I’m a shy person, in many ways, a shy teacher. But I want to become a good leader. Can I be a good leader if I’m shy and nervous to be in front of other people?
Dear Shy Teacher,
Absolutely you can be an influential leader! Even as I unequivocally shoot off that quick answer, I also understand why you ask and where your uncertainty comes from. On one hand, we still have a lot of teacher leadership models that are 1) traditionally organized around standing up in front of peers and leading learning and 2) predisposed to extroverts. However, you don’t have to despair, because the work and look of teacher leadership is far more multi-faceted than this one-dimensional definition.
Your question is more important than ever. As I learn about schools around the country that are making teacher leadership more systematic, it’s becoming more imperative to broaden our scope of teacher leadership.
Let’s start by re-framing what teacher leadership can look like, remembering the power of quiet.
Teacher leaders can…
- Welcome people into their classrooms. Leadership is about letting others in, not keeping them out. Whether it’s opening your door to other teachers, welcoming community members to be co-learners, or inviting policymakers in to see what learning really looks like, each time you open your door, you’re opening a conversation.
- Talk openly about their mistakes. Teacher leaders aren’t perfect, nor do they pretend to be. Yes, they are accomplished; yes, they are always trying to find new ways to keep their learners engaged; yes, they are constantly challenging themselves. But, they aren’t flawless. Rather, they are willing to talk openly about mistakes and missteps, using those moments as catalysts for others to learn from. Teacher leaders understand effective teaching doesn’t come from copying other effective teachers, but from learning to hone the underlying craft.
- Advocate for students and other teachers. In endless ways, teacher leaders advocate for young people and for each other. They write, they speak, they ask tough questions. But most importantly, they show up. They show up to be voices of wisdom, of compassion, of reason, of vision.
- Write, post, snap and share. Teacher leaders show their work. Beyond opening their classrooms, they open their practice. This is an especially good way to start exercising your teacher-leader voice without having to stand front and center. You can write about your practice in a blog, raise a question in an op-ed, share some research in a journal article. Even if that seems like a stretch, post about the student who said something in class you know other teachers can appreciate. Start taking pictures: of student work, of students at work and share it all in whatever ways you can contribute to all the teaching conversations happening on-line. (Of course, before posting any photos with students in them, consult your school district’s policies on social media.) What’s most important here is that you’re sharing and contributing.
- Join and get involved in professional organizations. If you aren’t already part of a professional organization, now is a the perfect time to get involved. Whether it’s local, state or national, in-person or virtual, you’ll feel supported in your leadership trajectory when there are others doing this work alongside you. Submit a proposal to present at a state conference or volunteer to help organize one. These are fantastic ways to take manageable steps to diversifying your leadership.
- Read, follow, respond and talk. And if all of this still seems like a stretch, then start here. Learn how others share by following them on social media, read and share the work of others, leave comments that propel discussions where you can and start talking about what you’re learning. This work isn’t meant to be done in a vacuum, and contributing to the collective wisdom of the profession can start with one click.
All of this said, I hope you can hear loud and clear that there’s never one way to be a teacher leader. You would never look at your classroom of students and underestimate the power of quiet leadership, nor should you place that appraisal on yourself. Teacher leaders are open, not insular; vulnerable, not perfect. Whether you’re quiet or clamorous, teacher leadership is the stewardship of progress.