My doctoral research focused on the career choices of teachers so that I might better understand the issues of teacher retention and preparation. Data from 924 survey responses and nine interviews indicated that “making a difference” is a central goal of those who are prepared to teach, but making a difference varied from person to person. The career ladder option of serving as a school or district administrator was not appealing, as teachers told me
“So really there are certain roles and there’s a chain of command and it works like this. That’s frustrating, but I don’t want to be part of the people that are making and enforcing the annoying rules, so I’m not going there.” (Interview with teacher with more than five years in the classroom).
Rather, some teachers seek out informal leadership roles to “make a difference” as they learn and grow. Informal teacher leader roles are critical for their sense of efficacy by sustaining their professional growth and ultimately lengthening retention in the classroom. When informal leadership opportunities are not available, experienced teachers leave classroom teaching. This leak in the teacher pipeline is avoidable.
The informal teacher leader is one whose primary responsibilities are as a classroom teacher who, without an official authority or title (e.g. coach, mentor, supervisor), works with colleagues and educators in leadership capacities. For example, they might form collaborations with community experts or work in small groups with interested colleagues, as teachers explained:
“For me it’s been the right mix of allowing me to work with kids, to do some good, to serve others and at the same time continue to learn, to grow, to create, and to be challenged myself every day” (Survey).
“So it has a good feeling there of people really working and working together, a lot of collegiality. It feels really like I’m a teacher and a learner. I’m really exploring things. In that sense, it’s great”
(Interview with teacher with more than five years in the classroom)
We need a continuum of teacher learning and growth that spans between preservice teacher preparation in higher education and K-12 careers as we recognize the struggle of sustaining teacher satisfaction in the classroom. There is value in multiple stakeholders looking at the leaky teacher pipeline together to facilitate a successful transition from higher education into K-12 systems, as well as to inform effective professional development partnerships among higher education and K-12 systems.
I was most fortunate to work with dedicated educators from school districts, policy agencies, higher education and non-profit organizations in the development of the Teacher Leader Model Standards as we agreed that
“We must seek to use the expertise that already exists in the teaching force by ensuring opportunities for recognition and specific leadership roles for those who wish the added responsibilities that come with leadership.” – Teacher Leader Exploratory Consortium
Teachers, who aspire to informal leadership roles while remaining classroom teachers, must be supported in their own intellectual development. A kindergarten teacher reflects below on her experience working with other informal teacher leaders to improve math pedagogy skills:
“I now realize that there is a world out there where teachers talk to each other in a significant way that I didn’t know was possible. It’s good for a teacher’s soul” (2020)
It is this potential to lead, to be creative, to be scholarly that attracts educators to the profession and enables them to remain in the classroom. Those committed to education must share with, debate among and learn from each other so as to strengthen systems and sustain educators throughout their careers.