My Top 5 Favorite Ways for Educators to Lead From the Classroom

By Cathy Pressnell, Tennessee Department of Education

As I meet teachers across Tennessee, the most common question I hear is, “How can I be more involved in education without leaving my classroom?” And it’s a question I completely understand. As a third grade teacher, my classroom days were filled with being the teacher my kids needed me to be. At the same time, I wanted to engage with the education world outside my classroom, because I knew that the work that went on in other places dramatically impacted my students. If you’re like me, it can be hard to know where to start, so I rounded up my five favorite ways to lead from the classroom in Tennessee.

1 – Be a part of our work at the state level. As a teacher, one of my best learning experiences came from participating in assessment item review with folks from the state department of education. I got to review items, think about standards alignment, consider bias and sensitivity, and talk through all of it with colleagues from across the state. Along the way, I learned about the assessment process and knew that my voice was included in the design of our state tests. Right now, applications are open for 2019 item review; you can learn more and apply here. Applications close Feb. 6, so hurry if you’re interested!

SCORE Tennessee Educator Fellows

2 – Apply to be a part of a teacher fellowship or district teacher leader model. If you’re interested in education policy and advocacy, a teacher fellowship is a great fit for you. For example, the State Collaborative on Reforming Education (SCORE) Tennessee Educator Fellows learn about, reflect upon, and inform the policies, practices, and systems that affect student achievement and educator effectiveness. Successful past fellows have strategically engaged their colleagues, community members, and policymakers to advocate for improving educational outcomes for all students. You can learn more about the fellowship in this blog post. Applications are open now here and are due on Tuesday, Feb. 26. You can also check if your district has participated in the Tennessee Teacher Leader Network here. If so, consider reaching out to your district leaders for more information.

3 – Complete the Tennessee Educator Survey. Each spring, the Tennessee Education Research Alliance at Vanderbilt University partners with the Tennessee Department of Education to conduct this survey, and it is something I encourage every teacher to do. The survey is an effort to deepen state, district, and school policymakers’ understanding of teachers’ perspectives on issues that affect our classrooms and schools. You should get an email in early March with a link to complete the survey. It’s confidential, simple to complete, and it truly impacts what happens in classrooms across the state. To me, the Tennessee Educator Survey is akin to voting; it’s just the right thing to do! You can learn more here.

4 – Present at a regional or state conference. No matter where you teach in Tennessee, there are conferences planned across the state that bring teachers together to learn. If you have an especially effective instructional strategy, an innovative way to integrate standards, or systems that help your classroom run like clockwork, presenting your work at a conference is a great way to share ideas that can make a big difference for others. If you’ve never presented before, I found that co-presenting with a more experienced peer was a great way to start. Stay tuned to our monthly Educator Update for opportunities to present at conferences like this one.

5 – Join a professional organization. Joining professional organizations bolstered my content and pedagogical knowledge and gave me new opportunities to lead. With a heart for early literacy, I’ll always be a member of the International Literacy Association and the National Council for Teachers of English, and I’ve had opportunities to run for leadership positions, publish articles, and present at conferences through associations such as these. No matter what you teach, there is a professional organization available for you to join; check with colleagues, instructional coaches, or administrators if you’re unsure of how to find the right one for you.

Looking for more ideas? Check out the Tennessee Teacher Leadership Collaborative website here. The opportunities page features ways that teachers can advocate, coach, influence, and connect with others. And if you’re not already receiving our monthly Educator Update newsletter, you can sign up for it here. In it, we share new opportunities each month for teachers to be a part of work that impacts classrooms across Tennessee.

Teachers bring important classroom-level perspectives to our work as a state, and finding more ways for them to share their expertise and experience is vital for our continued success. So, whether you try one idea or all five, I hope you find a new favorite way to lead from your classroom.

Cathy Pressnell is the director of educator engagement at the Tennessee Department of Education. You can reach her at