The first rung that many educators step on to ascend to the ranks of educational leaders is that of the teacher mentor.
Teacher mentors, or teacher leaders as they are called in many states, are models of the profession. They are the experienced experts you look up to when you first walk into a school, masters of their classroom, exemplars of the staff lounge, the voice of experience in the halls and on the playgrounds.
Mentorship can happen in many ways and fulfill many of the needs in a school that never appear in any policy or procedures manual, that never rise to the level of a budget line-item.
But many schools and school districts recognize the value of senior faculty members who lead from within the ranks. With extra experience and education, they can fill an important gap in many schools across the country where leadership is sorely needed.
What is a Teacher Leader?
Leadership roles for teachers aren’t always well-defined. In some schools, the teacher leader is more or less a matter of tradition, an informal position of respect that the principal and other educators rely on when the hard problems come up. In some cases, teacher leaders are simply teachers, those who volunteer their experience, time, and expertise helping other educators where they can.
But in many states, educational leadership faculty jobs are actual positions on the staff chart. They may go by the title of Teacher Leader, or by others such as:
These jobs can vary school by school or district by district. They are often created to fill a specific need or even to recognize a particular talent for leadership shown by someone on staff.
But even teacher mentors with a natural talent for the task typically benefit from a higher level of education than their peers. And many states require both a master’s degree and official license endorsements to officially fill the role.
What is a Mentor Teacher?
Teacher mentor is used to describe all kinds of teachers that act as advisors and role models. In fact, you probably first ran across the term during your own student teaching days, where many times the teacher that you are doing your student teaching under is called the teacher mentor.
But teacher leaders who fill licensed and official positions in educational administration are in a different position entirely. Their job doesn’t just serve to help a single student teacher learn the ropes. Instead, they are tasked with improving all the teachers in a school, or even a district, when it comes to their own area of expertise.
Just as the position itself comes with a wide range of titles and expectations, the ways in which mentorship is exercised can be very different from school to school.
At root, the teacher mentor role is about teaching. The only difference from working as a regular teacher is that as a mentor, you are teaching other teachers as well as students.
That can involve various tasks and duties, including:
In some districts and states, teacher leaders act as supervisors to more junior teachers. Typically, in larger schools, they may be a sort of department head reporting to the principal and handling various administrative and managerial tasks under their direction.
Developing the Unique Skills to Become a Teacher Leader
While teacher leaders are definitely a step up the educational administration hierarchy from regular teachers, they typically remain regular teachers as well. That means they need the skills to become a dual threat:
Not everyone is equipped by nature to flip back and forth between roles as quickly and easily as a teacher mentor must. So, the skills they are required to develop revolve around:
And they’ll want to deepen their understanding in several different knowledge areas:
All these subjects come as standard equipment with advanced degrees in educational administration.
What Are the Requirements to Become a Teacher Leader?
In states where the role of teacher leader is recognized as an official position, it almost always comes as an endorsement to your standard professional educator license.
Like other endorsements that stack on your basic license, this typically requires:
In many cases, however, the teacher leader standard is much higher than other endorsements: it requires earning a master’s degree.
This is because it is a genuine position of educational leadership, not just another subject area you will teach to students. Teacher mentors need more advanced and sophisticated leadership training to guide fellow teachers to more effective pedagogical strategies and methods.
The Degree You Need to Qualify for Educational Leadership Faculty Positions
Teacher mentors have a few different options when it comes to building their formal education to support the role.
While a master’s degree will definitely be in the cards, the right choice can depend on the type of mentorship you’ll be pursuing. For example, a literacy coordinator or school reading specialist might go all-in with a master’s degree in English or reading. But someone aiming at a department head position might want to go for a more general study in educational leadership subjects, like you would find in a Master of Education in Educational Leadership. You may even find a more specific program, such as a Master of Arts in Community and Teacher Leaders in your area.
Of course, in states that require it, any master’s program that you select should include the required EPP (Educator Preparation Program) coursework necessary for receiving the endorsement. But unlike more senior educational leadership positions, it’s common for a teacher mentor endorsement to specify a master’s degree only, and not specific coursework to go with it.
Master of Arts in Educational Administration and similar degrees can often be paired with the sort of subject-specific coursework you need as a specialist teacher leader. A wide range of electives gives you the choice of tailoring your studies in the way that will best support your career path. Whether it’s literacy studies, DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) or educational technology, universities cover the full spectrum of hot topics for teacher mentors today.
Along with that subject matter expertise, educational leadership programs offer a lot of preparation for future steps up the leadership ladder. That will include classes in:
It offers insights into your teacher leadership role, as well as a leg up should you choose to move toward even more advanced positions in the future.
How to Set Yourself Apart as a Faculty Mentor or Teacher Leader
Just as there are many different niches that teacher leaders fill in a school system, there are many varied paths that lead to those positions.
First, not every state has a formal position and title for every type of teacher leader. As noted above, there are many different titles and roles that fit this basic description. In some states, some of those jobs may require a license while others can be filled by any teacher.
Still, it’s common for schools and districts to look for candidates with more experience and more advanced training than their peers. So a master’s degree is still something you’ll have to earn for these positions.
Experience is a common requirement for all these roles, since much of the value you bring is real-world expertise in dealing with matters that don’t come up in the textbooks. Although endorsements may require as little as two years of experience, in practice most districts will want to hire someone with as much on-the-ground experience as possible.
Testing is often part of the drill for teacher leadership licensing, just as it is for every other type of endorsement. In most states, standardized tests from ETS, the Educational Testing Service fill this role.
You might find yourself sitting down to the familiar Praxis series, where the Educational Leadership: Administration and Supervision test is commonly required for faculty leadership endorsements. It’s a 120-question selected-response test that must be completed in 2 hours and 45 minutes, covering six content categories:
In other cases, the PATL, or Performance Assessment for Teacher Leaders, may be the standard. Or you might need a subject-matter specific test, like the Computer Science exam sometimes required for Instructional Technology Leaders. And some states combine the two, requiring both PATL and a subject-specific exam.
What Salary Can Teacher Leaders Expect to Earn?
It’s natural for teacher leaders to fall into the upper salary band for the grade level they teach. After all, by the time you’re qualified, you’ve put in the time earning a master’s degree, accumulated plenty of experience on the job, and taken the time and effort to get tested into a faculty leadership endorsement.
Unlike many leadership roles, these positions are still covered by union contracts in states and districts with active teacher unions. There are often contractual requirements for salary bumps just for having met the qualifications by earning a master’s degree.
That could well put you in the top ten percent of earners in the field. In 2021, according to BLS (Bureau of Labor Statistics) data, that would reflect the following annual salaries:
Of course, teachers have plenty of other benefits that aren’t necessarily reflected in those numbers. Excellent health care, generous pension and retirement benefits, and other incentives are frequently part of the package.
For teacher leaders, there’s usually one more perk that other educational administrators don’t get: your summers are still your own! Although the work of other kinds of district and school leaders goes on year-round, teacher mentors are usually only at work when other teachers are at work.
One of the best benefits, however, is simply being that trusted member of the faculty that both senior administrators and brand-new teachers turn to when tough questions come up. Teachers are always people who enjoy being a resource for learning. Becoming a teacher leader is an affirmation and a strengthening of that role, and often the first step to even more senior positions in educational leadership.
2021 US Bureau of Labor Statistics salary and employment figures for Kindergarten and Elementary School Teachers, High School Teachers, Middle School Teachers, Special Education Teachers, and Preschool Teachers reflect national data, not school-specific information. Conditions in your area may vary. Data accessed April 2023.