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One More Perspective on Teacher Leaders

By Sue Easton

I became a teacher leader when I was hired at a new school in Canada. The principal approached hiring with the motto “Leaders get things done,” so every one of us that came on board was a leader. We all had strong personalities, a clear vision of how we should improve learning for students, and a passion for growing and developing as teachers and leaders.
At first I felt empowered by the principal. We were able to make dramatic changes to instructional approaches and curriculum content—individually and as a group—solely based on our belief in what was right. At some point, I realized that we weren’t empowered. We were abandoned. And chaos, with the energy of passionate teachers trying to do the best we could for kids, ensued. We did great things, but with no plan for sustainability, for growth, or for measuring our impact on learning.
This scenario is sadly still very possible in our international schools. We have no national or regional curriculum to which we must adhere. Common approaches to teaching and learning are challenging, due to the transitory nature of our communities, so teachers and teacher leaders just… do their best. Everywhere I look, I see articles, white papers, and books being written on distributive leadership: why we need it, and what it might look like. At the core of all the readings, three necessities are identified that can be adapted for the international school:
1. Schools need teacher leaders to improve learning for students and to support school improvement initiatives.
2. Teacher leaders need specific training to lead, support, and manage improved learning.
3. Teacher leaders need clear expectations or standards for their roles and responsibilities.
I will not address the first. Learning Forward, ASCD, and a myriad of other education gurus explain the reasons why this is true so much better than I could.
We are doing our best to address the second need through the Teacher Leader Institutes that we offer, during the school year through two-day workshops, and during the summer as five-day courses in Miami and London. Based on the number of teacher leader participants, we know that we are on the right path.
Department heads, grade-level leaders, instructional coaches, curriculum leaders, and other teacher leaders come looking for answers and direction. How do I run an effective meeting? How do I deal with teachers who don’t want to change? How do I support teachers in developing curriculum, assessment, instruction, etc. when I am not totally sure myself? These are just some of the questions that we discuss in our teacher leader institutes.
We addressed the third need this year, by creating a set of International Teacher Leader standards, identifying teacher leader skills and dispositions to help schools and teacher leaders focus their work, so that schools move forward strategically and sustainably.
And, we listened to you. We revised our International Teacher Leader Certificate to ensure that teacher leaders gain foundational skills but still have choice in their own learning and professional growth.
In our international schools, we need to recruit the best teachers, but we need to develop them through focused training so that they will stay with us longer, and so that they can make the difference for our students that we know they can. No more chaos. Instead, focused passion. That would have been helpful for me twenty years ago.

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