Developing the Leader Within
When I started teaching, I had no desire to take on any leadership roles in my school; I didn't think I could. Yet in my nine years as a classroom teacher and technology integration specialist, I've been a team leader, grade-level chair, school improvement team chair, and district technology team chair.
So if leadership wasn't my intention, how did I get here?
The road to leadership began after my initial teaching experience almost prompted me to walk out the door.
Challenges Call Forth Leaders
Straight out of school, I started teaching in a classroom of students who had essentially been kicked out of their school and fallen behind several grade levels. The program was called the Gateway Accelerated Program (GAP). My lofty goals were to get students to take and pass our state assessments, help them enter a program that would allow them to complete two grade levels in one year, and get them back on track to graduate on time at their home school.
It was an eye-opening experience. Previously, I had student-taught in a rural area with few problems like the ones I faced in my classroom that first year. Many of these high school students were removed from their original school for perceived behavior issues.
The students in the GAP program were good kids, but they had already had four teachers that year by the time I came in. Each teacher had left after a few days or weeks, saying the kids could not be taught. These were not the kinds of kids who could sit in their desks and do seat work. They moved around, wouldn't listen, and were always off task. It felt so out of control.
They tested me right from the first day, seeing if I would stick it out. I was ready to walk away from teaching after my second day.
Finding an Encouraging Mentor
At that point, with no mentor and seemingly no one to talk to, I went to my principal. We talked for a long time about teaching, classroom management, and my classroom. Eventually, this one conversation turned into a weekly meeting. She suggested that I talk to the students. It wasn't until I sat down with them and listened to what they wanted and heard how they wanted to learn that we made progress. The principal knew that I would be tested but also knew that I could reach these kids. She wanted me to succeed and gave me the means to do so. She became my unofficial mentor.
During the next four years I worked with her, I learned what it meant to be a leader. These weren't specific lessons, but I gained insight from observing the way she led her staff, handled situations, and listened. She was firm when she needed to be, but her door was always open and she would always talk about whatever was on your mind, even if it was to criticize a decision she made.
But what really helped me develop as a leader were the opportunities she gave me to lead.
Overcoming Leadership Fears
At first, I was wary—didn't you have to be a veteran teacher and have lots of experience to become a leader? I had never really had a leadership role and wasn't sure of myself. Would I know what to do? Honestly, I wanted to shut the door to my classroom and do my own thing—fly under the radar and go unnoticed.
That was the "easy way out," my principal told me.
Instead, she saw something in me and believed that I could do it. With her guidance, I was convinced that I could take on leadership roles a little bit at a time.
With my administrator's encouragement, I became a team leader of the teachers with whom I taught and eventually the 8th grade-level chair, all in the first few years of teaching. Later, I joined the School Improvement Team and became chair to help guide the direction our school would take over the next several years, all with the encouragement of my administrator.
Shared Leadership Leads to Student Success
I know my experience with distributed leadership is not the norm. Instead of taking the time to develop teacher leaders, many administrators take those roles away from teachers for whatever reason—fear, the need for control, or just their personal leadership style.
However, the difference between me and so many other educators out there is simple. I had the chance to work with leaders who took the time to identify the potential in their staff and foster their leadership development. I was not the only teacher in my school whose leadership skills they nurtured—many others were encouraged as well.
Schools need more than one leader. There has to be a team of people willing to guide the school in a way that brings out all of its potential. Through distributed leadership, our principal was able to create an environment and a culture where we really did what was best for our students. And if we didn't think we were on that path, we could say so and change directions.
And if it isn't about the students, then what are we doing?
Steven Anderson is a 2011 ASCD Annual Conference Scholar and district instructional technologist for Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools in North Carolina.
ASCD Express, Vol. 6, No. 10. Copyright 2011 by ASCD. All rights reserved. Visit www.ascd.org/ascdexpress.