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Navigating the Transition from Teacher to Teacher Leader

By Kristen MacConnell
Navigating the Transition from Teacher to Teacher Leader

(Photo source: Allison Shelley for EDUimages)

“The work of leading teams does not begin with setting agendas or finding the right protocol. It begins in the minds of both the learners and those responsible for leading learning. Our minds house our beliefs about our own and others’ capabilities, and this, in turn, influences our actions and what we are able to accomplish.”

-Elisa MacDonald

Teacher leadership is one of the most important and most demanding roles in schools. Facilitating classroom learning, leading unit and assessment design, mentoring and coaching colleagues, and collaborating with divisional leadership is rewarding work on good days and can feel like a circus balancing-act on bad days.

A common challenge voiced by new teacher leaders is navigating the transition from team member to team leader. This transition feels especially daunting when you become the leader of the same team you served on as a teacher.

The good news is that many teachers have successfully navigated this transition. I asked a network of international school teacher leaders to share which factors contributed to their current leadership success. Seven big ideas emerged from their feedback along with practical tips to guide your practice.

1. Understand the “Why” and Establish a Vision

Make sure you know the “why” behind divisional procedures. If you lack clarity, seek answers. Schedule a meeting with your principal to ensure you understand your role, the teams’ purpose, and the procedures you are expected to lead. Once you have clarity, make sure your team has clarity. Then, develop a vision for the work. This vision allows you to frame conversations and set goals.

2. Build Relationships and Connection

Leadership is not about having all the right answers but collaboratively solving problems. It’s about relationships, listening to people and valuing their ideas. How do you build those relationships and foster connections amongst your team members?

  • Listen more than you talk.
  • Regularly pop into each team member’s classroom to ask, "How are you?"
  • Establish an open-door policy.
  • Respect different opinions.
  • Highlight classroom successes during meetings.
  • Take time for team building. These activities support team members’ understanding of diverse perspectives and personalities.
  • Facilitate a team discussion about values and beliefs. Surfacing how team members’ values and beliefs support or challenge guiding principles and practices is important for team functioning.
  • Begin meetings with check-ins. Many people need to speak at the beginning of meetings to feel engaged. Quick check-ins facilitate the transition from teaching mode to meeting mode.

3. Anticipate Needs

Know what is coming down the line and prepare your team. Talk to the team about what they'd like to see happen and be honest about what can and cannot happen. Delegate upcoming tasks based on team members’ strengths. Try using the compass points protocol to help the team understand individuals’ working style. It is important to recognize the different working styles on the team so you can focus on strengths while planning for potential challenges that may arise. 

4. Use Processes and Structures

To keep meetings efficient and useful, send an agenda 24 hours in advance so team members are prepared. Use email/google doc to share information/logistics unless a decision is required. Ensure meetings are reserved for learning- planning units, assessments, looking at student work, etc.

Meetings should have a clear structure honoring time parameters and meeting purpose. Provide opportunities for team members to contribute ideas when building the agenda. Know what the team needs to do together and when tasks can be delegated and completed outside of the meeting time.

When facilitating meetings, do not monopolize the time. A good starting point is co-constructing team norms. It is also helpful to establish "tight" and "loose" agreements to maintain consistency around learning outcomes while allowing for teacher autonomy. One of the most helpful tools suggested is protocol use. Protocols provide a structure to guide thinking and conversation, ensuring equity of voices. Another suggested framework, specific to curriculum planning, is backwards design. The Backwards design framework focuses team discussions around learning outcomes. A final strategy is posing questions around adaptive problems or challenges to the team rather than simply addressing the problem (unless it is a technical problem with an easy answer). When the team generates solutions to adaptive problems, they are more likely to own the solutions.

5. Communicate Decision-Making Processes  

Be clear about the purpose for gathering team input. Will the team’s input inform the ultimate decision being made? Is the team’s input being considered by you as the decider? Is the decision being made at a higher level? Lack of clarity around decision-making is a source of frustration on teams. Members want to know how their feedback is being used to make decisions.

When the team has the decision-making authority, establish clarity around the decision-making process. Do you need 100% agreement? Will a decision be made after some constructive disagreement? Will you use the Fist to Five decision-making strategy or another consensus building strategy? Team members need to understand the process and their role (deciders or recommenders). It is also important to recognize when you need to table a discussion and return to it at a later date.

6. Advocate with Transparency

You have to work with and for your team. Establish open lines of communication between teachers and divisional leadership. You HAVE to be the voice for others. When advocating for your team can be done visibly, via a shared email, for example, you are more likely to gain your team’s trust. When serving as the voice for your team, do it professionally and diplomatically.

7. Find a Support Network

Some schools have built in structures for support through team leader/department head meetings. Several teacher leaders shared that they meet regularly with their divisional leadership, as a group of team leaders. Those meetings serve as spaces for professional conversations and for people to lean on each other when challenges arise. Others reported that they received coaching and mentoring support from the previous team leaders. Finally, practice self-compassion. Taking on a new leadership role can have a very steep learning curve so be kind to yourself!

Final Thoughts:

Teacher leadership challenges you to grow professionally and most importantly serves an opportunity to positively impact student learning. “Don't start making big changes right away,” said one teacher leader, “involve your team in identifying areas for improvement.” Focus on one thing at a time, build relationships, make sure everyone knows the team’s purpose, seek consensus, and work collaboratively towards your team’s goal.

*A heartfelt thank you to each teacher leader who contributed their ideas to this article.

Kristen MacConnell is the Director of the Teacher Training Center Programs. Kristen teaches courses on teacher leadership through the Principals Training Center and has published articles and a book chapter on teacher leadership. Kristen has worked in Chile as an ES Counselor, K-5 Literacy Specialist, Assistant Director of the Early Years School, and Director of Curriculum and Professional Development. Kristen will be joining the American School of Barcelona for the 2022-2023 school year as the ES Principal. 

Twitter: @kristenmacc

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07/02/2023 - Nis
I really enjoyed reading the article : Navigating the Transition from Teacher to Teacher Leader. The different points really help understand the role of a teacher leader and how to be a good one. One point that stood out for me is number 6 : Advocate with Transparency. Often open lines of communication between teachers and leadership are neglected or ignored.



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