Kathryn Show

The Path from Teacher to Teacher Leader

As a teacher leader, on leave from the classroom, but fresh from the classroom a few years ago, I have some intense memories of the challenges of that first year of transition. It was possibly the most difficult year of my professional life. I left the classroom because I cared passionately about science education reform and was convinced by others that I had something to offer to a wider group of educators. I was idealistic and eager, but ill-prepared, to take the plunge. I was ill-prepared because I had no models as our district embarked on building a brand-new program from scratch, whose goals were to bring about systemic change in science education over five years. It would have been easier for me if I had come on board later. There are different challenges for teacher leaders depending on where the district is in the development of a program of reform.

Some of the obstacles I faced, along with other teacher leaders on that early team, were:

  1. Lack of professional development before we were designing and implementing summer institutes and follow-up classes for teachers in 21 schools. Too much was expected too soon by the district administration and this put tremendous pressure on the teacher leaders before we were skillful in terms of facilitation skills, cognitive coaching, and systems thinking. I encountered intense resistance from some teachers and didn't have the experience or the confidence to respond in ways that might have diffused their negativity.
  2. Few avenues of access to classroom teachers were known, along which the building of rapport could begin and eventually lead to conversations about the new science curriculum and instructional strategies. I was willing but teachers were wary and no one really knew how to begin the on-site professional development we had promised as part of the package. I felt guilty because I felt underutilized by the teachers I was responsible for supporting.
  3. Principals and teachers weren't sure of what they had gotten themselves into by joining a cohort, where they would receive 100 hours of professional development over two years. Some had preconceived notions about science instruction, some simply wanted the hands-on materials; few understood that they had signed on to possibly have their beliefs about how children learn changed. It was nobody's fault that they weren't prepared for what they had committed to do. Nothing like this had ever been done before.

I will leave you with a few questions with which I wrestle. I would like to hear your ideas and your experiences.

How can a school district provide support for its teacher leaders, whether it is embarking on a science reform effort or is in a later phase of building leadership capacity?

Is it better for teacher leaders to take the plunge, leave the classroom, perhaps before they are ready, in order to focus on science instruction and professional development, learning as they go and hoping that they are truly helping and not confusing too many teachers (and students) in the process or is it better for them to stay in the classroom, growing their science expertise slowly through mentoring (if it is available) and applying new ideas in their instruction before taking the leap?

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