What do Teacher Leaders Need from Administrators?

This entry is cross-posted at Scott McLeod’s Dangerously Irrelevant as a part of a week-long guest blogger project answering the question, “What do Teachers 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.

 (download slide and view original image credit on Flickr)

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

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 schools
are still squandering the experience, ideas and capacity of our nation’s

In fact, little has changed in most buildings—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.

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’re studying organizational theory, 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?)

5 thoughts on “What do Teacher Leaders Need from Administrators?

  1. Gail McGee

    I work in a very large urban school district in Texas. We are reforming our professional development model by moving to a job-embedded coaching model using full time coaches. Another component of the new model is a “teacher leader” role for classroom teachers. The powers that be have made the mistake of asking me to assist in developing the program. You articulate so many of the things that make me wary of this venture. Having said that, nothing ventured, nothing gained. If you were given the freedom to develop a program that “recognizes, rewards, retains and leverages our best teachers”, what would you want to see included?

  2. David B. Cohen

    Hey Bill – glad you found my comment useful. I just want to follow up on that idea regarding acknowledgment and saying “thanks.” It’s not just an ego-stroking thing, not just personal/emotional – though even if that were all, it might be worth noting. In fact, I’m reading an advance copy of “Good Boss, Bad Boss” by Robert Sutton, and he quotes various business leaders saying that “thank you” is one of the most overlooked and underutilized elements of effective management.
    Still, the main idea behind my comment in your blog is that as a teacher leader, I don’t have the time or inclination to go around school patting myself on the back, but when I do go around the school working towards schoolwide important goals, it helps if the principal has paved the way, given me (or any teacher leader) a little more cover or clout or whatever you might call it.

  3. Pammoran

    Distributed leadership intersects the expertise of leaders who are teachers, principals, central staff and even students in the system. By leveraging the deep talents, skills, knowledge and capabilities of people who link together the nodes and hubs of the edu-ecosystems of our schools and school districts, we create a web that is far stronger because of the collective intelligence of the system than any individual intelligence found in old-style, singular leader-driven hierarchies. I use leadership because any of us can be leaders at any time based on our inclination and needs in the spaces where we work. We have many barriers to working together in a distributed leadership model but the potential outweighs the opportunity costs, I believe.

  4. Whitney Bosarge

    I totally agree with all of you. If you are doing all the work and research involved with being a leader than you should be given the chance to be a leader. Administrators should be using the qualified teachers that they possess in their staff in stead of others. Maybe by using the right people things would be better organized and ran in the right manner. I totally agree that teacher leaders should be acknowledged for what they do in schools.

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