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Teacher Leaders: The (Not So) Secret Catalyst for Change

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While teacher leaders have always been an important part of a school’s culture, this type of leadership continues to gain much needed attention and momentum in school systems nationwide. There is such a strong need for this type of leadership that a group of educators met in 2008 to form what we know today as the Teacher Leadership Exploratory Consortium. This consortium, comprised of a variety of stakeholders, formed to discuss how to best foster teacher leadership so that it brings about change in student learning and achievement.   In 2011, this group released the Teacher Leader Model Standards, which help teachers and school leaders foster leadership within their schools.

The Difference Between an Effective Teacher and a Teacher Leader

In our current work, we facilitate an abundance of professional learning around teacher leadership. What we’ve coined Digital Leader Corps takes groups of teachers on a journey toward digital transformation in their classrooms. The program, however, intends for teachers’ influence to spread well beyond the walls of their classrooms and aims to develop these educators as leaders among their peers. Teachers who participate in Digital Leader Corps learn about leadership through the Teacher Leader Model Standards—they learn how to facilitate the learning of their peers’, work collaboratively with their principals to elicit meaningful change, and gain strategies for creating safe and trusting environments where others aren’t afraid to take risks.

This sounds amazing, right? It is, when it works effectively. The biggest challenge of cultivating and growing a group of teacher leaders is recognizing the difference between an effective teacher and a teacher leader. Too often, school administrators don’t know how to discern the qualities and characteristics of a potential teacher leader. Similarly, many teachers don’t truly understand what it means to lead among peers.

Effective Teacher Teacher Leader
Implements best practices routinely in the classroom Readily shares and models best practices and/or resources with colleagues
Works to improve his/her own practice Works to improve the practice of others
Seeks opportunities for continuous improvement Models an attitude of continuous improvement in order to combat complacency
Maintains professional relationships with others Works to build relationships with others through active listening, facilitation, and mediation
Collaborates with colleagues and school teams Encourages and facilitates collaboration among colleagues and school teams
Implements solutions to challenges that promote the best interest of his/her students Provides solutions to challenges that promote the best interest of all stakeholders
Creates an environment where students are comfortable asking questions, initiating topics, and challenging their peers’ thinking. Creates an environment in which colleagues are comfortable asking questions, initiating topics, and challenging their peers’ thinking.
Welcomes feedback from supervisors and colleagues Actively seeks feedback from supervisors and colleagues
Danielson, C. (1996). Enhancing professional practice: A framework for teaching. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. Teacher Leadership Exploratory Consortium. (2011). Model Standards Advance the Profession. JSD, 32(3), 16-24.

The Power of Teacher Leadership

Teacher leadership has the potential to bring about positive systemic change that influences a variety of factors within a school. When teacher leaders fully understand their impact on colleagues, observable changes in student learning can occur. A 2005 study concluded that the professionalism teacher leadership has the potential to build—one that is based on trust, recognition, empowerment, and support—can improve teaching and learning in schools (Harris and Muijs, 2005). While the Teacher Leader Model Standards provide the framework for fostering such leadership, the process for equipping teacher leaders with the ability and confidence to carry out what the Standards call for is much more complex.

The Teacher Leader Model Standards

The Standards are comprised of seven domains of leadership (Teacher Leadership Exploratory Consortium, 2011). These domains are not meant to serve as an exhaustive checklist or job description of teacher leaders; rather, they’re meant to guide those who want to lead and support them in doing so. Each domain further contains a list of functions that provides a deeper, more granular look at what teacher leaders who excel in this domain might do.

But reading and internalizing the Standards is only the first step in developing teacher leaders. Just as our grade level standards act as the blueprint for our curriculum, our lesson plans, and our assessments, the Teacher Leader Model Standards should serve to inform the work we do with our potential teacher leaders. Very few teachers will come to us with the skills and self-assurance needed to lead their peers. Therefore, it is our responsibility to create and mentor them through learning experiences that will develop them into strong teacher leaders.

Let’s take a look at the first Standard and its functions:

Fostering a Collaborative Culture to Support Educator Development and Student Learning

Functions:

  1. Utilizes group processes to help colleagues work collaboratively to solve problems, make decisions, manage conflict, and promote meaningful change;
  2. Models effective skills in listening, presenting ideas, leading discussions, clarifying, mediating, and identifying the needs of self and others in order to advance shared goals and professional learning;
  3. Employs facilitation skills to create trust among colleagues, develop collective wisdom, build ownership and action that supports student learning;
  4. Strives to create an inclusive culture where diverse perspectives are welcomed in addressing challenges; and
  5. Uses knowledge and understanding of different backgrounds, ethnicities, cultures, and languages to promote effective interactions among colleagues.

Unpacking this Standard and its functions tells us how important knowledge of adult learning theory is to a teacher leader’s success in this domain. In addition, a teacher leader needs to possess excellent active listening skills, be able to facilitate difficult conversations among various stakeholders, and have the emotional intelligence to bring different groups together to work toward a common goal. Simply telling teacher leaders they “should” be doing these things won’t bring about change; we must work diligently to create opportunities for practice and feedback in these areas.

The Importance of Administrative Support

Throughout our experience in both facilitating and designing the professional learning of teacher leaders, those who have the support and backing of their administration have been most successful in promoting a school culture that supports continuous improvement in teaching and learning. Teacher leaders who feel supported are equipped with the confidence needed to lead the learning in their schools. Effective teacher leaders have the power to reinforce the existing leadership in a school, and there are a variety of ways we can support them:

  • Provide Space to Lead. Teacher leaders lead well beyond the four walls of their classrooms. They’re consistently seeking to become better at their craft and want others to do the same. They can’t model this attitude of continuous improvement without a strong administrator leading them from behind. Involve teacher leaders in the planning and implementation of professional learning. Ask them to take an active role in faculty meetings. Teacher leaders are not simply those we can count on to volunteer their time and go that extra mile; they are our future instructional leaders. Mentor them.
  • Encourage Risk Taking. Most effective teachers will, by nature, willingly take instructional risks in their classrooms. Teacher leaders, however, won’t be afraid to take these risks in front of their colleagues as well. Encourage teacher leaders to open their classroom doors to others. These types of collegial walkthroughs will help create and sustain a culture in which teachers support one another by celebrating successes and embracing failures. Instill fortitude in teacher leaders and help them become courageous learners who consistently see opportunities for growth in all they do.
  • Model Vulnerability. Teacher leaders have the potential to create a school culture in which vulnerability is accepted and encouraged. But it’s not easy to air these insecurities. Through modeling your own vulnerability, teacher leaders become more comfortable admitting what they don’t know to peers and are then able to gain confidence in sharing what they do.
  • Champion Collective Leadership. A recent study commissioned by the Wallace Foundation found that high student achievement is directly connected to collective leadership in a school (Samuels, 2010). This type of shared leadership does not cause school leaders to lose influence. On the contrary, a principal’s role in establishing optimal conditions for student and teacher learning is crucial. As instructional leaders, it is unrealistic to believe we can simultaneously run the operations of our schools, maintain a pulse on the curriculum, and provide routine coaching for our teachers. With the help of our teacher leaders, however, these tasks become manageable. This can’t be done, however, without our leadership; create the time and space for good things to happen.

Leading from Behind – A Practical Tableaux:

John Davis, an elementary principal, had been working all year to create the environment and culture in which a shared vision could be realized in hopes of unifying his staff around a common goal that would impact teaching and learning in the building. Through increased collaboration time, more frequent professional learning, and informal opportunities for teacher leadership, John slowly built the ideal conditions in which a shared vision could thrive. However, he continuously struggled with helping the teachers he deemed leaders build and refine the skills needed to make an impact outside the walls of their classrooms.

Jenna, a master teacher who volunteered to lead her grade level PLC, had a great deal of untapped leadership potential. While she eagerly jumped at the opportunity to lead the learning of her peers, John knew Jenna had much to learn about facilitating the learning of her colleagues. After visiting Jenna’s PLC, John made some important observations about her leadership but continuously returned to this one:

  • Jenna always remained positive and took a solutions-based approach to challenges and problems raised by her peers.
  • However, the solutions always came from Jenna with little input from the group.
  • Rather than facilitating a collaborative discussion that would result in solutions, Jenna often provided “answers” for her colleagues.

While this approach was well received by the other members of Jenna’s PLC, John saw it as an opportunity for helping her grow into a leader who enrolls all stakeholders into important discussions.

John began scheduling monthly meetings with Jenna so he could coach and mentor her. What follows is a vignette from their first conversation:

Mr. Davis: Hey, Jenna. Thanks for coming in. And thanks so much giving me the opportunity to observe your PLC in action earlier this week.

Jenna: No problem. Your presence and support was really appreciated by my group.

Mr. Davis: How did you feel about the meeting?

Jenna: Overall, I felt it went well. Our goal was to figure out how to increase the expectations of our high achieving students. While a few challenges were certainly voiced, we walked away with some actionable steps we’re all going to take in our classrooms.

Mr. Davis: I made note of some of those challenges as well. Can you tell me more about how the group worked through those?

Jenna: Well, Janet and Shawn were the most vocal ones about some of the roadblocks they’d encounter as we attempt to increase achievement of this group. I tried to help guide those waters by providing possible workarounds.

Mr. Davis: So what I’m hearing you say is that you were readily able to provide some of the solutions to the perceived challenges?

Jenna: Yes.

Mr. Davis: I really love your solutions-based approach and attitude. I’d like to talk through this some more. Facing opposition from colleagues is a consistent challenge whenever you’re trying to lead. How we handle this resistance helps define who we are as leaders. So let me ask you: What could you have done differently to help the group—especially Janet and Shawn—solve some of those challenges on their own?

Jenna: I never really thought about it like that. I guess it’s in my nature to want to help, so I’m constantly giving, trying to solve problems, keeping everyone happy and positive. Now that I think about it, I was the one who quickly interjected what I thought would work best. I wanted to keep the peace within the group. And I’m their PLC leader, so I figured it was my “job” to face the challenges head on and offer solutions. Are you saying this may not have been the best approach?

Mr. Davis: I’m not saying it wasn’t the best approach; you certainly know your team. But it’s definitely not the only approach, and I’d love to explore some additional strategies you could use for facing challenges in the future. Would that be OK with you?

Jenna: Of course! I’m willing to take all of your feedback so I can become better at this. It’s all pretty new to me, and I want to do it well.

John: Of course you do. So let’s think about the first domain in the Teacher Leader Model Standards we discussed when you agreed to lead your PLC. Remember that your goal is to build a collaborative culture. So how did the group benefit from your willingness to solves its problems so quickly?

Jenna: Well, I guess it moved the conversation along. We didn’t get stuck and were able to leave with some next steps for helping these students.

Mr. Davis: How much buy in do you feel the group had in those steps?

Jenna: (pause) Not very much. I felt like we all just politely agreed to try the next steps.

Mr. Davis: I got that impression as well. It sounds like you are working very hard to create a very cooperative environment for your PLC, which is great. But think about how you can increase the group’s investment by making the meetings more collaborative.  How could you go about moving from cooperation to collaboration?

Jenna: I’m not really sure. Because I’m the PLC leader, the group trusts me to guide them. I guess that’s a good thing, but in retrospect, I dominated the conversation. I shouldn’t be the sole decision maker or the sole problem solver. I think I need to listen more and work harder in making sure everyone has input.

Mr. Davis: I think that’s a really reflective and insightful observation. Let’s talk about some strategies for helping you do this.

Mr. Davis is clearly dedicated to helping Jenna become an effective leader in the school. He observed her facilitating a meeting, identified an area of need, and followed up in a very deliberate and meaningful conversation that helped Jenna reflect on her own challenges as a teacher leader. He did this with the reticent skill of a leader who truly understands how to lead others from behind. While it’s unrealistic for John to meet with Jenna after every PLC meeting she facilitates, he followed up with her periodically, offering additional guidance, support, and feedback grounded in the Teacher Leader Model Standards.

Fostering Teacher Leaders

We all have great teachers who live within our schools—those who consistently strive to be better for their students, who seek out learning opportunities whenever possible, and who willingly collaborate with others. These teachers have the potential to share the leadership within your building. With the right opportunities and under the right mentorship, we can turn these “great” teachers into leaders who are catalysts for meaningful change.

 

References
Danielson, C. (1996). Enhancing professional practice: A framework for teaching.
Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
Harris, A., & Muijs, D. (2005). Improving schools through teacher leadership.
Maidenhead: Open University Press.
Samuels, C. A. (2010, July 23). Study: Effective Principals Embrace Collective
Leadership. Retrieved February 21, 2016, from
http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2010/07/23/37principal.h29.html
Teacher Leadership Exploratory Consortium. (2011). Model Standards Advance the
Profession. JSD, 32(3), 16-24.