Last August, I began my professional studies in education policy at Vanderbilt with two primary purposes: to increase inclusion of teachers in the policymaking conversation and to elevate the teaching profession across Tennessee. Quickly, I learned that there are myriad opinions, outlets, and limitations for accomplishing these goals.

One approach to elevating the teaching profession receiving increased attention across the state is teacher leadership through either formal or informal roles. According to one report, formal teacher leadership positions within a district or school often pull the teacher out of the classroom. Informal positions, however, involve a teacher voluntarily attempting to fill a leadership need within a school while still teaching.

Tennessee has capitalized on the increased interest in teacher leadership by creating the Teacher Leader Network in fall 2013, and several districts across the state have piloted teacher leadership pathways. Based on my experience and research, teacher leadership offers promising opportunities for career advancement for teachers who wish to maintain their connection to the classroom.

The district where I taught established several leadership positions in 2014-15 that blended formal and informal roles. My district appointed me for one of these roles, and although I never left my classroom position, I was responsible for several programs in my school. One of my roles was the English and Language Arts Response to Instruction and Intervention (RTI2) coordinator for my high school. I was responsible for RTI2 implementation in grades 9-12 , which involved coordinating student screening to identify who was below grade level in reading and determining an intervention to meet their needs.

I also served as a liaison for my district at several Tennessee Department of Education teacher roundtables where teachers discussed policy issues such as teacher evaluation, effective RTI2 implementation, and changes to state assessments. In both roles, I felt a profound sense of satisfaction, contributing to my district in a way that felt purposeful.

These experiences expanded my awareness of the crucial conversations surrounding state policies and renewed my sense of urgency about the teaching profession. I realized that Tennessee has brilliant, dedicated professionals in our state’s classrooms, and I was reinvigorated by the ways these teachers strive to have a profound influence in their schools and communities statewide. Yet, it is important to structure teacher leadership so that teachers can embrace new professional opportunities without being routed only toward administrative positions.

A a former teacher leader, I offer two considerations if Tennessee hopes to open up leadership opportunities for teachers seeking to remain in the classroom:

  1. Great teacher leadership, and teaching, require time. One of my greatest struggles as a teacher leader last year was the difficult balancing act that resulted from my increased responsibilities. While I did earn stipends, I essentially worked two jobs. The constant struggle to perform those roles well resulted in exhaustion at the end of the year, and a feeling I had only done two jobs halfway. To have a strong teacher leadership culture, Tennessee must recognize that teachers will need to lessen their classroom responsibilities to be effective leaders. This support will be particularly important if districts need teachers to take formal, rather than only informal leadership roles.
  1. The integrity of school communities should be preserved. Teacher leadership opportunities should be available to many, foster collaboration, and benefit the whole school community without dividing or ranking teachers in some way. If teachers perceive that leadership roles are only available to a select group of teachers, divisions may arise within a faculty, creating a negative environment for students. Leadership positions need to be clearly defined, and they should be based on instructional effectiveness. However, all leadership roles should respect the varied strengths and unique abilities that all faculty members possess, encouraging contributions from many to strengthen a school or district.

As someone for whom teacher leadership had a profound impact, I know the potential benefits of similar experiences for teachers across the state. Teacher leadership opportunities can invigorate, energize, and empower teachers. In order for these opportunities to provide the greatest benefits to students and schools, leadership positions should be structured so that teachers have maximum support to feel encouraged by their new positions, rather than overworked. Tennessee’s teachers do amazing work every day for our students in the classroom, and we must build a system that empowers them to lead outside the classroom, as well.