Laying the Groundwork for Teacher Leadership: Five Strategies for Principals
By Andrew Knips
As a leadership coach in two elementary schools in Philadelphia, I train teachers to make an impact beyond their classroom. I’ve seen firsthand how game-changing teacher leadership can be. However, I also spend my time collaborating with principals, who are often the biggest factor in the development of the teachers I coach. We know that the quality of the relationship between teachers and administration predicts teacher retention. Similarly, research shows that trust between administrators and teachers can boost graduation rates and dramatically improve school culture. Building this trust is no easy feat; here are five things I believe principals can do to lay the groundwork for teacher leadership and improve collaboration.
Exercise Humility: Principals don’t know everything and that’s okay. They can lean on teachers’ skills, but only if they have the humility to step aside and allow others to do some of the work. Do you struggle to prioritize staff morale and fun? I promise there is a teacher in your building who would love to lead a “sunshine” committee. Are you allergic to technology and do you hate navigating district-required systems? You must know a teacher who would happily train you on the new platform. Leadership expert, Dan Rockwell, suggests that phrases like “Help me understand that” and “I’m not great at this. Could you offer some suggestions?” can help us lean on others. When principals adopt an approach that emphasizes this kind of openness and vulnerability, they help themselves and leave room for teacher leadership.
Listen: Many principals excel at public speaking and, for lack of a better word, schmoozing with superintendents, school partners, and the media, which is often good for their school. However, this sometimes means that principals don’t spend enough time listening. Teachers, like all employees, want to be heard by their manager and know quite well when they are being listened to. They will know when their principal is just going through the motions versus when they are actually open to other perspectives. For principals, that can look like including teachers on the leadership team or meeting with them regularly in small groups or one-on-one. One principal I work with administers a regular staff engagement survey and then analyzes the results with her teacher leaders. Much of the feedback and comments she shows them is directly critical of things for which she, as the principal, is directly responsible. And yet this approach has garnered her immense respect from the teacher leaders and teaching staff as a whole. Her willingness to be fallible in front of her subordinates has transformed the school’s culture.
Prioritize: A principal in a school where I was a coach said to his staff, “expanding teacher leadership at our school is the single most important thing we are going to do this year.” That message was extremely well received by teachers. Who doesn’t want to be heard and have more say in the direction of their workplace? Teacher leadership can initially feel like a “soft” intervention in that it may not show immediate results and can be more challenging to evaluate, but its impact pays off in the long run. Empowering your strongest teachers to lead their colleagues in professional learning is a sure-fire way to strengthen staff culture and improve outcomes for students.
Make Time and Space: Teacher leadership requires time for teacher leaders to work with their teams. The principal must be careful not to micromanage time, which could quickly deprofessionalize teachers’ work. I’ve seen how the tension dissipates and the talk becomes far more collaborative when administrators leave the room. Many approaches work―for example, action research or inquiry cycles are flexible yet structured enough strategies I’ve seen improve student outcomes in many schools―but the more freedom teams have to define their time, the more they will feel trusted that they can figure out what students need.
Be Flexible: Simply put, you will have to sacrifice some autonomy and power in your role in order to empower others. Principals can’t move schools alone, and a true partnership between administration and teachers is only possible when everyone is adaptable and open to new approaches. At the end of the day, the principal will always be the instructional leader. They will have the final say on big decisions and will ultimately be held responsible for student outcomes. But teacher leadership means distributed leadership. It means that teacher leaders will carry some of the weight and responsibility, and means that the principal, if they are willing to trust their staff, will be freed up to tackle other items on their infinite to-do list.
Teachers are already experienced leaders. They spend their days building relationships with a huge range of people, managing expectations and directives from above, and making thousands of split-second judgement calls. Once we recognize them as talented leaders of their students, we will easily see them as potential leaders of their colleagues, school, and community.
Andrew Knips is Teach Plus Teacher Leadership Coach in Philadelphia. Prior to that, he spent eight years as an instructional coach and high school English teacher in Philadelphia public and charter schools.