Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI), which can help you create a school culture where your teachers and students feel that they belong. You’ll also learn how to think like a researcher: how to ask questions, collect data on your school, and use your findings to implement evidence-based changes and ideas at your school.
You already believe in the power of education. You already know that you want to be a leader. Why wait to start learning and earning the credentials that will help you become a pillar of your school? Start by learning about degrees in educational leadership.