Building Leaders: One School’s Approach

As administrators, we are tasked with building the capacity of teacher leaders. But what exactly does teacher leadership look like? In The What, Why, and How of Teachers as Leaders, teacher leaders are described as “skilled classroom educators (who) hone their craft, mentor others, and grow professionally—while keeping one foot firmly inside the classroom.” So what can we do to build leaders while keeping them in our classrooms? The answer lies in the way we look at professional learning.

One of the first budget cuts in education in North Carolina over 10 years ago was unfortunately professional development. The days of attending the state conference in a teacher’s content area or being out of the classroom to attend workshops and conferences are few and far between. Yet teachers want and need to grow professionally. As an administrator, I had to answer to the call for a new way to help teachers grow as educators and expect this as a culture of learning in our building. I have sought to accomplish this through collaboration with our district instructional coach, Laura Mayer. Together, we have looked at ways to build upon our own teacher expertise and provide in-house professional development and tools for reflective practice.

Here is the three-pronged approach our school uses to grow and maintain a culture of leadership both in and beyond the classroom walls.

Distribute the Leadership

Teachers are the best at what they do and they know what they need more than anyone else. Let them be a part of decision making and leadership in the school. School improvement teams are one place for teachers to lead, but schools should also leverage the skills and experience of its faculty through literacy teams, professional learning communities (PLCs), and technology teams. Unlike the “committees” of old, these teams are teachers partnering with other teachers to learn, lead, and impact teaching and learning schoolwide.

At our school, we also designate a professional learning lead who is a teacher that communicates with the school improvement, literacy, and technology teams to identify teaching and learning needs and then address them through a variety of professional learning opportunities. The professional learning lead meets regularly with our instructional coach and media specialists in order to develop a “big picture” of professional learning. Even with the concept of principal as instructional leader, we believe there should be many instructional leaders setting the culture for learning in the school, and leadership should be distributed in a “train the trainer” fashion.

Build a Public Teaching Culture

Today’s teacher leaders collaborate with colleagues and seek to learn by observing teaching and learning in the classrooms of their peers. Successful teacher-led schools embody a culture of “public” teaching where classroom doors are open and feedback is invited. Instructional coaches and literacy teams can help initiate such a climate. Our literacy team is a cross-curricular group of teacher leaders who, over the course of the past 10 years, have changed the way professional learning looks in our building. Initially, they invited teachers into their classrooms for informal learning walks where colleagues looked for practices to try in their own classrooms.

Today, those walks have developed into focused opportunities for teachers to observe the student impact of learning targets, formative assessment, academic vocabulary study, text dependent questions, student goal setting, and more.

Other methods for making teaching and learning “public” include:

  • 30 and Outs—30-minute focused sessions on a topic such as “Questions”
  • Faculty meeting demonstrations by a teacher with a great teaching or learning strategy
  • Pineapple Charts
  • #ObserveMe

Encourage Reflective Practice

Not only are outside school professional development opportunities so limited, teachers are also super busy and inundated with curriculum changes, testing, accountability, and the enormous behavioral, social, and emotional needs of students. They have limited time to reflect, do research, or read professional journals. We have to take it to them. Reading and reflecting needs to be concise, powerful, and easy to put at one’s fingertips. This is what we have done. We have created padlets for teachers to use for follow-up to professional development opportunities. I respond to these in a timely fashion with just one to two sentences. We hold debrief sessions after our learning walks where colleagues reflect on their observations. Each week in a faculty newsletter, a short research-based article is included for teacher reading. These include topics from grading practices, classroom management, and ideas to bring writing into every classroom.

As we have expanded our teacher leadership and involvement in teacher learning, we have changed our school culture. Teachers teaching teachers, sharing together, learning together, and a climate of reflective practice is our normal. Our instructional coach is vital to all of this. She leads learning by co-teaching and co-planning with teachers; teaching mini-sessions and organizing public teaching opportunities; and follows up with reflection and coaching. It is important that I, as the school leader, support her role in our building and expect this culture of teacher leadership for our entire faculty.

What does teacher leadership look like at your school?

Doris Sellers is the principal of AC Reynolds High School in Asheville, NC. She is the 2018 North Carolina Secondary Principal of the Year.

Laura Mayer is the Instructional Coach of AC Reynolds High School in Asheville, NC. Follow her on Twitter @ashecoach.

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