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Ten Keys to Effective Teacher Leadership

By Kim Marshall, TIE columnist

This piece is reprinted from The Marshall Memo, Kim Marshall’s weekly summary of current research and best practices in the field of education. Drawing on his experience as a teacher, principal, central office administrator, consultant, and writer, Kim Marshall lightens the load of busy educators by serving as their “designated reader.”
The article: “A Systemic Approach to Elevating Teacher Leadership” by Joellen Killion, Cindy Harrison, Amy Colton, Chris Bryan, Ann Delehant, and Debbie Cooke in Learning Forward, November 2016,
“The work of a teacher leader is often undefined, unsupported, and sometimes unrecognized and undervalued, thus limiting the potential for positive impact,” say Joellen Killion and five colleagues in this Learning Forward white paper. The authors believe teacher leadership is more than the usual outside-the-classroom roles taken on by teachers – committee member, team leader, curriculum writer, department chair, association leader. These and other roles are important, but they are often narrowly defined, inflexible, and structured to carry out the expectations and desires of higher-ups. Teachers may conclude that to have true leadership power, they need to leave the classroom and become administrators.
Killion and her colleagues make the case for a more-ambitious definition of teacher leadership that has real impact on teaching and learning without leaving the classroom. Because teachers are in daily contact with students, the authors argue, they “are in the best position to make critical decisions about issues related to teaching and learning. Moreover, they are better able to implement changes in a comprehensive and continuous manner.
Expanding teacher roles also serves an ongoing need to attract and retain qualified teachers for career-long, rather than temporary, service… It is a transformation of the way educators work within schools every day to strengthen culture and professional practices and enhance professional learning opportunities leading to student success.”
Killion et al. list the prerequisites for successful teacher leadership: (a) a clear definition of purpose, roles, and responsibilities; (b) supportive conditions, including relational trust, collective responsibility, commitment to continuous improvement, recognition and celebrations, and a degree of autonomy; (c) the right dispositions, including a deep commitment to student learning, open-mindedness and humility, courage and a willingness to take risks, confidence, flexibility, and decisiveness, and a passion for ongoing learning; and
(d) continuous assessment of impact. Here are the key considerations for getting the most out of teacher leadership:
• There is a variety of teacher-leadership roles. These include mentoring and coaching peers; promoting and facilitating professional learning and collaboration; designing, implementing, and supporting school and district change efforts; contributing to research and policy; and serving as spokespersons for their schools, districts, and the profession.
• Teacher leadership often operates outside of official structures. “For teachers, leadership is more about influence than power and authority,” say Killion et al. “More often, teacher leaders act without formal designation as leaders… [T]he most important form of leadership occurs when teachers recognize a need and step in to help address it.”
• District leaders’ beliefs really matter. Most important is accepting the potential of shared/distributed leadership, valuing the expertise of teacher leaders, engaging them in significant and authentic leadership responsibilities, and giving honest, learning-focused feedback.
• All teachers can lead. This could take the form of helping to mentor and support novice members of the profession, adding to the body of craft knowledge, or collaborating with peers to influence professional practice. It’s helpful when schools and districts provide roles for teacher leaders to contribute.
• Support for teacher leaders is key. This can take the form of coaching and mentoring from administrators and more-experienced peers, networking opportunities, and regular feedback from a knowledgeable colleague.
• Certain competencies are essential for teacher leaders. These include knowledge about the design, implementation, and evaluation of professional learning; interpersonal skills to build trusting relationships within the organization; engaging peers and administrators in collaborative learning; ensuring that student learning should be the focus of all decisions; and the belief that all students and teachers can grow and succeed. “As servant leaders,” say Killion et al., “teacher leaders understand that their belief in others’ capabilities and conveying that belief in words and actions will result in ordinary people accomplishing extraordinary things.”
• Teacher leaders need courage and flexibility. They must be open to criticism from others and “cross back and forth between the boundaries of the teaching arena and the leading arena,” say the authors. “For that reason, teacher leaders are called on to embrace ambiguity and to be flexible as their work unfolds and as they and their peers grow comfortable with their new responsibilities and identity as a leader.”
• Teacher leaders take responsibility for their own professional development and the development of others. They operate from a growth mindset and “have as much vested in the growth of their colleagues as they do in their own growth,” say Killion et al.
• Teacher leaders foster collaborative cultures. “They catalyze a sense of urgency and efficacy among adults and engender peer-to-peer accountability and collective responsibility for the success of every teacher and student,” say Killion et al. They foster a climate of peer support and continuous improvement.
• Teacher leaders are driven by evidence. They continuously collect data on their impact on teaching and learning and the factors that make a difference in their schools and districts.

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