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  • Heather Frank

Informal Leadership: Starting Small to Bring About Big Change

My grade level colleague Becca and I huddled around a student’s desk during our lunch period. As we planned learning experiences to support the children in our classrooms, we flipped through professional texts, added ideas to a shared Google doc, penciled in notes on a calendar, and checked out blogs. Between bites of our lunches and the sound of the occasional tennis ball bouncing off the window, we would ask questions of each other. What else could we do to engage readers? What modifications could I make for a student who needed more support generating ideas for writing pieces? How could we teach students to give each other meaningful feedback? These conversations continued round the clock, in early morning emails and late night texts. We were always committed to the students. For us, that was a nonnegotiable in our work together.

Yet, despite feeling as though I was doing what was best for my students on my best days (because let’s be honest, we all have those days when we wish we could rewind and redo something we said or did), I started to question if I was doing enough for all of the students. I began to wrestle with this idea regularly. Who was I, a classroom teacher, to think I could bring about change? I wasn’t an instructional coach. I wasn’t a supervisor or an administrator. I was one teacher.

Becca and I discovered we weren’t alone in feeling isolated and unempowered. We talked to other educators and teachers. For very different reasons across very different contexts, teachers shared their own feelings of powerlessness. And yet these conversations also at times illuminated accounts of teacher advocacy. Teachers shared how they started small to bring about change in their classrooms, schools, and communities.

Those conversations were the proverbial tipping point for Becca and me. Armed with this newfound sense of direction and our own professional knowledge, we began to consider how we might share our collaborative work with others. We took small steps to do so. After creating a student writing checklist, we emailed a copy to teachers in the district. We created Twitter accounts to share students’ work and our experiences, and in doing so we continued to learn from educators and researchers who we admired.

I was enrolled in doctoral coursework at the time, and I, in fact, shifted my focus to explore research on teaching leadership, professional learning, and instructional change. What I have come to understand (and what I wish I had understood earlier) is that leadership is not reserved for individuals in formal positions.

In this Leadership From Within blog series, I plan to explore the power and potential of informal leadership. My aim is for each blog to be one-part pep talk and three-parts call to action. For now, I invite you to start by thinking about your own strengths, passions, and frustrations as an educator. Ask yourself, “What might I offer to those around me? What is a single, first step I can take this week?” I have come to believe deeply that, regardless of our title or position, we have power to do more than we think.

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