By Deidra Gammill, Ph.D

As Americans, we tend to have a romanticized view of leadership in general. Our leaders are those at the forefront of the fray, the ones who are recognized, who have followers, right? They are the ones on the nightly news, the covers of biopics, and the go-to people when expertise is needed. Leaders are handpicked for their accomplishments. Isn’t that what being a leader is really all about? Being picked because you stand heads and shoulders above the rest?

In this paradigm of being chosen by others to lead (rather than choosing to lead), what I do isn’t indicative of leadership; what others pick me to do is.

For years, my ideas about teacher leadership have been deeply rooted in this paradigm and in the perceptions of others. And in many ways, teacher leadership is about identity. Teachers often draw their professional identity from those around them – how administrators, parents, even other teachers respond to us. This paradigm makes it easy to believe the myth that teacher leaders are tapped or given certificates designating them as leaders. But that’s just what it is – a myth.

Last year I received an email from Ron Thorpe with the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, an email sent to all the NBCTs in my state, inviting our applications for the Teacher Leadership Institute (TLI). His email didn’t explain exactly what the TLI was, but he wrote it was an institute designed to grow teacher leaders from within their classrooms.

I had just successfully defended my dissertation, and everyone assumed I would move into administration. When I said I planned to stay in my classroom, people were surprised. Somehow, they equated a terminal degree to administrative leadership. Since I hadn’t been tapped for any official leadership positions within my school (and therefore did not see myself as a teacher leader) I decided to apply for the Teacher Leadership Institute, reasoning that if I wasn’t going to become an administrator maybe the TLI would provide my official leadership badge.

I thought I was headed towards a “tapping” ceremony, when in reality, I was on a journey that has shifted my paradigms and turned my understanding of what it means to be a teacher leader completely on its head.

When I began the TLI, I had no idea who the educators were who led webinars, who served as guest speakers, who served as state coaches. I didn’t know which ones were published authors, which were prolific bloggers, which were teachers of the year for their states. I only knew that I learned from them and I learned with them. Teacher leaders in our cohorts were the ones who stepped up to share their experiences and stories, who took risks, and who encouraged colleagues to think outside the box. Teacher leaders weren’t just the ones leading the webinars or responding to the discussion threads. They were the ones who invested in other teachers.

It’s important to understand that while the publications, blogs, and accolades were an important part of those teacher leaders’ identities, they were products of leadership, not the reasons for leadership.

We get caught up in the trappings of leadership and think those things equate leadership.

Teacher leadership has nothing to do with being tapped or being picked. It certainly doesn’t have anything to do with certificates. All of those things may come after, but they do not make a leader of a teacher.

What is teacher leadership? What does it look like? Teacher leadership is ultimately about teachers stepping forward, not waiting to be chosen, and committing to making a difference for their colleagues and their profession. I am not a leader because I participate in an online learning community and blog. I am a teacher leader because I choose to lead, stepping outside my comfort zone without knowing where the road leads, and discovering that I can make a difference in education if I’m willing to step out without expecting official recognition, tickertape parades, or certificates.

About the Author

Deidra Gammill, an NBCT and Ph.D. from Mississippi, was one of ten teachers in her state chosen to participate in the pilot year of the Teacher Leadership Institute. In 2014-2015, she is serving as a teacherpreneur with the Center for Teaching Quality to support the second pilot year of TLI. In this role, Deidra works closely with TLI teacher leaders from Mississippi, as well as with state coaches and facilitators, to support professional learning and teacher leadership.