03/27/2012 06:06 pm ET Updated May 27, 2012

In Education, Who's Leading Who?

By Marcello Sgambelluri

Earlier this month, I attended the International Summit on the Teaching Profession, where the issue of educational leadership was front and center. This setting seemed a long way from my first grade classroom, but I found many points that resonated within the walls of my school.

A principal should not be the tip of the pyramid in a school, but rather a dot in the middle, said Ziga Turk, the Slovenian Minister of Education. This visual illustrates the principal not as a disseminator of commands in a top-down approach, but rather as a synthesizer, thought partner, and enabler to teachers.

This idea of the principal as part of the community, central but not hierarchical, led to the meat of the discussion: that real instructional leadership in education needs to come first and foremost from teachers. When teachers take the lead, we:

1) Feel valued and empowered.
2) Receive efficient and necessary professional development (after all, who knows what a teacher needs better than a teacher?).
3) See career growth while staying in the classroom.
4) Improve our personal classroom practice through self-reflection, and clarify our craft by teaching it to others.
5) Don't "shut our doors," but rather feel empowered to share our best practices with new teachers who desperately want for it.

In order for teachers to be leaders, we need to be given the time and resources to collaborate with and observe other teachers. We also need to be ready to open up to constructive criticism and open our classroom doors unabashedly to every teacher in the building. The principal must support these teams by providing resources (for example, time and space, professional development on collaboration, and opportunities for relationship building), and facilitate group discussions and sharing of ideas.

Here's one example of what this looks like: In my current school, each grade level's planning times are both staggered and aligned. During contiguous planning times, we can have team meetings; during staggered planning times, we have the option of observing each other teach. This way we, as teachers, can provide feedback to our peers.

We would all love for our principals to be experts of every subject and grade they lead -- and I do believe principals should to be instructors first and foremost -- but to expect them to be experts in science, math, reading, and social studies instruction, in up to six different grades, is not realistic. What is realistic, however, is the goal of building collaborative leadership teams where skilled teachers can share our expertise in our respective fields.

As Minister Bjorklund of Sweden pointed out, when we leave reform up to principals and administrators, we leave it to so few who can aim for change ... and so many who can oppose it. If we are to truly change education, we need to start with the foundation and not the tip of the pyramid; we need to start with ourselves, the teachers.

We are the leaders we have been looking for. Give us the time, the resources, and the framework. After all, no one is more equipped to lead the change in education than teachers.

Marcello Sgambelluri teaches first grade at Community Academy Public Charter School in Washington, D.C. He is currently a Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellow.