Teacher leadership: Working from the seats we're in
It’s been nearly a month since I was recognized as a 2023 Nevada Teacher of the Year finalist. The recognition compelled me to reflect upon my teacher leadership journey. I knew little about teacher leadership early in my career, but I knew I wanted to make a difference. I pursued leadership opportunities at my school and I led for more than ten years advising, mentoring, and elevating students and student voice. Yet, I wanted to have an even greater, broader impact on student education and our profession.
That opportunity was realized mid-career, when I was encouraged by a close colleague and education mentor, Pam Salazar, to apply for a teaching policy fellowship with Teach Plus Nevada. I realized that I was among a group of influential teacher leaders who were state teachers of the year, soon to be national teacher of the year, Google-certified teachers, and Apple Distinguished Teachers. Their collective list of accomplishments is astonishing. I frequently questioned my contribution to the space. My knowledge of education policy was limited. I quickly realized that leading meant stepping into spaces I didn't always feel ready to be in, but I needed to do — so I could learn how to advocate for education in impactful ways.
I quickly formed meaningful relationships with colleagues at all levels, including with teacher leader Tonia Holmes-Sutton,Teach Plus Nevada’s Executive Director. Tonia continually pushes me to engage in work I never really feel ready for, but she knows I am more than capable and deserving to be in these spaces. She often sees in me what I initially can't see on my own. And I have begun to believe that I am possibly one of the more influential people in the room. How frequently do leaders hear from teachers authentically and meaningfully?
I’ve had inspiring opportunities to engage and moderate education panels, lead and present in conferences, meet with legislators, attend interim education meetings, and share the stage with Clark County School District (CCSD) superintendent Dr. Jara at IndyTalks on Education. What does it take to lead? It takes confidence. It takes believing that I have the capacity to advocate for teaching and learning in meaningful ways: I already have everything I need as a teacher and leader to advocate in our community. Being a teacher is enough. These moments help me realize it isn't about being perfect. It’s about disrupting the existing narrative in meaningful and authentic ways and leading with head, heart, and hands.
Recently, at a WestEd Board of Directors meeting, Nevada State Superintendent Jhoane Ebert and U.S. Secretary of Education Dr. Miguel Cardona spoke to education leaders representing Nevada, Utah, Arizona, and California. Cardona confidently stated that, ‘What we need in education is leaders — leaders who are willing to make the intangible tangible. Together as a unit, it requires a new type of leadership.’ That new type of leadership includes teachers. Jhone Ebert and Jeanine Collins are leading our state in meaningful ways to develop a new framework for what we want education to look like through the Portrait of a Nevada Leaner work that has recently begun with the Together Team at the Nevada Department of Education and ed.Xtraordinary.
Both Jhone and Jeanine are former classroom teachers. They are teacher-leaders modeling what every teacher needs to know: It's already within that teacher to have everything they need to lead and advocate. As I write this, I think of the journey that I'm on as a teacher-leader, and I wish I had started my leadership journey earlier. I am so empowered to lead that it has changed how I see my classroom role. I'm not only teaching, I'm leading and advocating for the profession. How can teachers engage in leadership from the seats they’re in?
- Join the Nevada Teacher Network: There are many opportunities to be involved, to learn, and to lead in our community as a teacher. One way is to join the Nevada Teacher Network. The Nevada Teacher Network shares opportunities for teachers to engage and lead throughout the state. Some of the leadership opportunities include professional learning, engaging with community leaders and legislators, writing and publishing op-eds, and engaging with and serving on education panels..
- Apply for education fellowships: It is a unique time in education to reach for new ways to cultivate teacher leadership. Consider pursuing fellowship opportunities such as the Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellowship, the Understood x Blue Engine Teacher Fellowship, or the U.S. Department of Education School Ambassador Fellowship Program to build your teacher leadership muscles.
- Attend board meetings, meet with legislators or join panels as a guest speaker: Become informed about the education issues that are persisting in our community. Share your teaching and leading perspective by providing public testimony to local and state board members and legislators or serving on an education panel. They want to hear from teachers. Not everyone is as uniquely positioned to speak to what teaching and learning is like — or how persisting issues and challenges can be addressed the way that teachers can. Amplifying the teacher's voice makes our collective leadership stronger.
Learning to lead from the seat I'm in has led to significant moments in my teaching career. When I reflect, I see purpose and passion. As an InspirED Fellow, I came to understand that it is not the size of the change, but the fact that change is desired. I can say wholeheartedly that my passion to lead in education has intensified. I will continue to advocate for our students and our profession. It will remain my life's work because our kids, our teachers, and our communities deserve it. We can and we must lead from the seats we’re in.
Laura Jeanne "Jeannie" Penrod is a 2022-23 Teach Plus Nevada Senior Policy Fellow, Social Emotional Change Agent Fellow with Teach Plus, who is in her 17th year of teaching in the Clark County School District. Jeannie teaches English at Southwest Career and Technical Academy and has taught Special Education, ELL, and Freshman Studies.