Helping Teachers Become Leaders
Teachers have all sorts of great ideas about how to improve their schools—we just need to give them opportunities to try them out. Sounds like a no-brainer, right?
That’s how I felt when I was Principal at Samuels Elementary in Denver Public Schools, where teacher leaders played a critical role in transforming teacher practice, student learning and achievement, and school culture. Some of our teachers had the opportunity to participate in the district-wide Teacher Leadership and Collaboration program, which gave teachers the opportunity to engage in a more intensive teacher leadership role. Team Leads and Senior Team Leads spend half their time engaged in observation and coaching with other teachers, and the rest of their time teaching. These teacher leaders are in a unique position to support their peers because they’re able to apply experiences and strategies from their own classrooms and have the additional level of credibility that comes from a peer-to-peer relationship.
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At Samuels, teacher leaders also helped us solve seemingly mundane but important operational challenges. For example, once we ran over our copy budget and had to figure out how to make sure everyone was still able to print the teaching materials they needed. A committee of teacher leaders called the School Leadership Team came up with several creative solutions our administrative team would have never considered—including the one we landed on, tracking copy usage by team and allowing teams to "share" their copies with others teams that were under for the month. These kinds of things might sound inconsequential, but operations decisions like these can have a significant impact on how a school functions.
My experience showed me that a robust teacher leadership program can solve several challenges at once: make principals’ workloads more manageable, support teacher development, raise retention rates for high-performing teachers, and build a ready-made pipeline of experienced leaders within a school community.
Here are a few specific ways teacher leadership benefited us at Samuels and DPS:
Principals distributed leadership responsibilities.
In my first year as principal, before implementation of the district’s teacher leadership program, then known as “differentiated roles,” my assistant principal and I each had 22 teachers to observe and evaluate. But once our school had teacher leaders in the program teaching part time and coaching part time, our caseloads dropped to ten teachers each. Teachers in these Senior Team Lead roles (who were also certified to complete evaluations) made it possible for my assistant principal and me to realize our vision of providing bi-weekly observation and feedback cycles to every single one of our teachers.
Teachers developed better instruction.
Smaller caseloads improved the quality of our feedback and resulted in demonstrable teacher growth. Furthermore, teacher leaders were able to pilot new strategies in their own classrooms—like focusing on student-centered learning and relying more on student-to-student collaboration—and then share the most successful strategies throughout the building. As a result, one hundred percent of teachers at Samuels grew one or more proficiency bands, based on our two school-wide indicators on Denver Public Schools’ LEAP Evaluation tool.
Teachers took on leadership roles without leaving the classroom, which encouraged them to stay longer…
This “transitional” role between the classroom and formal school leadership allowed our teachers to grow as leaders while simultaneously doing what they love—teaching students directly.
But that’s not just my opinion; teacher leaders appreciated the flexibility of the Team Lead and Senior Team Lead role, too. “The idea of school leaders being instructional leaders, rather than just managers, was exciting to me. While I was anxious to pursue leadership, I still loved teaching,” DPS teacher leader Lisa Gelwick told me. “Now, I'm nearing the end of my third year as a teacher leader and, while I do see myself leaving the classroom for full-time leadership eventually, I’m glad for the additional years in the classroom.”
…and also created a strong pipeline of future school leaders.
Each of our teacher leaders at Samuels expressed an interest in school leadership at the administrative level, although this wasn’t a requirement to participate in the program. In those leadership roles, teacher leaders conducted observations, gave peer feedback, completed teacher evaluations, led planning and data meetings, and delivered school-wide professional development. So, they gained a ton of experience that sharpened their abilities as instructional leaders. Because of this foundation, I believe they will enter their roles as administrators with the tools they need to get strong results for kids.
So, teacher leadership serves multiple purposes: it improves retention by keeping our best teachers engaged, while also preparing them to eventually take on other roles.
Teachers are well suited to provide guidance on so many things that go into running a school, and I’ve seen how giving them the opportunity to do so through teacher leader roles can lead to lasting positive change. If we continue providing opportunities for teachers to play to their strengths, and keep looking for ways to reimagine the teaching job, the potential benefits to students are many.