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Virginia Journal of Education

Teacher Leadership: Setting Sail

Leading from the classroom is a rewarding, though risk-taking voyage.

by Jan Tusing
My launch into teacher leadership was a lot like my first sailing lesson. As I studied the sturdy aluminum pole, cheerful sail, and smooth wooden tiller of the craft, I remembered my friend’s simple directions: “Plant your feet in the well, allow the wind to catch the sail, and use the tiller to control the direction of the boat.” I pushed the bow further into the water and remembered her last admonition: “Don’t forget to duck if the boom should suddenly change directions!”

The wind caught the sail, fluffing and filling. Instinctively, I leaned in the opposite direction to balance the craft. Pulling the sail closer and clasping the rope, I grinned at the pure pleasure of skimming across the sun-dappled water.

Suddenly the sail ballooned and the boat leapt forward as it caught a gust of wind. Struggling to gain control, I yanked the sail closer. The boat tilted as a cold wall of water body-slammed me into a silent golden-green world. I careened in slow motion, sinking into the weedy grass. Pushing off the murky bottom, I gasped for air as I burst through the surface and scissor-kicked to my now upside-down sailboat.

I was not one to panic. Slipping and straining, I struggled to pull myself up onto the partially submerged hull and planted my feet against the daggerboard. Grasping the edge and using my body as a fulcrum, the giant turtle of a boat—with a great sucking noise—lurched, slapped the surface, and bobbed upright. I ruefully pulled myself back into the well with a much better understanding of the intricacies of guiding the craft. There was a bit more to this sailing than I had first thought.
The same was true of my voyage into teacher leadership.

As an experienced and passionate classroom teacher, I had for years enjoyed the support of parents, administrators and colleagues. Every fall as summer drew to a close and a new school year loomed, I never knew who was more excited, me or my new students. I became so caught up in heady new plans that I spent sleepless nights imagining exciting lessons, pondering ways to adapt my success as a writing coach to all content areas, and reading professional journals into the wee hours. My teaching partner and I couldn’t imagine another profession as stimulating and satisfying as ours. We planned together, shared our successes and flops, and were always on the lookout for the next cutting-edge idea to enrich our classrooms.

Although I had dabbled with the idea of becoming an administrator—even completing all but one course towards certification—I knew that my heart would always be in the classroom. After having made the conscious decision to remain there, the key question became how I would continue to challenge myself professionally. I found my first answer when I became a fellow and eventually co-facilitator of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Capital Writing Project. The National Writing Project does a remarkable job of lifting up and empowering teachers as leaders. Suddenly I was not “only” a teacher, but a highly-skilled practitioner whose research-based instruction affected the lives of both students and colleagues. For the first time, I began to believe that maybe I could, as the Center for Teacher Leadership (CTL) at VCU advocates, “lead from the classroom.”

The next answer came when I achieved National Board Certification as a Middle Childhood Generalist. I was fortunate to have been a part of a CTL cohort of like-minded teachers throughout the rigorous process. Working together, we analyzed our practice, assembled portfolios, and prepared for the testing portion. As a freshly-minted NBCT, I was excited to receive an invitation to attend a series of nationally-recognized Santa Cruz New Teacher Center Mentor Workshops. I used the new skills learned with Santa Cruz as I continued on to complete a graduate course in supervision, and eventually became clinical faculty at VCU. As a clinical faculty site-based supervisor, I represented the university, supporting student-teachers and their district cooperating teachers. When a group of NBCTs was convened to develop a program to train future clinical faculty, before I knew it, I was a co-trainer for the program. Although totally at home in a classroom of 30 students, I was definitely out of my element when training groups of 60 of the most accomplished, dedicated teachers in our region. How I wish I had training to support my early efforts as a trainer!

Despite the many new professional opportunities, I continued to be totally passionate about my job as classroom teacher and excited to come to work each day. Early one morning as I cut through the main office on my way to my classroom, a brochure tacked up on the bulletin board caught my eye. It described a new opening for “Beginning Teacher Advisors”—fully-released mentors who would support new teachers in Chesterfield’s highest-need schools. Intrigued, I read the qualifications. My background seemed like a good fit, but I still couldn’t imagine leaving the classroom. What was I thinking? Shaking my head, I struggled to pin the brochure back on the overflowing board. It was then that my eye fell on the last bulleted point: This was a two-year position. At the end of the two years, mentors were guaranteed a teaching position in the district. Wow—a low-risk way to try out a new leadership role, complete with a money back guarantee! It was tempting.

For several days I wrestled with the idea, struggling to put the opportunity aside. How could I possibly leave these kids and my teaching partner and sail off into the unknown? I had taught for years in the best schools in my district, working with students with enormous potential in our center-based gifted program. But my work hadn’t always been in such idyllic settings. I began my career in a rural Title 1 middle school in Pennsylvania, where many of my students came from impoverished homes. I knew firsthand what a difference a strong teacher can make. A part of me kept insisting that maybe this was my chance to give back. Once again, I listened to my heart. With shaking hands, I completed the application and asked my ever-supportive teaching partner to complete a recommendation. Fortunately, I only had two days to complete the process, so I didn’t have time to change my mind.

In the weeks leading up to the interview, I had time to reconcile my feelings about leaving the classroom. I reminded myself that this leadership opportunity was a temporary position that, in the end, would enhance my classroom practice. A month after the interview, I received an offer to become a Beginning Teacher Advisor (BTA) at the elementary level, and I accepted the position. The end of the school year and the summer sailed by, and before I knew it, training began. Over the course of two challenging years together, a group of 12 veteran teachers became colleagues, support systems, friends…and BTAs. We trained, planned and generally stretched ourselves out of our comfort zones as we tried on the complicated business of full-time mentoring. It was not until three days before school opened that I received a call from our district’s director of staff development, Judy Flythe.

“Jan, we have to make a change in your assignment,” she said. “There are 11 new teachers at one of our highest-need middle schools, so that will become your home base. I’m hoping that you’ll have time to support a few elementary teachers as well, but that will depend upon how many other new teachers are hired in the middle school.”

My thoughts careened in slow motion, and my heart sank. I struggled to surface positive thoughts.

“When I accepted this job, Judy, I did so with the understanding that I would work in an elementary setting,” I said. “That’s my area of expertise and comfort…” Pushing off the murky bottom, I rocketed toward the surface, took another deep breath and said, “But you know I’ll do my best to meet the needs of the district and these new teachers. If they can do this, so can I.”

I understood completely.  There was a group of 11 brand new teachers poised to take on the most difficult jobs of their lives, and I was supposed to guide them through the treacherous waters ahead. I couldn’t let them down.

Our voyage together was not an easy one. There were often dark storm clouds brewing on the horizon. Some days the waters roiled, testing the fragile craft we had worked so hard to construct together. I missed my own class of students desperately at first, but I quickly learned that in this job—as in all teacher leader positions—it was not about me. On days when a bright ray of sunshine illuminated the classroom of one of the teachers I was supporting, it was all worth it. There were other times and situations where my new found mantra—“It’s not about me”—was put to the test; however, as I grew as a mentor, my understanding of what it meant to be a teacher leader grew as well.

Later, I was invited to assume the role of Teacher Leader-in-Residence to support the second two-year cohort of fully-released mentors rather than return to my classroom and, not without trepidation, I eventually accepted the challenge.

Once again I was caught up in heady new plans. This time I spent sleepless nights wondering how to possibly prepare another amazing group of veteran teachers for the challenges they would face. As I once more read professional journals into the wee hours, I thought long and hard about the groundbreaking idea that teacher leadership isn’t about gaining authority. It isn’t about raising our voices to be more clearly heard. And it certainly isn’t about status. It’s simply inviting colleagues to follow as we work together to improve outcomes for students. As 12 remarkable BTAs and I began to chart our course together, we came to embrace Thomas Sergiovanni’s vision of “shared followership.” We focused not on whom to follow, but on what to follow. As BTA facilitator, I was keenly aware that my legacy lay in the empowerment of teacher leaders, who would in turn empower beginning teachers in our most challenging schools. As our research drew to a close and the mentors returned to their classrooms, they took with them new, broader understandings of critical educational issues. With a renewed vision for their work, they continue to lead from the classroom.

As Teacher Leader-in-Residence, I juggled other duties as well. I was one of three BTAs who were tapped to become licensed Santa Cruz trainers. CTL became one of two sites in the nation licensed to facilitate the New Teacher Center workshops. These workshops acknowledge that skilled teachers can offset— or even eliminate— the disadvantages faced by students from a low socioeconomic background. School districts embracing the New Teacher Center model across the nation know that this high-quality approach to teacher induction is critical in preparing teacher leaders as mentors and coaches. As a naturally reserved person, training to facilitate a nationally-acclaimed program shoulder-to-shoulder with some of the best and brightest trainers in the country was an uncomfortable stretch. The power of the content and the enthusiasm of the participants continue to remind me that it’s not about me, and I become more confident each time I present.

My voyage continues through uncharted waters. In my third year as Teacher Leader-in-Residence, CTL is putting the finishing touches on Teacher Leadership 101, the foundational training strand of our Continuum of Training. This work appropriately began with a meeting of 125 teacher leaders who were asked to identify the generic skills that all teacher leaders need. Working in design teams, these teacher leaders identified their top workshop choices, which then became the basis for our training for teachers who aspire to or are tapped for teacher leadership opportunities. I find great satisfaction in serving as lead trainer for our Center as we bring these workshops to accomplished classroom teachers. In my role shift from classroom teacher to full-time teacher leader, I know firsthand that the skills of a strong teacher do not always translate seamlessly into the skills needed in a leadership position. The opportunity to develop training that fills the many gaps, empowering accomplished teachers to become passionate, effective leaders, is a new and exciting way to have an impact on my chosen profession.

What a difference these offerings could have made in my personal journey of discovery as a teacher leader! Although I was fortunate to participate in both the New Teacher Center mentor workshops and the VCU Clinical Faculty training, the foundational piece—Teacher Leadership 101—was missing. Too often, as I learned on the job, I felt the misery of capsizing my craft. I missed subtle nuances in meetings, failed to accurately read body language, or took words at their face value. As a trainer, I struggled to differentiate for the diverse needs of training participants. Those that I worked with knew and accepted that I was a learner as well, and so we grew together. For that I was grateful. Although there are still days when the swinging arm of the boom threatens to knock me overboard, each day I savor the journey.

Tusing, a member of the Chesterfield Education Association, serves as Teacher Leader-in-Residence at VCU’s Center for Teacher Leadership.


VCU Offers Leadership Training

If you’re considering a journey of exploration into the world of teacher leadership, Virginia Commonwealth University’s Center for Teacher Leadership is one way to support your passage. CTL’s Continuum of Training provides a series of workshops, focused on topics such as communication skills, team building, time management, presentation skills, instructional mentoring, setting professional goals, analyzing student work, and coaching and observation strategies.

When you’re ready to tackle a new role-specific leadership position, the second tier of CTL’s Continuum of Training hones the skills needed for those who mentor or coach both new and veteran teachers. And the online course, Teacher as Change Agent, provides teachers with the understandings and skills needed to make an impact in the all-important policy arena to effect change on a broader scale.

To learn more, visit CTL’s website at



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