These days, my colleagues and friends often call me a leader, but it has taken me almost a decade for me to actually recognize leadership qualities in myself. I have always been very passionate person — and looking back, I think I’ve always had the capacity to lead — but those skills weren’t activated until well into my teaching career.
I had been in the classroom for about seven years when I met my mentor, a feisty union leader who became a great friend. A past president of my local, he would transform the way I saw myself and my profession by nurturing qualities within me I didn’t even know were there.
You see, as a young teacher I didn’t realize my voice mattered – but even if I had, I would have been afraid to use it. I had been taught to never question authority, to keep my head down and do what I was told. Stir the pot? Never. I was a rule-follower, and afraid of what others might think if I didn’t do as I was asked.
My mentor exposed me to new opportunities to learn about the association, about the challenges facing my profession, and about ways to work for positive change. I began to see myself as an established professional, but I still didn’t feel like a leader. Then something within me changed. In January 2003, I joined a group of other association members to lobby legislators in Richmond. I remember feeling sick as we entered into their offices. I was intimidated…but then something empowering happened.
I was asked to share my story, my concerns, and my beliefs about education. No one outside my family had ever asked me about my outlook on education. I realized I had a voice – an authentic, small but strong voice with a valuable perspective on students’ needs. Somehow I understood how to paint a picture with words, a picture that pulls people into my world with students.
Later that year, I spoke before the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors and then the FCPS School Board. I shared my story. I shared my colleagues’ stories. I shared my students’ stories. I began to gain confidence and make the story live outside the walls of my classroom. And I began to feel like a leader.
I think many people fail to recognize the full range of leadership opportunities available to teachers; there are those who are explicitly recognized as leaders and others who aren’t, but whose influence is clearly felt nonetheless. Often when we think of education leadership, we think mainly of administrators — but in doing so, we may be placing limits our own leadership potential. Because teachers tend to draw their professional identity from those around them –- how administrators, parents, even community members respond to them — they don’t always recognize their own leadership qualities, much less look for opportunities to use them.
So how do you know if you’re a teacher leader?
Teacher leaders step up in different ways to take on issues, identify challenges, organize individuals, and inspire others to advocate for themselves. Leaders don’t just believe they can make a difference, they take action to do so. Sometimes they raise their hand and ask the hard questions. Sometimes they reach out and encourage others to speak up. Often they stir the pot. They volunteer their time, resources, and expertise in order to make things better for the greater good. Teacher leaders invest in other teachers and in the profession itself.
We somehow mistakenly believe that teachers can only make a difference in their classrooms, their immediate sphere of influence. But there is so much more we have to offer each other. Every teacher leader’s journey is different. Every teacher leader’s influence is needed. Every teacher leader’s reach is valuable. The moment you believe you own your profession and that you should lead your profession, step up, take action, and make your voice heard. Look toward your local association and connect with other leaders who have the same passions as you. I don’t know if I would call myself a leader had that potential not been recognized by my union friend. I might still feel isolated in my classroom. Or worse, I might have left the profession altogether.
My local association, the Fairfax Education Association, my state association, the Virginia Education Association, and my national association, the National Education Association have given me invaluable opportunities for professional growth. They make me feel connected, and give me ways to ensure my voice matters.
Whether you know it or not, yours matters too. So I encourage you to explore your inner leader and join your colleagues in making change. I love Nelson Mandela’s quote, “Courage is not the absence of fear–it’s inspiring others to move beyond it.” I believe we can help each other overcome our fears and take action. So I ask you — will you join me in leading our profession?