Leadership Qualities and Teacher Leadership: An Interview with Olene Walker

Posted on December 12, 2013


Recently, symptoms I had the opportunity to sit with Olene Walker, page Utah’s 15th Governor, in her lovely St. George home to talk about teacher leadership in education. She certainly understands and emulates leadership. Right away I knew I was talking to the right person. Her experience in politics includes positions on many committees and commissions, eight years with the state legislature, and she served as the Lieutenant Governor for Michael Leavitt. When he accepted a position in Washington, DC, she became Utah’s first and only female governor. Her work with education is impressive. She founded and served as the director of the Salt Lake Education Foundation. There she helped raise 30 million dollars in private funding for “Read With a Child,” an early literacy initiative. She continues to work with Education First, a citizens group dedicated to improving education accountability, innovation and investment. She also works with Prosperity 2020, the largest group of business leaders organized to improve educational outcomes in Utah. Her passion for education is evident to this very day and apparent as we talked. Our conversation was framed around this question: What insights do you have for educators as they assume leadership roles and responsibilities? Her candid responses serve as advice to anyone because leadership in education happens on many levels – within the classroom, in PLC groups, school administration, or beyond. Here is an opportunity to learn from her experience.

During our conversation, Olene talked about the power of influence. “Indeed, one person can make a difference,” referring to examples of Lincoln and Gandhi. Both experienced resistance and persistence yet, they were recognized leaders because of their personal commitments. Then she carefully pointed out, “Leadership is about the one who cares and can get people working together – not necessarily [being] the most verbal.” A leader knows the importance of relationships. They work with others when the issues are varied. Strong commitments and principles can be shared respectfully.

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The power of teamwork and collaboration came through over and over again in Olene’s responses. You have to look beyond. Leadership is not about the individual, “Leadership is about motivating others to work as a team.” As educators work to promote change in their work setting, look for those who can help in your endeavors. Create a team to help. Olene reiterated, “Leadership mandates a team.” Sometimes through the course of working through an issue, new information can prompt you to change your position. Does that make you less effective? No. “When you change an idea because you have been enlightened, you are still a leader.” Get all the data and/or information and learn all you can – on any topic. That is what leaders do – work as a team, look at the data, and move forward in the needed direction. Educators demonstrate leadership when they reach out to others and work together. Olene offers this suggestion, “Build capacity around you.” There is logic in bringing people along.  In his book, Rethinking the Future, Roland Gibson said about leaders, “They will gather around them people who have the future in their bones.”

The next bit of advice for educators was most poignant. We shared our concerns – just as educators do when they sit in faculty rooms talking to one another. “Education, and education funding seems locked into the old ways.” The result of our funding problem was recently published in The Salt Lake Tribune. “Utah would have to spend an additional $365 million a year to move out of last place for per-pupil funding, and $2.6 billion to reach the national average, legislative fiscal analysts told lawmakers…” The lack of money is a problem not easily solved. Legislative commitment and priorities are always changing. What is her advice for educators and the profession? Stay informed. Support “better policies – sound policies.” Look within you and look beyond to affect the change you want to make – with any situation.

After the interview, I sat down with The Teacher Leader Model Standards (TLMS), a nationally recognized set of standards that promote teacher leadership. I wanted to see if Olene Walker’s ideas on leadership align with these standards. The answer? Yes, they do.  The TLMS include seven domains: (1) promoting a collaborative culture, (2) using research to improve practice, (3) promoting professional learning for continuous improvement, (4) facilitating improvements, (5) using data to drive improvement, (6) reaching out to families and community, and (7) advocate for student learning and the profession. The Teacher Leadership Consortium “invites the profession, the public, and stakeholders to engage in dialogue about the various forms and dimensions of teacher leadership as well as the variety of contexts in which teacher leadership can be vital to serving the needs of students, schools, and the teaching profession.” It’s worth repeating for education’s sake. Look within you and look beyond.

Author: Peggy Childs, Specialist, UPDC (Utah Personnel Development Center)


Gibson, Rowan. (1996). Reframing the Future. London, Nicholas Brealey Publishing London.

Schencker, Lisa. (2013, May 22). To exit last place in per-pupil funding, Utah would need to spend $365M more a year. The Salt Lake Tribune. Retrieved from www.sltrib.com

Teacher Leadership Exploratory Consortium. (2011, June). Model standards advance the profession. Journal of Staff Developers. Retrieved from www.learningforward.org