Cultivating Strong Teacher Leaders

Guest post by Marianna Valdez and Tisha White

New Leaders has been training and supporting principals of high-need schools for more than 15 years. From this experience, we have learned that principals who achieve dramatic gains at their schools virtually never lead alone. Our most successful principals unfailingly encourage and cultivate leadership among their teachers so that the burdens and rewards of conceptualizing and carrying out instructional improvement efforts are shared.

There is growing recognition that fostering teacher leadership is key to accelerating school improvement. However, if we want to achieve that potential, principals cannot simply appoint strong teachers to leadership roles.

As we describe in our recent report, Untapped, great teaching doesn’t automatically translate into great leadership. Even teacher leaders with a record of achievement in the classroom need support, guidance, and, ideally, high-quality training that includes real-world learning opportunities to develop the skills required to lead significant improvement in instructional practice among their colleagues.

Teacher Leader Training in Action

Heather DeFlorio Asciolla, a teacher leader at a Queens, NY, high school exemplifies this reality. Because of her skill in the classroom, DeFlorio Asciolla was appointed as head of the English department. But she was unclear on what the role’s responsibilities should be and did not understand how to draw on her own success as a teacher to elevate instruction across multiple classrooms.

During the 2014–15 school-year, the New York City Department of Education provided DeFlorio Asciolla with the opportunity to participate in New Leaders’ Emerging Leaders program, a year-long training experience that included job-embedded leadership practice and expert coaching as she led a team of teachers at her school.

DeFlorio Asciolla worked with a team of three ninth-grade English teachers during her training year, a decision informed by the school’s priority to significantly raise the writing skills of incoming students. She received ongoing coaching from her Emerging Leaders program director that clarified her role and responsibilities, as well as helped her cultivate key leadership skills needed to boost student achievement. This included using data to set goals and better support individual student needs, delivering actionable feedback, and holding difficult conversations to change adult mindset and practice.

DeFlorio Asciolla reports that this training was particularly effective because she had to capture herself on video carrying out real-world leadership assignments at her school. This allowed her to watch herself in action at weekly in-person meetings with her director and peers in the program and receive feedback so she learned exactly where she was succeeding and where she needed to improve.

When teacher leaders are given opportunities for job-embedded practice and feedback, significant growth in student learning follows: DeFlorio Asciolla and her team led dramatic gains among their students. Similarly, 70 percent of all Emerging Leaders participants have increased student achievement in the classrooms they supervised during their training year.

How to Improve Teacher Leadership in Your School

While not all principals have access to this kind of external training for their teacher leaders, there are steps they can take to cultivate high-quality teacher leadership at their schools:

  1. When selecting candidates for leadership roles, seek out those with a strong record in the classroom and the right disposition to lead other adults to similar success. This includes evidence that individual staff members can lead academic gains, set and exemplify high expectations for all, earn respect and trust among colleagues, and navigate difficult conversations.
  2. Build a leadership team that capitalizes on diverse backgrounds and expertise areas. Once that team is in place, assign responsibilities in accordance with individual strengths and school leadership priorities.
  3. Clearly communicate expectations to teacher leaders, setting specific impact goals and providing regular feedback to ensure those goals are met.
  4. Account for future leadership needs by providing opportunities for teachers to develop key leadership skills incrementally, building learning and opportunities for feedback into their daily responsibilities.

How have you cultivated leadership among your teachers? Share your experiences in the comments below.

Marianna ValdezTisha White
Marianna Valdez is the national director of program evaluation at New Leaders and Tisha White is the executive director of emerging leaders at New Leaders.

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1 Comment

  • Deanne Moore says:

    Good article. I really connected with the quote “Our most successful principals unfailingly encourage and cultivate leadership among their teachers so that the burdens and rewards of conceptualizing and carrying out instructional improvement efforts are shared.” This is powerful. Thank you.

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