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Developing Teacher Leaders: One Key to Effective and Sustainable School Improvement (1/25/14)

In the 12/2013 issue of the Journal of Staff Development, Victoria Duff and Rene’ Islas detail the essential need for strong teacher leaders to promote successful and sustainable school improvement efforts. In the article Partners in Learning: Teacher Leaders Drive Instructional Excellence, Duff & Islas site work done with 12 high profile PK – 12 districts in the United States through the Teaching Knowledge Development Initiative, a funded project of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. From the Teaching Knowledge Development Initiative’s work with the high profile districts six areas emerged as key components for establishing a successful district wide teacher leader program. These include setting a clear vision, identifying the criteria for teacher leaders, supporting school leaders in the implementation process, communicating the work, building support, and monitoring the impact of the work.

While Duff & Islas’ article provides insight into the elements needed to establish a sustainable and successful district wide teacher leader program, it also hints at the essential functions of teacher leaders within a school. Examining the roles of the teacher leader is significant because it sheds light on the “what and the why” of the work. Cognitively, we know that teacher leaders take on instructional leadership roles beyond the scope of their classrooms. The importance in examining the essential functions of their roles is to see what teacher leadership “looks like” in day-to-day practice and to understand why it is critically important to successful school improvement efforts. These are the areas of practice that must be demystified for schools to fully realize the necessity of strong teacher leadership.

In the first of three roles of the teacher leader, Duff & Islas site strengthening school culture. I agree with this assertion and in exploring what it means, we must understand schools as social entities that exist within the context of the communities that they serve. Like any social entity, schools have rituals, rules, rites of passage, and procedures that govern their functions. When viewed as a whole, these practices define the culture of a school, the norms for how its members “live.”

In regard to their role as formal and informal leaders in the building, teacher leaders are key players in determining how the culture of a school will manifest itself. District personnel and school administrators can set the expectations but the teachers must implement them. Teacher leaders serve as the example in this area, modeling the practices expected in the school and holding their peers accountable for consistency. Whether they work as team leaders, department chairs, or instructional coaches, teacher leaders serve as resources when problems arise, as mentors to new teachers, and as standard bearers within their departments. No one is closer to the teacher down the hall than the teacher down the hall. For this reason, in a healthy school culture, teacher leaders can also appeal to their peers in a trusting and confidential manner and say “That is not how we do things at this school.” To develop a unified staff that works toward a common goal, school administrators must have teacher leaders in key positions to help move the school forward.

Duff & Islas also site improved teaching practice as one of the roles of teacher leaders. This is truly a key element of their work as well. As instructional leaders, teacher leaders also help set and maintain the standard for instructional practice and continuous improvement in their schools. This can be seen in the formal school wide leadership role of an instructional coach, who’s day-to-day work is focused on continuously monitoring instruction and student achievement data and providing feedback to teachers on their practice as well as providing modeling and professional development opportunities. It can also be seen in the work of team leaders and department chairs that conduct the professional learning community meetings for their peers and lead discussions on planning for instruction, student work, common assessments, and test data analysis. Teacher leadership is also seen in the work of teacher leaders who do not hold formal titles but still help guide practice in the building by leading a school wide committee on a specific instructional topic. These teacher leaders help set and maintain the standard for instructional practice in their schools and monitor for the fidelity of its implementation.

Finally, Duff & Islas note the role of teacher leaders in helping instill a deep commitment to professional learning within the staff members in their schools. Just as the principal of a school should be its chief learner, teacher leaders must emulate this practice and project it to other staff members. Because teacher leaders are experts in their areas of practice, they are generally well respected by staff members and their opinions and dispositions heavily influence staff throughout a school. Because of this, it is important that teacher leaders display a data driven and self-directed approach to professional learning. By attending professional development sessions and conferences and redelivering the best practices learned, teacher leaders build capacity in their schools and show that “there really is value in the workshops that teachers attend.” By earning advanced degrees and approaching new initiatives with “can do” attitudes, teacher leaders model self directed professional learning and show their peers that lifelong learning is a must in our ever changing profession. These professional growth behaviors must become the practice of all teachers in a school if they are to establish a deep commitment to professional learning to improve their collective practice.

In closing, it is critical that school administrators understand the imperative need for strong teacher leaders in their schools. Teacher leaders help model and show the way for staff in the building, while helping hold their peers to a high standard of performance. They are key to sustained improvement, because they are able to infuse best practices into the building through their daily work and they help ensure that the practices are sustained over time, even as staff turnover may occur due to attrition. This is because in practice teacher leaders are often members of a school’s core faculty, those staff members who hold key roles in a school’s operation and maintain longer tenure in individual buildings.

Understanding the importance of the role of teacher leaders, districts are ready to follow the map for the establishment of successful teacher leader development programs detailed by Duff & Islas. In doing so, schools position themselves to reap the benefits of a culture of quality continuous improvement. The result of which will be improved achievement and post secondary options for students.

Shawn McCollough
President & CEO

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