by Ceri Dean, CO ASCD Board Member
The purpose of the Teachers as Leaders blog is to promote understanding and advocacy for teacher leadership, which is at the core of CO ASCD’s vision and mission.
Recently, I had a conversation with Autumn Rivera, 2022 Colorado Teacher of the Year, about teacher leadership. Our conversation ranged from the meaning and importance of teacher leadership to how leaders can support it to Autumn’s journey as a teacher leader and her advice to others about recognizing their own teacher leadership. Colorado ASCD’s focus is on teachers leading from the classroom. Autumn agreed that teachers leading from the classroom is important because they understand firsthand what is happening in classrooms – the good, the bad, and the ugly – and can help identify and carry out solutions that are best for students. My questions and Autumn’s comments have been edited for clarity and length.
What does teacher leadership mean to you? How do you explain it to others?
Autumn: I think teacher leadership is something that is about listening, whether it's teachers listening to their students or decision makers listening to teachers….and really trusting them as professionals.
Do you think that teacher leadership is particularly important today?
Autumn: I think it's specifically important today because, teachers are the ones that are living it right now….Teachers can put a story to the situation that is happening in classrooms today. They're able to name and provide specific examples. They've lived it, they're not speaking hypothetically of a student they taught six, seven years ago. They're speaking of a student that's sitting in their classroom right now and advocating for them right now in that moment.
Teacher leaders are so crucial. I think successful schools and successful districts really amplify that teacher leadership voice. They encourage teachers to share their knowledge, to share their professionalism. When you mute teacher voice, when you limit that voice, it really starts to hurt the profession overall.
What do you think school or district leaders can do to support teacher leadership?
Autumn: Having teachers involved at every level of decision making that happens in schools and in districts is an important way of doing that. I'm lucky enough to work in a school where we have an instructional leadership team and a building leadership team. Both are staffed by teachers and administration working together and having conversations and finding common solutions for different issues within our school. And similarly, within my district, we have a lot of different teacher voices involved with different aspects. But I think above that, a lot of the time at the state and even at the national level, there aren't as many teachers involved as there needs to be….That's really where we're missing out.
What do you think are some barriers to involving teachers at all levels?
Autumn: It takes time. If you want to get feedback from teachers, you might have to have another meeting or you might have to have a couple more meetings. Often, there’s not time to get feedback, but it's such a crucial part that we need to make time. Unfortunately, in society right now, ….we're not trusting teachers to pick the best topics to study in their classrooms….there is this lack of trust in teachers as professionals, in many aspects of education….Having to beat and change that mindset is very important as is understanding the importance and the value in including teacher feedback. It might be a little more time or work, but that work or time is going to have very positive ramifications for teachers and students, because the decisions are made by people who are going to put those ideas into action.
What are some of the benefits of involving teachers? How would that play out in the school? What would parents or others see?
Autumn: They will see a situation that's best for their students. In my classroom, I really try to listen to student voice and have my students drive my instruction and where they want to go. And if I wasn't trusted as a professional, as a teacher, I wouldn't be able to do that, and my classroom would no longer be based on student interest and student engagement and student empowerment. Instead, it would have almost a robotic feel and that's not what we are as teachers. We're not robots - we're creative, amazing, content creators.
When teachers have a voice, they’re able to think of the nitty gritty's – what the big idea looks like in the classroom – that are going to make things successful. Having teachers there allows that part of the process to really be teased out.
I can’t tell you how many times we’ve been told, “This is what we’re doing now,” and all of us teachers are like, “Wait, what does that mean? That sounds like a great idea, but how do you implement that? What does that look like?” A lot of times that’s left to teachers to piecemeal together. If teachers had been involved in the decision making from the beginning, we would have caught different roadblocks and allowed this process to go through in a much more streamlined fashion rather than being rumbled around until we finally make it work.
Sometimes we talk about teachers being resistant to change and not wanting to take on reforms. How do you think teacher leaders help with that piece?
Autumn: I don't necessarily know if teachers are resistant to change. I think teachers are resistant to what they view as meaningless change or change for change sake. I think if they understand the "why" behind the change and really see what needs to happen, that can drive and make things much stronger. I think teacher leaders can play a role in that by being involved in the decision to make the changes in the first place. If those teachers can also voice the "why" and communicate that to their colleagues, the change will have that buy-in and be much stronger. I feel people will listen to me a lot of times, more than other administration in my district, because I am also a teacher. I can say, "I hear what you're saying. This is the reason for the change."
Working together with teachers, having them be part of the problem solving process, having them help find solutions, using teacher leaders to advocate for teachers as a whole all allow the new initiatives, the new processes, not to seem like change for change sake. When the change and the decision is made, teachers will trust it's come from a place of good intentions, because the teachers were involved in that from the very beginning.
Some teachers are reluctant to be seen as a teacher leader. What started you on your journey of teacher leadership?
Autumn: I just saw a change that needed to happen and kind of looked around and realized that, why do I need to wait for someone else to make that change? I can step up and help, I'm always the helper, sometimes to an extreme, but I'm the helper in situations and I just want to do what's best for kids and what's best for teachers…. Many teachers in my teacher-of-the-year cohort are very similar, we're not someone that loves to be in the limelight. We struggle with that a lot, but we also know that we have a powerful voice right now, that we can advocate for teachers and students everywhere.
For me, the process of becoming a teacher leader started with me standing up for one student or standing up for one teacher. Then that just continued to grow and snowball until I realized, "I do have a voice, I do want to advocate for my teachers. My voice is one that's listened to and valued." I try to use that "power" in a strong way, so that I can make sure that all of my teachers are heard, and all of my students are supported.
Did you start by becoming a member of the instructional improvement team, or did you start by serving on committees or just by speaking up at faculty meetings or something else?
Autumn: That's an interesting question, I haven't thought about that. I guess it started when I was first teaching with me being the leader of the student council and being involved in a lot of planning of the events that the student council sponsors. [Here’s a shout-out to student council sponsors, because they do a lot of things behind the scenes that people do not know about.] As student council sponsor, I was sharing, and encouraged to share, my thoughts on student council events. Then I continued to grow. I became a member of our interest based bargaining through our union. That also allowed me to advocate for teachers in my school and in my district, and then I became a member of the instructional leadership team and building leadership team at my school.
That grew to being a leader at the state and national levels as well. I'm the President of the Colorado Association of Science Teachers and work for two other Colorado associations. I'm also volunteering with the American Association of Chemistry Teachers.
My journey as a teacher leader grew from just a small conversation about a school dance to being involved in different state and national level decisions. I am grateful that I'm able to speak on behalf of all students and teachers.
It's funny how your involvement just snowballed. Maybe that’s what scares some teachers about being teacher leaders. Do you think teacher leadership should be part of the expectations for teachers?
Autumn: I am very lucky in that I have a lot of time that I can dedicate to being a leader and advocate for teachers. Not all people have that time, but each teacher is a leader in their own way. Yes, my leadership might be a little more vocal, a little more visible, but each teacher is advocating for the students in their classroom. Each teacher is there supporting their students and supporting their fellow classmates. I think teacher leadership looks different for each teacher, but it's hard to measure something that's happening behind the scenes, that's happening day to day. Some teachers – not all – have opportunities to speak at the state or national levels. The lack of opportunities doesn't make them any less of an awesome teacher.
Your point that every teacher is a leader in their own way and that advocating for their students is teacher leadership is an important message for teachers.
Autumn: Exactly. When someone asks, “Why do teachers shy away from leadership?” I think it’s because teachers think “teacher leadership” means leading professional learning for large groups of people. I speak at different events, but teacher leadership doesn't have to be that. It can be just sitting with a student and having a conversation. It can be going to a counselor and advocating for some time for a student to get some more support at home or more support with homework. It can be working with another teacher to plan a lesson. Teacher leadership comes in so many different varieties that we should be celebrating all forms of teacher leadership, because this career, this profession, of education would not happen without all teachers leading in their own way.
I think that's a powerful message. What advice do you have for teachers who are just starting their teacher leadership journey?
Autumn: I would tell them to listen. Early in my journey, I went in with my ideas and wondered, “Why aren't you doing my ideas?” Well, I hadn't thought about all the nitty gritty's either. I had only thought about how the situation affected my classroom. I needed to listen to other teachers and really work together with them. My advice is listen to others and work together and understand that we all are trying to do what's best for our students. Take that mentality as you move forward - that all of us want to provide quality education for all our students, no matter what school or classroom they're in and provide that opportunity.
My advice for a teacher starting out is you don’t have to – and you can’t – do it all right away. I learned that the hard way, for sure. You just need to pick one or two things to be your goal that year and just work on those one or two things. Pick a couple things to tweak each year and continue to practice and maintain the other things. That will make it a lot easier than trying to change everything all at the same time.
You talked about advocating for students. Who is advocating for teachers?
Autumn: I think in advocating for students, you're also advocating for teachers. One is not separate from the other. Many times, there's this narrative out there that it's teachers versus students and it's not. We are together; we are supporting each other….When you're advocating for one, you're advocating for the other. We are partners in this and it's very exciting.
You talked about using your teacher voice to either talk to principals or superintendents or state people. What helps you be that kind of advocate, let's say a public advocate? And what do teachers need to know to be able to do that?
Autumn: One thing we were told early in the Teacher of the Year program is, you are the expert in your classroom, and I think taking that in has really meant a lot to me. I might not be an expert on policy, I might not be an expert on educational funding, but I am an expert on my students and in my classroom. And all I do is just share the stories. I share my teaching experience. I share the Colorado experience. When I share those stories, people’s eyes are opened. People can't argue with me or have a huge debate over what I shared. This is my story, it's my truth, and this is what I'm sharing. I encourage all teachers, at all levels, to share their stories and let people hear.
Often, as teachers we are taught to be the silent martyr and not share about all that's going on, but I think we do need to share our stories. For example, in my district 75% of teachers work two or more jobs so that we can afford to live where we do. I've been renting my house for the last 10 years and there is no sign of me being able to afford to purchase a house where I live anytime soon, and I've been teaching for 17 years and have two master's degrees. I also have amazing students who work hard, who are making changes, who really love learning about different things and make me laugh daily. All those different pieces – the good, the bad, and the ugly – are important to share with people.
Do you think policy makers listen?
Autumn: Yeah. I've met with a lot of different policymakers ….and I do think that they hear. There's a lot of different things at play, unfortunately. I think if there were more teacher voices being heard, our voice would go further. I encourage teachers to continue to share their voice often with policymakers. Let it be a loud roar that all people can hear and understand. That will allow us to make more of a change.
We’re in an awesome time right now – slowly coming out of the pandemic and going into this recovery. We can choose how we move forward, there is no normal that we must go back to. We really can make a change to what we see is better. We can take some lessons and gems we learned from COVID and some things that were working before COVID and create a new educational system that really supports all students. It can be a very exciting time if we allow teacher voice, that teacher leadership voice, to be there. I encourage policymakers to invite teachers in and really see what they have to say, because I think we can do some awesome things for education in the next couple years.