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Coaching Teachers To Be Leaders

What Is Teacher Leadership?

Teacher leadership is gaining widespread interest from educators who want to engage teachers in the work of school reform. It is a promising concept for principals who are eager to create communities of leaders in their schools. The idea of tapping teachers' knowledge, experience, and skills to reach school and district goals is so logical that one wonders why it took so long for this concept to gain a foothold.


Teacher leadership in practice often leaves educators puzzled because it's an ambiguous concept with shifting boundaries and unclear rules. It is context specific and it looks different at every school and in every district. Therefore, a principal and teachers must create a shared understanding of teacher leadership for their school. Defining teacher leadership gives it more value, makes it more real, and accelerates progress toward developing a community of leaders.


Educators are puzzled by the meaning of teacher leadership. You can verify this truth by asking colleagues to define it. Undoubtedly, their responses will yield vastly different answers.

Creating a shared understanding of teacher leadership begins with the process of "unpacking" personal assumptions. Because people behave in ways that support their assumptions, it is important to surface their individual understandings of leadership. School leaders can start that process by posing the question What is teacher leadership? You might

  • make a list of ideas that indicate what teacher leadership is. For example, Teacher leadership is collaboration.
  • consider and write a list of what teacher leadership is not. For example, Teacher leadership is not a decision-making process or Teacher leadership is not a matter of simply delegating tasks.

Be as specific as possible as you create your lists.


After the process of unpacking personal assumptions is complete, you are set to begin the process of creating a shared understanding of teacher leadership. You can do that by creating two big lists -- one that indicates your teachers' ideas of what teacher leadership is and the other that presents what teacher leadership isn't. Make sure the lists are visible, and then reflect on the following questions:

How are our assumptions similar?
How are our assumptions different?

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Next, explore definitions of teacher leadership from current literature. You might share some of the following definitions of teacher leadership in order to help you and your teachers add to your ideas of what teacher leadership is and isn't.

According to the literature, teacher leadership is:

"influencing and engaging colleagues toward improved practice." (Wasley, 1992, p. 21)

"concerned with teachers helping teachers so that teachers can, in turn, better help students. Teacher leadership is helping teachers work together to establish and achieve the goals and objectives of the school." (Pellicer & Anderson, 1995, p. 22)

"an ethical stance that is based on views of both a better world and the power of teaching to shape meaning systems. It manifests in actions that involve the wider community in the long term. It reaches its potential in contexts where system and school structures are facilitative and supportive." (Crowther, 1997, p. 15)

"a professional commitment and process which influences people to take joint actions toward changes and improved practices that enable achievement of shared educational goals and benefit the common good." (Forster, 1997, p. 88)

"a variety of roles for classroom teachers in staff development, management, and school improvement." (Clemson-Ingram, 1997, p. 95)

"actions by teachers outside their own classrooms that involve an explicit or implicit responsibility to provide professional development to their colleagues, to influence their communities' or districts' policies, or to act as adjunct district staff to support changes in classroom practices among teachers." (Miller et al., 2000, p. 4)

In order to continue to add to your lists, reflect on the following questions:

  • What ideas do you accept as teacher leadership?
  • What ideas do you reject?
  • What is still missing from the list?


The process above is just the beginning of creating a shared understanding of teacher leadership. To find common ground with teacher leadership takes time, ongoing conversations, and trial and error.


Clemson-Ingram, R., & Fessler, R. (1997, Fall). Innovative programs for teacher leadership. Action in Teacher Education, 19(3), 95-106.

Crowther, F. (1997). The William Walker oration, 1996: Unsung heroes: The leaders in our classrooms. Journal of Educational Administration. (3591), 5-17.

Forster, E. M. (1997, Fall), Teacher Leadership: Professional right and responsibility. Action in Teacher Education, 19(3) 82-94.

Miller, B., Moon, J., & Elko, S. (2000), Teacher leadership in mathematics and science: Casebook and facilitator's guide. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Pellicer, I.O., & Anderson L.W. (1995). A Handbook for Teacher Leaders. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Wasley, P.A. (1992). Working Together: Teacher Leadership and Collaboration. In C. Livingston (ed.), Teacher Leaders: Evolving Roles (pp, 21-55). Washington, DC: National Education Association.

Read more of Ellen Cortez-Ford's nine-part Coaching Teachers To Be Leaders series.

Article by Evelyn Cortez-Ford
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