Teacher Leader Megan Allen: How to Lead from the Classroom

As a society, we tend to take a traditional view of educational leadership, says Megan Allen, a Teacher of the Year who advocates for teaching for leadership.

A successful classroom teacher with lots of promise and in search of new challenges often leaves behind working directly with children to become an administrator. Alternatives like becoming a professor, working for the school district, or becoming a consultant for an education company still take visionary educators away from the very students who need them most.

But new pathways are becoming available for teacher leaders at the same time that ideas are changing about what leadership itself can look like. Some options are possible due to technology and others thanks to new modes of thinking about best practices and dynamic leadership.

“We’re moving from ladder to lattice,” says Allen, who sees more colleagues recognizing and valuing leadership not just from the front, but leading from the middle and behind. Developing teachers as leaders may mean less reliance on experts based outside of schools who aren’t as intimately familiar with the needs of students.

Hybrid teacher

Allen became a hybrid teacher a few years ago, spending part of her day teaching fifth grade in Tampa, Florida, and part of it working with groups of teachers outside her region to cultivate teacher leadership, and seeing their ideas manifest, through a role with the Center for Teaching Quality, a nonprofit that champions educational leadership, innovation and collaboration.

In 2010, Florida took her by surprise and recognized her as its Teacher of the Year. Far from being an honor in title only, the year marked a shift in terms of Allen’s mentorship and growth.

“In Florida, we go on sabbatical out of the classroom for a year, and work with other teachers. For me it was a big year — a sponge year of soaking in ideas from across the state and beyond,” she says. “It was a huge year of professional learning.”

Today, in her role on campus at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, Allen teaches pre-service teachers, and has been developing new curriculum for in-service teachers to better support teacher leaders.

“There are so many teachers who are hungry for teacher leadership,” she says.

Virtual connections

Mobility outside of the traditional classroom is a key aspect of teacher leaders connecting with others. Tools include individual social media accounts with participatory groups and ed hashtags.

Allen uses technology to connect with other teachers.

“Facebook, Twitter — social media can be really powerful in building professional leadership networks,” says Allen, who also blogs at “Musings of a Red Headed Teacher.”

“If you have five minutes while waiting in line, get on Twitter,” she says. “Spend five minutes to grow as a teacher. Social media is a great way to get out of silos.”

Other teacher leadership efforts

The National Network of State Teachers of the Year (NNSTOY) is also figuring out how to coach and mentor teachers.

The U.S. Department of Education and the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards created Teach to Lead in 2014, a joint initiative to help teachers develop their leadership potential while staying in the classroom.

“Teacher leadership means having a voice in the policies and decisions that affect your students, your daily work, and the shape of your profession. It means guiding the growth of your colleagues,” said Arne Duncan, U.S. Education Secretary, at its launch. “It means that teaching can’t be a one-size-fits-all job — that there must be different paths based on different interests, and you don’t have to end up with the same job description that you started with.”

Through its online component, Connect to Lead, educators get feedback on their ideas after posting them and promoting via social media. Virtual colleagues discuss and vote.

Whether the conversations happen across the hallway or across the country, teaching for leadership values the choice to have an impact on multiple levels.

“You don’t have to leave the classroom,” says Allen, and “also be able to lead in areas of policy, curriculum, and partnership.”

Rebecca L. Weber is a journalist who covers education, the arts, the environment, and more for the New York Times, CNN, USA Today, and other publications. Visit her online at www.rebeccalweber.com or on Twitter @rebeccalweber.

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