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Defining Teacher Leadership

by Dr. Tamara Sober

Teacher leadership is rarely tightly defined (Wenner & Campbell, 2017) and often used as an umbrella term (Neumerski, 2012). Most commonly, teacher leadership refers to teachers who maintain classroom-based teaching responsibilities while also taking on leadership responsibility outside of the classroom, with an understanding that a practitioner has a unique lens for informing decisions about the workThis definition implies that teacher leaders go above-and-beyond their typical duties, such as department chair or lead or mentor teacher, but it may also include hybrid teacher leadership roles or titles such as instructional coaching, coordinator, specialist, and more. Essentially, teachers lead by supporting the professional learning of their peers or by influencing policy and decision-making at the school, district, state, or even national level, ultimately with a goal of improving student learning.

[The academic study of] teacher leadership (i.e., scholarship) has been labeled partially-theoretical or even atheoretical (York-Barr & Duke, 2004), albeit with the most frequent theoretical lens being distributed leadership (about 20%, according to a literature review by Wenner & Campbell, 2017) meaning teacher leaders begin with the positive assumption that leadership is shared by more than just the person formally holding the leadership title. While a strong theoretical foundation may not be critical to field practitioners, the need for empirical research on the impact of teacher leadership should garner more attention in today’s context that recognizes teacher leadership as a key component of school reform. Educational institutions are being faced with high teacher turnover linked to a lack of teacher autonomy amidst the 21st century private business sector’s move towards a distributed leadership model.

Formal recognition of the value of teacher leadership is a positive sign for the profession, and teachers credit leadership opportunities with providing them a sense of empowerment, as well as a path for improving their practice and growing as a professional. However, for schools to fully access the student-learning and school-improvement benefits of teacher leadership, the following supports must be considered:

Professional development focused on leadership skills and the study of power. Teacher leadership professional development is often focused on strategies, pedagogy, and content knowledge; with very little attention given to the study of power dynamics, such as those that arise when teachers are placed in positional authority over their peers, upsetting the egalitarian norms of the profession. A focus on developing critical consciousness of historical and institutional oppression is essential for equipping teacher leaders with the skills and understanding necessary to cultivate more diverse and equitable school cultures.

Administrative and structural support that cultivates a school culture of trust. Trust is the scaffolding necessary to support non-hierarchal decision-making; without trust, faculty will resist leadership coming from anyone other than the administration. Leaders in positions of authority should lead by example by continually modeling efforts to encourage leadership of others and by institutionalizing opportunities for teacher input, voice, and leadership. Other structural factors that create the conditions for successful teacher leadership include clear-cut job responsibilities and recognition for those teacher leaders who step up to take on and meet those additional responsibilities.

Time to complete the work. Teachers who take on leadership roles cite the lack of time to fulfill the work, as they are pulled in competing directions (Wenner & Campbell, 2017). Their desire to take on more in order to bring about change can often lead to burnout, and despite the theoretical foundation of distributed leadership, those who show leadership promise are often given heavy loads that may far outweigh their peers’ workload. School leaders tapping teachers for leadership roles set them up to experience success when they relieve those teachers from some duties and responsibilities in order to free up time for the added responsibilities.

As recent as 2017, scholars cautioned that the lack of empirical research on teacher leadership may present an overly optimistic picture of the expectations and implementation of teacher leadership and they posed a number of questions (Wenner & Campbell, 2017) that if answered could inform the work and roles of teacher leaders.

  • Recognizing that schools are nested and constituted in unique contexts, in what ways do the school-level factors shape the enactment of teacher leadership?
  • To what extent can the roles of teacher leaders be connected to improved teacher practice and increased student learning?
  • Are there models of teacher leadership that are more effective than others in terms of student learning and/or teacher learning?
  • What role do teacher leaders play in shaping issues of equity and diversity in classrooms, schools, and communities?
  • How might we encourage more teacher leadership among underrepresented groups?
  • In what ways might teacher leadership mitigate teacher attrition?

From a practical standpoint, practitioners who currently serve in teacher leadership roles may find it useful to answer one or more of these questions for their specific context. As the recognition of the added value and need for teacher leadership becomes more prominent, and as more teacher leaders provide context-specific answers to these questions, perhaps we will come closer to defining teacher leadership.


Wenner, J. A., & Campbell, T. (2017). The theoretical and empirical basis of teacher leadership: A review of the literature. Review of educational research, 87(1), 134-171. doi: 10.3102/0034654316653478

Neumerski, C. M. (2012). Rethinking instructional leadership, a review: What do we know about principal, teacher, and coach instructional leadership, and where should we go from here? Educational Administration Quarterly, 49, 310–347. doi:10.1177/0013161X12456700

York-Barr, A. J., & Duke, K. (2004). What do we know about teacher leadership? Findings from two decades of scholarship. Review of Educational Research, 74, 255–316. doi:10.3102/00346543074003255

Tamara Sober

Tamara Sober, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of Education and teaches in the Center for Teacher Leadership’s Richmond Teacher Residency program. Dr. Sober has more than 23 years of experience in teaching, teacher advocacy, and teacher leadership at the local, state, and national level. Her scholarship includes social justice education, critical economics for the social studies classroom, and teacher agency. A recent publication may be of interest to readers: Senechal, J., Sober, T., Hope, S., Johnson, T., Burkhalter, F., Castelow, T., . . . & Robinson, R. (2016). Understanding Teacher Morale: A Report of the Metropolitan Educational Research Consortium. Virginia Commonwealth University School of Education, Richmond, Virginia.

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