I’ve been a teacher leader my district for the last two years. This spring, our district made some changes to our teacher leadership model, created some new roles, and modified some existing ones. Along with these changes, the application process for teacher leaders has become more formalized and rigorous.
As part of our process, all existing teacher leader positions will be open for application to any staff in our district. As part of our application process, we were asked to write letters of interest for positions of interest.
As a result, I’ve spent the better part of the last several days reflecting on what it really means to be an effective teacher leader, synthesizing my learning and experiences over the last few years into a meaningful message I could communicate in my application.
Being a person who believes a free exchange of ideas serves to benefit all those who aspire to learn from one another, here are some of the lessons I’ve learned about teacher leadership over the last two years
First and foremost, your efforts must be in service to supporting student learning and well being and in improving outcomes for the students you serve.
I became an educator because I believe that it is possible for every student to achieve learning growth, maintain positive relationships with others, and develop a sense of pride and connectedness to our schools.
These beliefs are simply stated; however, they are not simply achieved.
Ensuring that every student achieves such targets and has such experiences in our schools is beyond the scope of any one individual working in a school building. Even the best building principal, if working in isolation, will find such goals nearly impossible to achieve and sustain. Effective school leadership requires systemic, distributed school leadership. It requires a team of individuals with diverse skills and strengths that share a collective commitment to a system and to one another. These individuals must support one another and model a mindset of growth and continuous improvement. They must be your early adopters, your innovators, your flexible thinkers, and your change agents.
Teacher leaders are mentors.
I began my teaching career at East High School in Des Moines Iowa in 2006. I entered the profession as a very non-traditional 26-year old first-year teacher, having already earned my Master of Arts in Teaching Degree from Drake University. As a result, I believed I was quite capable of navigating the challenging pathways of being a brand new teacher.
Even with benefit of additional years of wisdom and more education than many first-year teachers, my first year of teaching was still very difficult, as I had to learn a great deal in a very short amount of time. The list of items I needed to learn quickly was very long. I had to learn who my administrators were, who my colleagues were, the dynamics and culture of the building, what my curriculum was, what the expectations were, who to go to for what, and most importantly, who my students were and how they could learn best.
My students were in many ways very different than any I had ever worked with before. They were a much more diverse and economically disadvantaged student population than any I had ever encountered. Their needs were quite unique.
Often, being a new teacher with no seniority means you are also given the most difficult teaching assignments and conditions. My experience was no different as I was assigned to teach a section of ELL Science with no translator for most of the year and no ability of my own to speak a foreign language with any level of proficiency. I had to learn how to teach without using many words. I had to adapt.
If I had been completely alone, this task could have been nearly impossible. Thankfully, I wasn’t. I was assigned to a mentor that was very proactive about being inclusive and making time to stop by my room daily before and after school. She really helped me learn what I needed to learn at a pace I could handle, but also in a targeted, timely manner. She ensured I would be successful, helped me maintain a healthy perspective regarding issues outside my control.
Most of all, she helped me to realize that the most important thing that happens in a school system happens within the classroom when teachers are working with the students, helping them learn and achieve.
In the challenging days, which were many, she always knew the right thing to say to help me see the positive, usually to reflect on the good that happened that day. No matter how bad my day was, there was always something good that happened inside the classroom, a moment of learning with a challenging student that I could take home and grow from.
After two years at East High School, I accepted a teaching position in the Johnston Community School District. In many ways, my third year of teaching was more challenging than my first year of teaching. The communities of Johnston and East Des Moines are about as different as it can be in Iowa. Again, I had to acclimate to new students, new colleagues, new personalities, new curricula, new school cultures and dynamics, and more.
Thankfully, there were plenty of teachers willing to support me in my transition to this district. They opened and shared their classrooms with me my first year as I traveled between two buildings and 4 different classrooms.
They shared their ideas and resources with me and went out of their way to help me to be successful.
While I didn’t fully appreciate it at the time, in many ways, traveling every day between two buildings and sharing classrooms with so many different teachers over my first several years in Johnston was a blessing in disguise, as I had the opportunity to get to know so many of my colleagues more quickly and to collaborate and share ideas with them.
Eventually, new teachers came after me and I was the one sharing a room with them. I always enjoyed this and it was nice to be able to pay forward so much of the support I had received in my first few years of my career.
However, what I didn’t anticipate was how reciprocally beneficial this experience would continue be for me.
I’ve learned, and continue to learn, and grow into a better teacher every day I’ve had the opportunity to watch another of my colleagues teach a lesson.
I believe the improvements made in support of our new teacher induction system as a direct result of the work of our mentor coordinators and teacher leaders represent some of the most significant improvements made to teaching and learning within our entire system.
It can be easy for those of us with experience in any district to take for granted all that we have learned over the years just by being in our district. Our comfort and confidence didn’t happen overnight. If we were fortunate, we were able to work with great people that supported us and helped us build that confidence over time.
As teacher leaders, it is now our responsibility to ensure that our new teachers are given even better opportunities to develop their own comfort and confidence in our district.
We must be ever mindful of the learning curves, implementation dips, and challenges our new teachers face on a daily basis as they attempt to assimilate into our district. We must scaffold their experiences and help provide them with ongoing support and training.
We need to put them in the best position to be successful, not just in their first year, but over the course of their career.
We need to work hard to make them feel like a part of our family right away and ensure that they develop a strong sense of connection to our district.
Be a team player.
Over the last two years, I have had the privilege and opportunity to serve as a lead teacher on our Instructional Leadership Team (ILT). While our team hasn’t been perfect, and we haven’t yet accomplished all of our goals, we have made significant progress along our journey to get there. When I think about our first ILT meeting nearly two years ago, with everyone sitting around a room, trying to figure out what teacher leadership was and how we would work together, it’s amazing to consider about how far we have come.
In just a few years, we have accomplished a great deal as a team. We have used student data to more meaningfully drive instruction. We have increased student engagement in learning and technology. We have leveraged classroom visits into creating more meaningful, authentic learning opportunities for our students. We have collaborated together to create interdisciplinary learning activities for our students. We have participated in coaching conversations, both as coaches and coachees, becoming more reflective and intentional about our instructional practices. We have planned and provided more meaningful and authentic professional learning opportunities for our staff. We have implemented high-yield instructional strategies with higher fidelity. We have improved the quality and facilitation of our PLC’s.
In short, our trajectory of growth has rapidly accelerated since the implementation of our TLC model.
While our list of accomplishments has been ambitious and perhaps even impressive, our work is not over. It will never be over. We haven’t yet arrived at our pinnacle of success. We may never arrive there.
However, more important than the final destination is the journey and process to get there. The work is never ending and the work ethic required to be impactful isn’t diminishing.
At its essence, teacher leadership is about cultivating positive relationships.
It’s about building consensus on solutions to complex, systemic challenges. It’s about finding ways to create and sustain a collective commitment to growth, reflection, and continuous improvement. It’s about creating a culture of inclusion, mutual respect, and accountability among all staff. It’s about leading an ongoing examination of our current realities as a building and working collectively toward a more improved desired state. It’s about constantly enrolling teachers in our coaching model and creating stronger sense of urgency among our teachers to improve learning outcomes for every student.
What makes an effective teacher leader? Personally, as a teacher leader, I have had opportunities to participate and be a part many diverse learning and leadership opportunities over the last few years. Among our team, on the surface, it may not be readily evident how all these opportunities have dramatically shaped the type of leaders we have become.
I know I am not the same teacher leader I was two years ago or even two months ago. I believe these blended learning experiences have shaped me into a much more balanced and effective leader and have helped me develop and even stronger appreciation of the value of diverse perspectives and fresh ideas when working together as a team toward a common goal.
It’s much easier being on the sidelines, critiquing, imagining you’d be a great leader, than it is to actually learn how to effectively lead with a team of diverse individuals on the front lines.
As a team, I believe we were initially too responsive to trying to please our vocal minority, which every organization seems to have, instead of engaging with and devoting the majority of time to supporting our innovators and early adopters, building a critical mass to move our school towards more progressive, transformative change.
While we still make some allowances for the concerns, we no longer let the concerns monopolize or paralyze our collective actions. The train is still moving forward.
It hasn’t been easy. As a team, we don’t always agree on everything. In fact, there is rarely ever universal consensus on any idea or initiative we are working on. And that is a great thing.
The synergy built from the tapestry of our collective leadership experiences and interactions with one another over the last two years is so much greater than the sum of our individual efforts done in isolation prior to the implementation of our teacher leadership model.
We are now comfortable with being uncomfortable. We push one another’s thinking. We get better. We’ve had to learn how to accept when our idea isn’t the best idea, and we’ve had to learn how to function as a team and support decisions made by our team, even the ones we didn’t agree with. And isn’t that the really the point of leadership – that you aren’t alone on an island by yourself?
My final advice: You must be constantly looking out past the horizon, finding new ways to grow and get better. You can never be content with the status quo.
Most of all, as a teacher leader, you must embrace this one simple truth:
Your journey of self-improvement will never be complete.