By Andrew Knips
Over the last two years, Alexander McClure Elementary in Philadelphia has partnered with Teach Plus to roll out a three-year teacher leadership development program. Sharon Marino, Principal of Alexander McClure, who has been with the program from the beginning, describes the changes that have come about from embracing teacher leadership.
What is your personal definition of leadership? Over the last two years, what has changed for you in terms of your leadership identity and understanding of distributed leadership?
My definition of leadership is understanding the needs of who we serve, and then ensuring that we provide the supports that are needed for everyone to be successful.
Over the last two years, we’ve definitely shifted from a top-down model to more of an equal partnership. We still have room to grow, but now teacher leaders take ownership of their grade teams and data. It just makes more sense for the people who are living the work to be owning it and running it. Their leadership has led to more staff buy-in, because they are empowered to make decisions more autonomously without constantly wondering if the higher-ups will approve. People’s strengths are being better utilized, and they feel more valued and a part of the process. I know that when we get to “the moment,” everyone will have been part of the journey.
What obstacles have you had to overcome in embracing teacher leadership?
One obstacle is making sure that we have the right people on the right bus in the right seat. Although the teacher leaders have their T3 Coach, there are many leaders amongst our staff, so we need to figure out how to embrace them as leaders, too.
Also, just like teachers have a hard time letting go of their students in their classroom, as a principal I need to let go and trust teachers. I need to trust that we’ve done enough work together, and that our work is mission-aligned. In our interviews of prospective teachers, I always make sure McClure teachers are on the panel. And after we hear from a candidate, I give McClure teachers the opportunity to answer the same questions. It’s very affirming to hear them answer these better than I ever could; hearing their passion and their ability to message the core values of the school speaks volumes.
What types of development have you found that teachers need in order to take on leadership roles? How are you investing in the development of teacher leaders?
Developing teacher leaders’ emotional intelligence and problem-solving skills is huge. The Mind the Gap framework is my favorite to use with the teacher leaders to help them consider others’ needs and perspectives.
The admin team started visiting classrooms with teacher leaders this year, and that has made a huge difference in helping teachers understand academic expectations. I’ve been trying to message what the standards mean for years, but our instructional rounds were the first point where they’ve really seen the standard for what it is. Now they get it.
I try to provide opportunities for teacher leaders to lead, present, share, and be the ones doing the messaging and branding, but I think I could do a better job of supporting them. I should probably ask them how I can continue to help develop them as leaders.
Was there an ‘aha’ moment in your work with teacher leaders when you realized the value of distributed leadership?
When we were in one of our weekly leadership check-ins, we were going back and forth about the structure of grade group meetings. We were talking about having teacher leaders run everything, and all of a sudden the word “trust” popped into my head. I realized it’s all about trusting the teacher leaders to do this work and then me being more of a consultant than a director.
What would you like to say to a school leader who is hesitant about embracing teacher leadership?
It depends on the principal’s comfort level and style. I would wonder if the principal’s vision is the same as their staff and community’s vision. They might need to do some vision work with the community of stakeholders to make sure that everyone is aligned. And it’s a cycle. There’s embracing teacher leadership, but also that question of going back to our vision and values to see if we’ve changed and need to emphasize things more. There’s also a lot of research supporting teacher leadership. So, when in doubt, go back to the numbers.
Any final words?
As leaders, it’s our responsibility to ensure that everything runs smoothly. But it’s not something we can do alone. When you have qualified people who are engaged, aligned, driven, and committed, you have to be able to open the door and trust them to lead and support their grade teams, because they can do it better than you can.
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.