What Do Teacher Leaders Need from Administrators?

As a founding member of the Teacher Leaders Network and a guy who is passionate about trying to stay in the classroom for my entire career, I’ll never forget the first time that I paged through IEL’s seminal report, Redefining the Teacher as Leader.

Strange, huh?  People remember lots of “first times”—riding a bike, kissing a girl, driving a car, landing a job, getting a paycheck—but remembering your first time with a policy document churned out by an edu-think-tank?

Not so much.

Maybe that’s why I feel like such an odd duck—a label that my TLN colleagues and I wear with pride.

Slide OddDucks

(Image Credit:  Orange Duck by Ansik, licensed Creative Commons Attribution)

 

Admittedly, there’s not a lot of teachers whose skirts get blown up by policy documents.

But there are TONS of teachers who care deeply about serving as leaders in their schools and communities, creating what the IEL team writing Redefining the Teacher as Leader almost a decade ago described as:

“A potentially splendid resource for leadership and reform that is now being squandered: the experience, ideas, and capacity to lead of the nation’s schoolteachers” (p. 2).

And there are TONS of edu-experts that argue about the importance of teacher leadership all the time.  Need a sampling?  Take these two quotes for a ride:

  • “A crying need exists for excellent, practicing teachers to advance—to lead—by taking a more formal and explicit role in the supervision and improvement of instruction.”  Mike Schmoker
  • “The leadership shortage may be dire, but the leadership development potential is great, if only schools and systems will tap into the potential of teacher leadership.  Even though 50,000 leaders will retire in the first few years that this book is in print, hundreds of thousands of teachers will be at the peak of their professional experience.”  Douglas Reeves

Sadly, I’m here to tell you that the vast majority of our districts are still squandering the experience, ideas and capacity of our nation’s school teachers.

In fact, little has changed in most districts—despite the never-ending rhetoric that surrounds conversations about teacher leadership.  Most of us teacher leader types are still stuck in a hapless search for organizational juice.

Need proof?

Then consider that over half (53) of the 140 teachers I recently surveyed are dissatisfied with the teacher leadership opportunities available to them and that just under half (49) don’t believe that teacher leadership is valued in their schools.

Infographic TeacherLeadership 1

 

Pretty discouraging, huh?  Teacher leadership has been an uber-buzzword for so long that you’d think we’d see more promising trends in these kinds of numbers.

Now, knowing full well that us odd ducks can be a bit hard to understand, I had some of my buddies share their thoughts on the kinds of things that teacher leaders need from administrators.

Here’s a sampling of what they wrote:

“I need a principal to do more public acknowledgement of the work and effort we’ve put in.”  David Cohen

“What I wish every administrator knew about teacher leaders is that whether they’re born or made, genuine teacher leaders are outstanding teachers first and foremost.”  Gail Ritchie

“I would like to be utilized…I would hope that I could bring a vital perspective to problem solving in the school and be asked to be involved at that level.”  Heather Wolpert-Gawron

“I need to know that my principal  is a true member of our school.  I need to see his/her face in the hallway, at PLC meetings, and at sporting events.”  Sarah Henchey

“As a teacher leader, I need an adminstrator who trusts me to think independently, make on-the-spot educated decisions, and have the ability to problem solve educational issues.”  Cossondra George

“Teacher leaders need the freedom to try new things in their classrooms. We are intelligent leaders who are learning and may hear about things before you do!”  Becky Goerend

“Teachers need…a safe place to wonder in and personalize their learning. We do not make it easy for students to learn by making it difficult for teachers to learn.”  Nancy Stuewe

“Teacher Leaders need trust, freedom, and instructional leadership from our administrators.”  Paul Cancellieri

“Teacher leaders need an administrator who allows others to have input into how to (i) set the direction of the school, (ii) redesign the organization; and (iii) manage the instructional program.”  Tania Sterling

“I would say I need to be listened to, and to receive honest and helpful feedback on my ideas.”  Bill Ivey

Interesting stuff, huh?  Basically, what we’re saying is that teacher leaders need nothing more than the confidence and trust of their administrators.

And the even better news is that, in my survey of my teacher leader friends,  “informal words of thanks and praise from principals” rates as the most important reward necessary for encouraging teacher leadership—-placing higher than release time from classroom responsibilities AND additional compensation.

To put it simply, we’re competent and qualified—we’re reading as much as you are, we’re studying our craft in deep and meaningful ways, we understand the social dynamics of our buildings, we’re perfecting our professional development skills—and putting our knowledge and skills to work ain’t going to cost you anything more than a willingness to let us lead!

That seems like a good deal to me.

(Can I get an Amen from the choir, please?)

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About the AuthorBill Ferriter—the mind behind The Tempered Radical—is a sixth grade teacher in Raleigh, North Carolina.   A contributing author to two assessment anthologies, The Teacher as Assessment Leader and The Principal as Assessment Leader, he is also coauthor of Building a Professional Learning Community at Work. His second book—Teaching the iGeneration—was published by Solution Tree in June of 2010.

12 Responses to “What Do Teacher Leaders Need from Administrators?”

  1. I work in a large educational bureaucracy (aka school district) with many teacher leaders, or potential leaders. However, we have two problems with these people.

    First, we have no structures in place to support educators to experiment with new ideas in their classrooms. Indeed we subtly and not so subtly discourage innovation of practice.

    The bigger problem is that it’s difficult to find those teachers who have the courage to tell the system to screw it and experiment on their own. I’m sure some in our administration would like to locate such people to shut them down. I want the opportunity to observe and learn from what they’re doing, since that’s where real instructional change comes from.

  2. Teacher leadership is vital to a school’s success. Administrators need to support and work to develop it. Unions, however, often fight the idea. If a teacher is doing some leadership activity, they should be compensated and this has to be negotiated with the union. Unions aren’t always accepting of the idea of a “master teacher” or whatever you want to call it as it makes some teachers seem better than others. They also want to leave leadership responsibility squarely on the back of the administrators. Some administrators are also threatened by teacher leadership and don’t want to give up any part of the leadership role. I hope that this kind of post will help forward thinking union leaders and administrators work together to support teacher leadership.

  3. AMEN!

    I have administrators who do the little things to involve teachers as leaders. We are given and pushed to take on leadership roles.

    An example: yesterday I did my first formal 1-on-1 reading conference with a student. I used an iPad with the Evernote app to both record the audio of the conference and take written notes. Seeing the power of this set-up (I have a note for each student inside which I’m building an assessment portfolio with scanned copies of exit slips, etc. alongside these conference notes) blew me away. I had told my principal earlier about the set-up and she had nothing but encouragement to try something different and (hopefully) better and more efficient. Right after the conference I emailed her that it went successfully and she came right down to my room as soon as she got my email to find out more. You can imagine how that made me feel as someone who is taking risks in my classroom.

    It doesn’t seem like much, but that just reinforced for me the role I have at school. “Try. Learn. Show us what worked and what didn’t.” She has never said those exact words to me, but that’s how she makes me feel everyday.

    • Russ wrote:
      It doesn’t seem like much, but that just reinforced for me the role I have at school. “Try. Learn. Show us what worked and what didn’t.” She has never said those exact words to me, but that’s how she makes me feel everyday.

      This is such a brilliantly simple description, Russ, of what exactly it is that teacher leaders need from their administrators. If administrators consistently shared that message in every interaction with their most motivated teachers, I think our schools would be super innovative places.

      Cool stuff…
      Bill

  4. One principal values new ideas, discussion and risk-taking (even when it doesn’t pan out). The next wants only for teachers to follow the program and be quiet about it. The innovative teacher who was supported by principal #1 is disparaged by principal #2. Principal #3 reads #2’s reports and expects to see a troublemaker who isn’t a “team player”. The evaluations over time are predictable.

    What employees (in school systems or anywhere else) need from administrators is consistency, support and leadership. One can only hope that the people hired for those positions value those traits, too, and work hard to make them an integral part of the workplace.

  5. Hi Bill – One of my laments is that too often teachers leaders are forced to lead in the past tense. We have to quietly innovate under fear of being stopped, even reprimanded which means we are not overtly supported in ways that might leverage and improve what we are trying to do, and are only “supported” after what we did is deemed successful in some way.

    • Brian wrote:
      We have to quietly innovate under fear of being stopped, even reprimanded which means we are not overtly supported in ways that might leverage and improve what we are trying to do, and are only “supported” after what we did is deemed successful in some way.

      This is a brilliant point, Brian—and one we hear echoed in the comments left by Nancy and Tim, too…

      Here’s a twist to it, though: I get the sense—and I might be wrong—that administrators are under so much pressure to produce results on test scores that they’re forced to lead in the past tense, too.

      I can’t imagine how hard it would be for a principal to relinquish control and promote innovation when their necks are on the line for results. While it makes perfect sense theoretically, I can see why there is hesitance to wind us up and let us go.

      Complicating matters is that restrictive control of the work of teachers often does produce results at the school level—especially in buildings where there are a bunch of new teachers or teachers new to the profession. Their teaching improves in tightly controlled settings.

      That makes principals think even more carefully about whether or not they’re willing to let us innovate.

      Any of this make sense?

      I guess what I’m trying to say is that I’m not sure I’d even encourage teacher leadership if I were a principal working in today’s accountability culture because the risks of seeing scores go down are so real.

      Bill

      • Hi Bill – Yes it makes sense and I mostly agree with why it is difficult for administrators. This is among the greatest loses to education as a result of the boneheaded parts of NCLB and RTTT. RTTT with a few tweaks could be such powerful real change (dang I wish they’d get that!). I’d gladly (I think) let them send some money even to KIPP (although Bill and friends fund them pretty well already), so that a good chunk would go to actual innovative approaches that could be supported openly instead of having to “go rogue” (almost) to find what works, doesn’t and more.

  6. Douglas wrote:
    Unions, however, often fight the idea. If a teacher is doing some leadership activity, they should be compensated and this has to be negotiated with the union.

    This is a really interesting point to me, Douglas, only because I work in a non-union state. I’d love to hear from other teachers who work in union states about whether they see challenges to teacher leadership posed by union requirements.

    What I will say, though, is that even here in non-union states, teacher leaders aren’t always well-received by their peers. There are so few formal opportunities to lead that there’s huge competition over those roles—-the teacher who gets them is often labeled the “principal’s lackey.”

    The solution, it seems, is for administrators to create as many roles for teacher leaders in their own schoolhouses as possible. That way, limited roles don’t result in the kinds of barriers to leadership that both you and I are seeing.

    Does this make sense?
    Bill

  7. Teacher leaders are definitely undervalued and underutilized in many of the schools I visit. Too many of the “teacher leader” opportunities I see touted by schools are really just lip service to make it “look” like teachers are involved in leadership and decision-making. Typically, this type of “teacher leader” is really expected to provide a means to communicate the message of the administrative team to other teachers instead of actually providing valued input. Teacher leaders are important and more opportunities to participate must be developed, but it’s not as simple as it sounds.

    It’s not always an issue of lack of opportunity. I sometimes find great resistance by teachers to assuming leadership roles. There is often a “just tell me what to do” attitude when teachers are asked to take a more active role in exploring ideas and practices followed by grumbles of “I don’t have time for this” and “You get paid the big bucks; do your job.”

    In your closing paragraph, you write, “To put it simply, we’re competent and qualified—we’re reading as much as you are, we’re studying our craft in deep and meaningful ways, we understand the social dynamics of our buildings, we’re perfecting our professional development skills—and putting our knowledge and skills to work ain’t going to cost you anything more than a willingness to let us lead!” If “we” refers to teachers eager for leadership opportunities, I can likely agree. There are incredibility capable and committed teachers in the workforce who will willingly collaborate and share yet often are denied opportunities for participation beyond their own classrooms or circles of friends. If, however, the “we” refers to teachers in general, I’m not so sure. I can’t tell you how often I work with teachers who haven’t read a professional publication in years. They resent being asked to think reflectively about their craft and could bore a corpse enough to wish for a second death. There is a great range of leadership styles and levels of competence among school leaders. A similar continuum exists among teachers—from passionate and highly skilled to OMG, what is that person doing in a classroom.

    Just as tech-savvy teachers often act as if all teachers are chomping at the bit to integrate technology (and they’re not), teachers who crave more active leadership roles often believe more teachers want to participate in leadership opportunities than there really are. We need to tap into the valuable pool of teacher leaders who DO want to contribute and work together to improve our schools.

    • Nancy wrote:
      Just as tech-savvy teachers often act as if all teachers are chomping at the bit to integrate technology (and they’re not), teachers who crave more active leadership roles often believe more teachers want to participate in leadership opportunities than there really are. We need to tap into the valuable pool of teacher leaders who DO want to contribute and work together to improve our schools.

      I’m with you, Nancy—I recognize fully that not every teacher is interested in—or qualified to—take on leadership roles in their schools.

      I’d even go as far as to argue that teachers cycle in and out of periods of readiness in their life to take on leadership roles. Take me for example: I’ve gone from being the guy at school first and walking out last to being a guy without a lot of time to give to my school because I’ve got a one-year old daughter.

      Leading right now isn’t something that’s a priority in my life. When my daughter is grown, I’ll be back I figure.

      But what I worry about is that the general perception of ALL teachers is that we’re the uninterested OMG teachers that you describe in your post, and while that’s not solely the fault of administrators—us teacher types have done a poor job policing our own profession for far too long—it’s an easy out for some school leaders.

      I guess what I’m saying is teachers depend completely on the good will of school principals when it comes to generating leadership opportunities, and when we work in schools with principals who have been jaded by bad experiences with “teacher leaders,” we’re often left out in the cold completely.

      Any of this make sense?
      Bill

  8. Interesting comments – not unlike our situation here in Victoria Australia. Many of our highly experienced teachers are entering the “retirement” phase of our careers,ie 5 to 10 years. We’ve had all manner of incentives to utilise this pool of expertise over the last ten to fifteen years, most of which don’t recognise that many good teachers want to stay teaching and be given the time and support to network and take on the changes in education. Feedback to and from our school leadership group and recognition of opinions from the grass roots are an integral part of taking on educational change and these elements don’t get the time they deserve.

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