Several years ago I was invited to address a group of participants in an Administrators’ Academy held at a local university. At the time I was president of a large school district union and was also one of the first National Board Certified teachers in my area. The instructor asked me to explain the certification process to his class and give my impressions of how the National Board process had made me a better teacher.

Several years ago I was invited to address a group of participants in an Administrators’ Academy held at a local university. At the time I was president of a large school district union and was also one of the first National Board Certified teachers in my area. The instructor asked me to explain the certification process to his class and give my impressions of how the National Board process had made me a better teacher.

I dutifully arrived about a half hour early to sit in on the class and get a feel for the crowd I’d be addressing. As I settled into a seat at the back of the lecture hall, I was struck by what the first speaker was saying about educational leadership. Thankfully, his precise words have faded from my memory, but the feelings he evoked in me are still distinct. I listened in amazement as this expert told the class that a building principal must be the educational leader in “his” school and all others (referring to teachers) must follow “his” lead.

I managed to get past the lecturer’s obvious paternalistic tone, but remained shocked by his stinging words about teachers not being educational leaders. I had always considered myself to be a leader, not only in my classroom, but in my school building and district. After holding many union offices and even negotiating labor contracts, how dare he say that teachers like me were not educational leaders?

I can’t even remember what I said to the class that evening. My mind was whirling. What if he was right? It occurred to me that, as a teacher, I had reached the top of my career ladder on my first day of teaching. Although my salary would increase due to a salary schedule that I had helped to negotiate, there would be no additional titles or “career advancement” unless I chose to go into administration, and that was not an option for me.

I love teaching and it was teaching, after all, which made me feel that I was an education leader. So what does “teacher leadership” mean, and in our present model of public schools, do new models of teacher leadership need to be developed?

Teacher Leader Model Standards

From the evening I addressed the Administrators’ Academy until now, many things have changed in my life. I have served on a local school board, been chair of the English department at my large high school, won several awards for my teaching, renewed my National Board certification, talked to numerous groups about education, and presented workshops on education methods. Yet, I am still basically a classroom teacher who wonders if her school district knows what to do with her. So it was with great anticipation that I attended the roll out and press conference in Washington, D.C. for the new Teacher Leader Model Standards held in conjunction with a meeting of National State Teachers of the Year sponsored by the Council of Chief State School Officers.

The model standards are the result of the Teacher Leadership Exploratory Consortium, a group comprised of highly regarded leaders in education. The standards have seven domains covering the areas of collaboration in schools and in the community, research to improve practice, data collection, professional learning communities, and advocacy for education. As I listened to the presenters and hurriedly looked over the standards, I didn’t see anything new, and I certainly didn’t see anything that my high school didn’t already have in place.

It wasn’t until I got back home and had the chance to read the Policy Document within the Standards Document that I began to take heart. Here was what I was looking for. Finally, a way I can have my cake and eat it too.

The Policy Document describes teachers as untapped resources for educational change and the hybrid roles for teachers who want to remain in classrooms, “…but are willing to assume new responsibilities that afford them leadership opportunities in or outside the classroom while still teaching full or part-time.”

Paradigm Shift

Any teacher who has sat through mind-numbing professional in-services knows that when we hear the words “paradigm shift” it is time to shut down; but the Policy Document calls for a paradigm shift, and this is a shift that I’m willing to join. We need a whole new structure for today’s schools, one in which teacher leaders are allowed the time and respect to do what we do best: build curriculum, mentor, provide quality in-service, and teach.

Within this new paradigm, how about providing regular release time so that when I am asked to mentor a class of beginning teachers, it is not another duty crammed into my already jam-packed schedule? I envision a day when I am a co-teacher. I may be sharing a class with a teacher who is struggling and needs to watch as I model classroom management, or how to keep students at a high level of engagement while maintaining levels of differentiation for a variety of learners. Then again, I may be working side-by-side with another recognized teacher-leader as we tag-team a class, allowing each other the time to mentor, serve as curriculum coordinators, and prepare professional development for our school and district.

We know what works so let’s stop spinning our wheels with No Child Left Behind and Race To the Top. Let’s put our money where it counts…into providing great teachers and quality curriculum for every classroom!

Since every bit of education research says that the most important element is to have a great teacher in every classroom, I call for a National Teacher Leadership Initiative; an initiative that keeps great teachers in the classroom and rewards and honors them for the important job they do. I have some ideas on how to do this, so allow me to speak for all good teachers and provide one model which I think will work.

Put me in a Fishbowl

Pair me up with another teacher identified as being high quality, and put us together in a classroom … the room with the one-way mirror or the one equipped with video cameras. New, struggling, or merely curious, teachers can come into the observation room to watch as I teach.

My partner can be in the observation room and serve as interpreter while I model good teaching. “Did you notice how she redirected the class’s attention from that misbehavior and kept the class engaged?” the interpreter could point out; or, “Did you notice how she returned to the student who only gave a partially correct answer and allowed him to give a complete answer and then followed up with praise?” These are often subtle master teacher techniques that go unnoticed by the novice or untrained observer.

After I teach my two hours, we can switch roles. We also can spend our time working on curriculum or professional development activities, something I would love to do but for which I seldom have time.

Who better than practicing teachers, those in touch with the daily needs of teachers, to provide these necessary services for a school or district?

This model can be modified to fit the needs of individual schools and grade levels, but think of the positive impact a team of master teachers can have when we have the time to work with other teachers to build a teacher-leader corps? I’m not crazy about the concept of merit pay, but at least a system such as this would provide a systematic method of determining who deserves merit pay rather than basing it on student test scores or on the whims of administrators.

But whatever happens, for goodness sakes don’t take our teacher-leaders out of the classroom. As soon as the classroom door shuts behind a teacher, she (or he) begins to lose the skills that have made that teacher great. We need to continue as the hands-on service providers for our most precious resource, students.

Annice M. Brave is a Teacher at Alton High School in Alton, IL. She also serves as the English Department Chair and the Journalism Advisor. In 2011, Ms. Brave was named the Illinois Teacher of the Year. She currently serves as a Member of the Board of Examiners for the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education and is a Member of Delta Kappa Gamma Society International for Key Women Educators. Ms. Brave holds B.A. in Mass Communication and an M.S. in Education from Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville.