05/06/2014 11:56 am ET | Updated Jul 06, 2014

What's In a Name? The Case for 'Leading Teacher' vs. 'Teacher Leader'

The title "teacher leader" has become a term de jour in the education field, and though it is intended to bestow honor and status to teachers, it may be doing the teachers who serve in that role a disservice. While it may sound like another way of saying the same thing, the title "leading teacher" may be a more accurate and evocative term.

For one thing, the egalitarian culture of teaching does not typically differentiate among professionals in its ranks. Teachers have traditionally led with others from the classroom without taking a separate leadership role. And in the current school culture, teachers (particularly in secondary schools) tend to listen to and learn from peers, who are steeped in their disciplines, rather than traditional school leaders (administrators). In fact, if we are to see the kinds of improvements we desire in transforming STEM education, it is crucial that leading teachers connect and collaborate with their colleagues to change instruction and the learning program to help more young people become excited about STEM learning.

But a recent conversation with a man seated next to me on an airplane caused me to think more deeply about the terms.

The man told me that his son was studying to become a "male nurse." Later, after the pilot greeted us over the loudspeaker, he remarked that he had never been on a flight with a "lady pilot" before. I found these remarks archaic and sexist, but they did make me think. When we specify "male nurse," we do so because it's an anomaly; we are (some of us, still) surprised to see men who are nurses, and nurses who are men, so "male nurse" is a special case of both male and nurse. Likewise for "lady pilots" -- though more are joining the ranks daily, they remain an anomaly.

It occurred to me that we might be doing the same thing when we talk about "teacher leaders." There seems to be a general assumption that leadership in education means "administrator" --someone who no longer teaches students, or perhaps never did. Increasingly, though, the national discourse on education includes references to teacher leaders.

Usually this term refers to individuals who are taking leadership roles in education from the classroom. At the Knowles Science Teaching Foundation (KSTF), where I have worked for the past decade, we have certainly used the term that way. But I'm starting to wonder if the term "teacher leader" exists for the same reason as "male nurse" or "lady pilot." Is a teacher who is also a leader in the profession still such an anomaly that we have to use a special term for them? Are we (some of us, still) surprised to see teachers who lead, and leaders who are teachers?

I used to work as an engineer in a startup company, and I never heard anyone talk about an "engineer leader." I've also never heard of a "surgeon leader," "researcher leader," or "architect leader." What's the difference? Why does a surgeon, research scientist, or engineer who is also a leader not seem like an anomaly? I think part of the reason is that teaching is still largely seen as women's work, and, as a nation, we are still adjusting to the idea of women as leaders. But I also think it has to do with expectations within and about the professions themselves.

While the term "surgeon leader" is not (to my knowledge) a commonly used term, "leading surgeon" is. The medical profession, unlike teaching, has clear expectations and mechanisms in place that allow, and even require, some their members to emerge as leaders who:

  • Generate, study and share new practices (think of surgeons who develop and publish new surgical techniques)
  • Mentor new members (think of attending physicians who mentor interns and residents)
  • Use their expertise to advocate for policy (think of the American Medical Association advocating for epinephrine in schools) and the profession (think of the AMA advocating for an increase in the number of Medicare-supported graduate medical education positions)
  • Are recognized spokespersons for others in the profession: When they speak, people listen (think of the many physicians who serve as expert witnesses in trials, or as an expert reference on the news.)

Furthermore, professions like medicine have mechanisms for training and supporting these leaders within the profession. It would be unthinkable for a medical intern to learn how to practice medicine from someone who had never done so herself. By contrast, although most teacher preparation programs require that candidates spend some time in classrooms working with teachers and their students, it is not uncommon for pre-service K-12 teachers to take classes from people who have never actually taught K-12 themselves.

So is this just semantics? Does it matter if we say teacher leader or leading teaching? The training I've had in discourse analysis leads me to believe that it matters a lot, and here's why:

  • In the term teacher leader, both teacher and leader are nouns, so the term indexes a fixed state of being and denotes a status, which can be bestowed (or revoked). Furthermore, leader is the subject and teacher is the modifier (much like male is the modifier for nurse in my example above). So in effect, the term teacher leader positions the status of teacher as secondary to the status of leader. Overall, it is a term that is applied to teachers, by someone else, who sees teachers as cogs in the machine.
  • By contrast, leading teacher indexes action or process, neither of which can be bestowed or revoked. Teacher is the subject and leading, a verb, is the modifier. So leading teacher indexes first and foremost a person (a teacher) who does something specific (leading). Teaching remains in the foreground.

From my work at KSTF supporting a network of leading teachers nationwide, I have identified many other reasons why the term "leading teacher" is preferable. The act of leading actually describes what they do. They lead by improving their own practice and being both an inspiration and a resource to their colleagues to advance the profession. They set direction and take on responsibility for the welfare of others in the school. One cannot be a leading teacher in isolation. This position requires working in in multiple contexts, acting as leaders within the school and district, and across diverse functions, including leading professional development and serving as mentors and coaches, developing curriculum and assessments, and adding their voices to local, state, and national policy concerns. In this sense, they are what Barnett Berry and his colleagues at the Center for Teaching Quality has dubbed "teacherpreneurs" -- innovative teachers who lead but don't leave.

Whatever we call them, perhaps the most important characteristic of leading teachers is that they beget other leading teachers. They advance the overall profession to generate knowledge, refine and share practice, and take on a larger voice in the policy world. The strength of the profession depends on strengthening teachers who lead but don't leave.