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Creating a Culture of Support: Learnings From the Teacher Leader Institute

By Vickie Swann
Creating a Culture of Support: Learnings From the Teacher Leader Institute

In the dynamic realm of education, the continuous evolution of the educational landscape offers an opportunity and need for school leadership to empower our middle leaders (members of our school communities that are intermediate between the senior leadership team and classroom teachers, i.e. grade level leads, department heads, coaches, coordinators). Whether through a distributed leadership model, mentoring programs, or other professional learning opportunities, school leaders must intentionally support their growth and development. Drawing from my experiences with over 160 Teacher Leader Institute (TLI) “Coaching and Supervising Your Team” course participants, I have identified three prominent trends that call for targeted support from school leadership: addressing impostor syndrome, clarifying middle leader roles and systems, and supporting adult learners.

Even the most seasoned educators may grapple with self-doubt when confronted with new challenges or leading experienced professionals; impostor syndrome can seep in, casting doubt on our earned positions. As several leaders shared in Kim Cofino’s article, Facing Impostor Syndrome: It Happens to Successful Leaders Too!, these are not uncommon sentiments. However, in such instances, school leaders play a crucial role in supporting aspiring and novice middle leaders through:

  • Openly acknowledging the challenges of being in a middle leadership role;
  • Sharing personal experiences (challenges as well as successes);
  • Championing their strengths - share why they were selected for a middle leadership role, the strengths they bring to a team, and how those strengths are needed for instrumental growth;
  • Offering guidance through modeling and role-play.

As a school leader, ensuring middle leaders feel supported fosters a culture that honors the vital contributions of these community members.

Using the International Teacher Leader Standards as a possible framework, international schools must ensure clarity in middle leader roles and responsibilities, accompanied by well-defined systems and structures. TLI course participants sought advice on how to navigate their roles within their team’s dynamics. School leaders can ensure success for middle leaders by:

  • Co-creating transparent job descriptions and proactively communicating them to all faculty;
  • Outlining decision-making processes (Define what is a “Me, We, or You” decision);
  • Creating a user-friendly infographic that serves as a visual reminder of responsibilities, fostering a shared understanding among the faculty.
  • Using “Thinking Aloud” metacognitive practices to model specific leadership responsibilities such as agenda development, meeting protocols, or other routines.

Working with adult learners presents distinct challenges, such as addressing implicit biases, navigating less-than-popular initiative, and time management. School leaders can provide support by relieving teachers from meetings during busy periods, leading initial conversations on new initiatives, and optimizing collaborative time. In addition, school leaders can:

  • Introduce protocols such as Compass Points to initiate discussions related to personality types and how they impact team dynamics;
  • Create meeting structures focused on teaching and learning;
  • Co-create team goals that drive collaborative time;
  • Ensure teams have essential time, resources, and skills to do what is being asked of them.

Providing these structures can further empower middle leaders to engage effectively with their teams.

The effectiveness of middle leaders is crucial for the overall success of a school, as they have a direct impact on the quality of teaching and learning within their assigned areas. Their role involves not only administrative and organizational tasks but more importantly, the fostering of a positive and collaborative culture among their team members. Ensuring their success requires intentional actions. As school leaders, it is our responsibility to empower middle leaders with the resources and support necessary to drive their teams and schools forward.

I am grateful for the opportunity to have learned alongside the recent Teacher Leader Institute’s “Coaching and Supervising Your Team” participants. It provided an opportunity to engage in meaningful dialogue connected to their daily struggles, their aspirations, and to celebrate the many positive contributions they are making each day!


Vickie Swann is an international educator who has worked with teachers, students, and families in the United States, Europe, Asia, and Latin America. She is passionate about empowering others, environmental sustainability, advancing competency-based teaching and learning, and developing compassionate humans. An experienced teacher, instructional coach, principal, and curriculum specialist, she has vast experience with the work educators do to bring the very best to each learner, every day, in every way.

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