For some teachers, the idea of being a leader is frightening, so we delay it or even avoid it as much as possible. For others, we know we want to be leaders, but struggle to make wise decisions with the opportunities we're given or to be patient while waiting for leadership opportunities to come our way. To the new teacher, leadership can seem like a distant, hazy prospect always out of reach. "It takes ten years to become an expert at anything," or so they say.
Here are some practical ways to steer toward a leadership course, no matter how many years you've been in the classroom.
1. Read current education news.
You can do this by subscribing to email newsletters such as the excellent SmartBrief from ASCD. Choose an ed-focused magazine or journal in your area to keep up on the latest research, techniques, and classroom technology. If you're a writer, you might eventually try submitting an article to your favorite publication.
2. Hone your public speaking skills.
It's true that you speak publicly in the classroom every day, but let's face it. Those kids don't scare you anymore. Look for opportunities to speak in front of more varied audiences, such as your school staff or the school board. Talk to a parent group or a community group about what your school is doing in STEM or character education. Speaking skills are leadership skills.
3. Take on extra responsibilities (responsibly).
The freshman class needs an adviser. The PTO needs more teachers at their meetings. From selling tickets at the football game to organizing an after school program, there is an infinite number of extra activities you can take on to demonstrate leadership in your school. Learn to take on only what you can handle and to say "no" when an activity is sure to hinder your everyday productivity or sanity. Volunteerism gets noticed. It also gives you needed practice in small-scale leadership tasks.
4. Do the grub work.
A student throws up in the hall. Is your default reaction to comfort the child, to get the janitor, to start cleaning it up, or to cower by the wall until someone else deals with it? All but the last show leadership. Have you ever noticed that secretaries and principals often get stuck doing the grub work, not because that particular task is in their job description, but because they are leaders? Sometimes, serving is leading.
5. Continue your professional education.
Before you can renew your teaching certification, you have to take professional development classes and/or academic classes for your professional growth. Don't ever think the only benefit of these classes is certificate renewal or a pay raise. Continuing your education shows leadership. You prove that you are willing to learn and grow as a person and as a teacher. It also helps you find specific areas of focus for your leadership talents.
6. Try new things.
Just because you're an English teacher doesn't mean you can't organize a STEM field trip for the high school. Never served on the RTI team before? You'll learn fast. Adopt a growth mindset and show your leadership skills.
7. Mentor informally.
You don't have to be an official mentor to help other teachers find their way. You have areas of expertise you can share with others on your staff, even if it's in a brief chat around the water cooler or a pop-in after class. Watch for opportunities where a colleague is asking for help, but also where you have found a strategy that works and you can share it. When you read a helpful article, pass it on by email. When you've attended a conference, share your notes and handouts. Chances are, it'll open a discussion that benefits you, too.
8. Share gleanings from workshops with your staff.
It may be intimidating, but sharing what you've learned at a PD or academic class can benefit your staff and grow you as a leader. First, determine the specific topic you'd like to present and how long you'll take to present it. For beginners, twenty to thirty minutes is a good max. Second, ask your administrator for time at the next staff meeting or collaboration. Be prepared to tell what you'll be sharing and how it will benefit other teachers. If you're not given time, try again with another topic in future. If your proposal is accepted, prepare a clear and concise presentation that does not go over the time limit you and your administrator have agreed on. Give a minute or two for questions at the end and be sure to thank your administrator for allowing you to present.
9. Inspire your students.
When you capture a student's imagination through story, through vision, through the arts, through tech, through debate, through biography, you show leadership. Parents and administrators like nothing better than hearing that your students are engaged in and excited about learning. What will inspire students? Probably the same things that inspire you. Maybe you'll be the teacher that inspired a student to become a doctor or a software engineer or a writer.
10. Work hard.
A strong work ethic shows leadership more than just about any other quality a teacher can cultivate. Show up on time. Don't leave till the job is done. Take fewer personal days, and only use sick days when you are actually sick. No substitute can do your job as effectively as you can do it. Don't procrastinate about grading papers or writing lesson plans. Complete tasks promptly, especially when they are assigned specifically by your boss. Know your subject. Be faithful to your students and loyal to your school.
It's a long haul, but being a teacher-leader will reap dividends, both tangible and intangible.