Your experience as a teacher will give you the opportunity to build a unique set of leadership skills that you can draw upon throughout your career.
July 12, 2018
There are many jobs that offer you the opportunity to work your way up to higher leadership positions—usually after several years of proving yourself as a strong individual performer. As a teacher, though, you are in the driver’s seat on Day 1, with the full responsibility of leading a class of 20-30 students.
Teaching is a demanding role that requires incredible organization and time-management skills, as well as the ability to cultivate others’ strengths, to persevere in the face of countless obstacles, and to build relationships—the same skills and experiences needed to lead within a variety of contexts.
The leadership practices you develop and strengthen as a classroom teacher will transfer to any endeavor you might choose to take on. You will continue to draw upon these skills and experiences wherever you find yourself working for systems change and educational equity—whether leading a school, becoming an attorney, heading up a grassroots community organization, remaining a classroom teacher, or holding a position on the school board. Here are four ways that teaching and leadership go hand-in-hand.
1. Teachers Start by Developing a Strong Vision for Their Classroom
One of the primary aspects of leadership is having a clear vision for where you are going. As a teacher, you’ll start the school year by setting the vision for what student success looks like in your classroom. Great teachers think big and develop a vision for what must be true in order for students to realize their gifts.
As with great leaders, great teachers seek tremendous input from stakeholders—students, families, fellow teachers, and the broader community—to decide the direction for their class and what outcomes are most important for students to reach by the end of the school year.
2. Teachers Take Strategic Action to Reach Their Vision Every Day
In addition to setting a vision, a key component of leadership is mapping out the strategy to make that vision come true. This is a major part of your role as a teacher. You’ll set long-term and short-term goals for what you want your students to achieve and determine how you’ll work with students, parents, and your school team to help your students reach those goals. Every lesson plan you create and every assignment you prepare is a part of your strategy.
3. Teachers Are Adept at Building Relationships Across Lines of Difference
Strong leaders are masters of relationship building. Developing authentic relationships is absolutely crucial to your success as a teacher. You’ll constantly work on building trust with your students as you both motivate and challenge them. Teaching also offers you the unique opportunity to build relationships with a diverse group of faculty, staff, and parents, who all bring different backgrounds, experiences, and strengths to the table. Learning how to navigate new contexts and build relationships across lines of difference is perhaps one of the most critical skills that you can develop as a leader right now, as our world becomes more interconnected and diverse.
4. Teachers Continually Push Themselves to Learn and Improve
Learning from mistakes, seeking feedback, and continuing to evolve are among the traits of effective leaders. Teachers by nature are at the center of this kind of culture of learning. As a teacher you are constantly learning and evolving—learning how to teach a new concept, learning what motivates each of your students, learning how to navigate the structures within your school to get things done. You are also constantly receiving feedback on what works (and doesn’t work) and challenging your own perspective on what your students are capable of achieving.
Preparing You for a Career of Impact
Taken together, these four traits create a strong foundation for effective leadership in any context and reflect the habits of outstanding leaders across sectors. You will continue to hone these traits as you develop your teaching practice and will draw upon them throughout your career, no matter what path you choose to follow.
For many Teach For America alumni, the experience of leading a classroom and having a direct impact on students is transformational. It’s an experience that awakens and renews their passion to choose lifelong careers focused on educational inequity and the systemic problems that contribute to it. Nearly 65 percent of TFA alumni continue work in education and 84 percent work in roles impacting education or low-income communities.
A significant portion of alumni stay in the classroom and further develop their leadership skills as veteran teachers. Veteran teachers amass a wealth of leadership experience and influence as they continue to have a profound impact on their students year after year. They develop new learning experiences to prepare students for 21st century jobs; shape the education field by sharing exemplary teaching practices with other educators; and serve as advisors within their community.
Alumni also draw inspiration and conviction from what they learn in the classroom to lead in a variety of sectors outside of the classroom that expand opportunities for kids. They serve as school leaders, attorneys, social entrepreneurs, elected officials, and many other fields that impact the environment in which schools operate.
The Power of Leading Together
Leadership is not limited to the formal roles we hold, but is a way of operating. This means taking time to listen and build authentic relationships, making space to reflect and learn from each other, to collaborate and align on a shared vision—all practices that you will develop and hone as a teacher.
This way of operating is at the heart of collective leadership—bringing people together from different backgrounds to accomplish a shared goal. As you connect with like-minded partners, colleagues, and community members, these skills will help you form relationships and influence others to accelerate progress toward educational equity.
This includes district leaders who build broad coalitions of families, educators, and local leaders to make school funding more equitable. Doctors who partner with local schools and community health organizations to provide wellness education to students. And community organizers who bring people together to change immigration policies so that all children who come to the U.S. have the opportunity to thrive. These leaders all draw on the leadership skills they honed in the classroom.
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