The Hidden Characteristics of Teacher Leadership and Teacher Leaders

group of women at a training

By Cathy Houchin

According to Charlotte Danielson’s book Teacher Leadership That Strengthens Professional Practice, “The term teacher leadership refers to that set of skills demonstrated by teachers who continue to teach students but also have an influence that extends beyond their own classrooms to others within their own school and elsewhere.

As public education has become more complex and the needs of students have evolved, teacher leadership and the educators who practice it play an increasingly important role in shaping positive learning environments.  Through their work, teacher leaders can bridge the gap between the classroom and the front office and play a key role in both creating and implementing the district policies and initiatives.

But what really is teacher leadership? Charlotte Danielson and other education thought leaders have outlined very well thought-out definitions of teacher leadership.  While I agree with these more traditional definitions and find them to be true and accurate, there are three additional characteristics that I believe all great teacher leaders I’ve met exhibit.

Possessing what I call a teacher’s heart is one of the “unspoken” components of being a teacher leader.  A teacher’s heart is demonstrated by an educator’s willingness to help out wherever necessary.  A true teacher leader, in my opinion, is just as comfortable sitting in a strategic planning meeting about technology integrations as they are working one-on-one with a fellow teacher to coach them on using new resources.  A teacher’s heart drives an educator to find answers to questions their peers may have about a particular facet of pedagogy, and then share that information with their fellow teachers across their school or school district.  For teachers possessing the teacher’s heart, teacher leadership is not a chore or about who gets credit, but rather, it is about finding a way to help another student learn through their teacher.

The ability to serve as a “critical friend” to others and provide what is sometimes difficult feedback in a constructive way is another underrecognized characteristic of a true teacher leader. Those critical friends will give you an honest answer even when it is not the answer you want, shaping your leadership and driving personal and professional growth.  A personal example of this is when I was considering pursuing a doctorate degree a few years ago. I was struggling with the decision and needed support in making the decision.  When I met with my critical friend to discuss the opportunity and look at all the pros and cons of that level of advanced study, she was able to help me think through the various facets of the decision, and help me determine the path that was best for me.  Ultimately, I did not go for the doctorate and do not regret that decision, but I am grateful for the teacher leader who helped me through my discernment process, and I am reminded of that conversation often. It sometimes takes someone who is not directly involved in the situation to lead you to that right decision. 

A willingness to step outside one’s comfort zone is also critical to teacher leadership.  As a teacher leader myself, I’ve often had to step away from the familiar and do something new in service to my fellow educators.  For example, I am not a natural presenter.  Presenting at national or international conferences was not something I’d ever had to do before.  However, as I moved into a teacher leader role, I had to overcome my dislike of presenting so that I could share some of the knowledge I’ve acquired over my 42 years in education.  With the support of my friends and colleagues, I’ve come a long way in this respect, but it all starts with a willingness to try something new.

Finally, a deep connection to one’s own innate curiosity is the last of what I think are overlooked qualities of a teacher leader.  While many school systems offer robust professional learning opportunities for educators, sometimes it can be difficult to tailor professional learning to your own interests.  That’s where strong personal learning networks (PLN) come in. 

When I discovered PLNs, my teaching completely changed. Two of my favorite PLN’s are Discovery Education Discovery Educator Network and the International Society of Technology Educators.   Through these groups, I was able to satisfy my own personal curiosity around the intersection of pedagogy and EdTech, and learn about just about any topic I was curious about.

It is my belief that a membership in a PLN is absolutely critical to the development of teacher leadership.  PLN’s provide a stimulating arena in which to continue one’s professional learning in a flexible way among like-minded colleagues.  I am especially blessed that through my participation in PLNs, I’ve not only improved myself as an educator, I’ve made lifelong friends and wonderful memories. 

To conclude, a teacher leader can be many things, and even when someone is not officially given the title Teacher Leader, they can serve as a teacher leader.  The only “must have” characteristics, in my opinion, are a teacher’s heart, critical friends, a willingness to step outside the comfort zone, and an insatiable innate curiosity.  With those ingredients, the sky's the limit for any educator!

Cathy Houchin has been a teacher for 42 years, currently in the Watertown Unified School District, Watertown, Wis. This year she is teaching completely virtual for the district's charter school eCampus. She is on the leadership council for Discovery Education, President of the Arts and Technology PLN for ISTE, and has published a book, Be Not Afraid, about using technology in the music classroom.

Views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the endorsement of the Learning First Alliance or its board of directors.

The Hidden Characteristics of Teacher Leadership and Teacher Leaders