Teacher Leadership is About Relentless Improvement

January 8, 2019

“Be the change you want to see in the world.” Too often we distill solutions to challenges into catchy slogans like this misattribution and expect miracles from teachers working in isolation.  This is wrong.  Gandhi actually said, “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him…We need not wait to see what others do.”

This suggests a more interactive process: As we work to improve ourselves, others see us in new ways.  We gain credibility by virtue of experience and our willingness to share. This is effective leadership, rooted in service to others. Titles are not required, nor is permission.

Teacher leadership is about relentless improvement – for ourselves and the education system.

There are stakeholders with vested interests working to shape education to suit their preference, whether that be privatization or charters, business metrics, efficiencies or economies of scale.  Contradictory demands to standardize and differentiate, innovate and comply, are problematic. They work at cross purposes, catching students and teachers in the middle.

Only teachers, who truly understand the complexities of education and student development, can resolves these paradoxes. It’s hard, but necessary work, and the rewards are fulfilling. We can see students grow, teachers develop and systems improve.


Simple. Prove your value as a teacher through National Board Certification. Expected in fields such as medicine, this credential speaks volumes for credibility. Better yet, work on Board Certification as a team of teachers to drive meaningful improvement within your school system. More than an accolade, Board Certification is the mark of a professional, one who regularly reflects on what is working, what is not, and how to improve. In making a conscious effort to improve, we demonstrate our commitment to our students and their learning.

Research demonstrates Board Certified teachers are more effective.  The credential itself does not confer effectiveness, but it does reflect effectiveness.  Developed by teachers for teachers, the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS) explicitly describes rigorous standards and expectations of highly effective teaching.  The process of demonstrating accomplished teaching is demanding and often takes several years, but it is well worth the commitment.

Doors to make larger impacts open for teachers once they achieve certification. In my case, after certification, my principal asked me (a new teacher at the school) to lead my department when the previous chair moved. Then, I was recruited as a new teacher mentor to improve the mentoring program in the school. Through the state network of Board Certified teachers, I was invited to apply for the Hope Street Group Teacher Fellowship, providing even more opportunity to amplify teacher voice and collaborate with key stakeholders across Utah – from the local and state teacher associations, local and state boards of education to the state legislature. This empowered me to speak with authority on matters including school safety and teacher licensing.

At the same time, I remain committed to classroom teaching and managing changes that consistently impact the profession. There are the new prescribed content standards and a new grading system to implement. There are opportunities to participate in district committees and state focus groups. I’ve attended and presented at conferences and engaged in dialogue in person and through social media. Op-ed publications I’ve written inform public discourse and shape policy conversations.

I’m making a positive difference. You can too.

This is how we improve education. First, we improve ourselves, working with others. Then, we work on the system, always revisiting those core competencies of accomplished professional teaching: thoughtful planning, rigorous self-reflection, and continual improvement. Complacency is never “good enough.” Our students deserve nothing less than our continual growth and improvement – exactly what we expect from them.

Deborah Gatrell, NBCT

Deborah Gatrell is a National Board certified secondary social studies teacher, currently teaching World Geography and AP European History in West Valley City, Utah. She also facilitates NBCT Jump Start training through the Utah Education Association for teachers from three Utah districts and hopes to expand the program statewide in the summer of 2019. As a member of the first cohort of Hope Street Group Utah Teacher Fellows, she also works to amplify Teacher Voice in education policy discussions. Follow her on Twitter via @DeborahGatrell1.