Empowering Teacher Leaders

The topic of teacher empowerment is one that I continue to come back to as the organizational structure and approach to leadership at DFHS continues to evolve and shift due to the ever-changing landscape of 21st century teaching and learning. At DFHS, we have non-administrative teacher leader positions that are filled by full-time teachers who report directly to the Principal while serving as a direct point person for the respective teachers that they are charged to “lead.” The position itself has changed over the years due to the needs of our school. While at one time the position was more managerial in nature (ordering supplies and books, etc.), the position has since shifted so that our teacher leaders are now viewed as departmental “instructional leaders” who will help to propel instruction and bring forth change in our building respective to the department that they lead.

While this shift in mindset has been exciting, there is also a learning curve for our teacher leaders as they are now being challenged to think like organizational leaders on a “micro” level. The quick assumption of course is that teachers should just get how to do that. Incorrect. As the Principal and leader of this group, it is my role to not only communicate the vision and mission of our school to our teacher leaders (and the whole staff), but to also provide our teacher leaders with the necessary professional development so that they are equipped to effectively lead in the manner that I am describing. While our teacher leaders are the content “experts,” they are not experts in leadership and require ongoing support through both whole group professional development and the individual meetings that they schedule with me.

From my perspective, investing my energy into developing our teachers into “leaders” is invaluable and the long-term organizational and instructional benefits are limitless. In working with our teacher leaders this year, there are a few key points that I continue to emphasize that are universal to leadership yet specific to the needs of our building. They are as follows:

1) Establish a Departmental Vision: While the district and school-wide vision is clear, it’s important that the departments each have a specific vision and/or “end in mind” in terms of where they hope to be in 1-year, 3-years, and 5-years. This will not only help teachers to make better meaning of the work that “needs to get done,” but will also unite the respective departments toward a common set of goals that are in-line with the vision of the overall organization. Simply stated, people need to be led by leaders who know where they are heading. Think UBD. While this is obviously true for district and building leaders, the same principle applies to departmental teacher leaders.

2) Think Like A Researcher: The challenge that I presented to our teacher leaders is to develop a plan that will bring each of our respective departments to the “next level.” What that means obviously differs across the disciplines so the charge for our teacher leaders is to first figure out what that next level even looks like within their subject area. Take a subject like science, for example: What do the best science programs look like? What is best practice in science education in terms of teaching and learning? What does the research say? What is happening in our neighboring districts? Nationally? These are the types of questions that our teacher leaders need to continue to ponder, answer, and ultimately engage teachers with in the same way that a Principal would for an entire faculty at the building level.

3) Be an Instructional Leader: As noted above, a key function of our department leaders is to essentially be a “student” of the discipline and to share best practice, training, and programs with the members of each department. The only way to do this is to stay current on the latest research, read content-specific journals each month (e.g. NCTE, NCTM, etc.), go out on site visits, attend conferences, etc. It is only through this mindset and approach that the departmental teacher will be equipped to bring forth change from both an instructional and programmatic perspective.

4) Think in Terms of Product and Skills: When planning meetings for teachers, it’s critical to consider and respect both the need for teachers to “get things done” (product) and the need to provide professional development that will help teachers to grow and improve in their practice (skills). This is an important distinction and while the two aren’t always mutually exclusive, it’s necessary to consider the differences when planning meaningful experiences for teachers and to provide opportunities for both as they relate to the respective vision of each department (and the school). At our next early dismissal three-hour department meeting, for example, our teacher leaders will split the time so that the teachers engage in both a professional activity (ex. text-based discussion around best practice) and a product-driven activity (designing IB MYP units). Both will be rooted in the “big picture” of where the departments are, where they are heading, and the work that needs to be completed right now.

5) Building Relationships: Not to be lost in any of this is the importance of building relationships in order to bring forth real change. There’s an infinite amount of literature and research on this and for administrators this is basically Leadership 101. For teacher leaders, the same concept and rules apply. While all teachers are theoretically on the same “level,” the truth is that each department has some type of unstated hierarchical structure, seniority often rules, and single members can easily undermine an idea and prevent any change from ultimately happening. So teacher leaders need to know the players, politic when necessary, and build the relationships in order to make the change happen.

My plan is to come back to this topic throughout the year and to share the work and experiences of our teacher leaders. Please feel free to tweet out (#DFHS2016) links to any articles that our teacher leaders may read and/or share with the members of their departments.


One thought on “Empowering Teacher Leaders

  1. This is a great idea but a tricky one to implement! I agree you have to build relationships and then people are more likely to be invested in what you are doing. To get people to open up about their practice is a good step to building a Department too. I recommend the site http://www.nsrfharmony.org/free-resources/protocols/a-z. If you use these protocols it is a great way to have tough conversations without offending people. We have started on this journey but it takes awhile! Your blogpost is excellent and I will certainly share it. I will continue to follow what is happening with your Departments. Good luck!


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