Teacher Leadership

  • In the not-so-distant past, teachers taught and administrators administered. Experienced teachers might take on unofficial mentoring roles with new teachers, but it wasn’t a title or job designation; just senior teachers helping younger ones in the hallways and break rooms.

    Enter the era of achievement testing, in which students, teachers, schools and districts began being judged by data.

    Enter the increasing pressure for classrooms to be more diverse in all ways – race, ethnicity, socioeconomic, language, family orientation, and physical and learning abilities.

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    And then enter the decade-long teacher shortage, which continues today without an end in sight.

    The result? More teachers taking on more responsibilities of all kinds, including job titles and descriptions like teacher leader, coach or coordinator. The trend gives teachers more chances to learn and exercise leadership, more opportunities to grow toward an administrative career, and more ways to have a positive impact on curriculum. But it can also mean more duties without more authority, and as anyone who has ever been promoted above his or her peers can attest, that can be difficult terrain.

    “The nonsupervisory nature of the teacher-leader role creates a paradoxical challenge for the teacher leader,” writes Learning Forward magazine. “In an effort to gain teachers’ trust, teacher leaders de-
    emphasize their status as experts and avoid delivering hard feedback about teaching practice. Yet these actions ultimately undermine the work of improving instruction. How can the teacher leader be both a
    trusted colleague and a resource for instructional improvement?”

    In addition, teachers are notoriously underpaid, and compensation for larger class sizes or more responsibility doesn’t always translate into a higher paycheck, which can lead to burnout. Other times the positions are funded by grants, which then may or may not be renewed.

    What’s the history here?

    The teacher shortage has its roots in a few places. In 2009, the nonprofit National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future (NCTAF) warned that the country was facing the possible loss of half of its teachers over the following decade due to baby boomers beginning to retire. The report said that more than 50 percent of the nation’s principals and teachers were baby boomers.

    “The wave of departures will peak during the 2010-11 school year, when over one hundred thousand veteran teachers could leave,” the report said. “In less than a decade, more than half of today’s teachers – 1.72 million – could be gone.”

    Exacerbating the problem was the fallout from the Great Recession when layoffs plagued many districts. Many of those positions have now been filled again, but they are not always being filled by teachers who arrived at their classroom on a traditional educational path.

    “Across the country, districts and schools continue to struggle to meet the growing demand for qualified teachers,” writes education expert Linda Darling-Hammond in The Washington Post. “Since 2012, when Recession-era layoffs ended, the teacher workforce has grown by about 400,000, as districts have sought to reclaim the positions they had previously cut and replace teachers who have left. But even with intensive recruiting both in and outside of the country, more than 100,000 classrooms are being staffed this year by instructors who are unqualified for their jobs.”

    About the same time period, the New York Times reported that the need for bilingual teachers was growing – and that finding them was becoming more difficult. “So, schools are looking for applicants everywhere they can — whether out of state or out of country — and wooing candidates earlier and quicker.

    “Some are even asking prospective teachers to train on the job, hiring novices still studying for their teaching credentials, with little, if any, classroom experience.”

    The number of new hires – especially those without degrees in education – puts even more pressure on existing teachers to show others the ropes. Principals and vice principals, up to their ears in data, diversity and even neighborhood politics, don’t have the time they once had to work with their newest educators. The concept of a hierarchy among teachers – with those most qualified reaching out to coach those who need advice or coaching – just makes sense in many ways.

    ‘You’re just a teacher’

    In part, teacher-leader positions are meant to encourage teachers to have a greater voice and a bigger impact on their industry, a critical move when facing this level of turnover. In addition to the high numbers of retirements, the NCTAF says that nearly half of teachers entering the profession are leaving it within five years.

    “In 1987-’88, the most common level of experience among the nation’s 3 million K-12 public school teachers was 14 years in the classroom,” the NCTAF says “By 2007-’08, students were most likely to encounter a teacher with just one or two years of experience.”

    Supervising students is one thing; at the end of the day, everyone knows who’s in charge in the classroom. But a teacher leader who also has the responsibility of coaching other teachers can be met with the following responses, either directly or indirectly:

    “You’re just a teacher.”

    “It’s just a title. It doesn’t really mean anything.”
    “There aren’t any consequences if I don’t do what you say.”

    “You’re just speaking for management now.”

    Education Week recognizes the challenges of the position, whether it’s called coach, coordinator, teacher leader, mentor or something else. It offers this advice on qualities of being a great mentor: (and by the way, just because you’re a mentor to someone else doesn’t mean you don’t need one too.)

    • Remember that respect is earned. Reach out to new teachers. Make sure they know you are open to their ideas.
    • Teach yourself how to listen. In a classroom filled with students, you are doing the majority of the speaking. In a teacher-teacher relationship, there needs to be a balance. Listen to the teachers you are leading, give advice that shows you understand the nature of their concerns and come to their aid when the need arises.
    • Ask questions that will help them find their own solutions. You’re a teacher, not a dictator. When a less-experienced teacher comes to you with a problem, don’t just tell him or her what to do. Ask questions that will help lead both of you to the solution.
    • Collaborate. Everyone knows the difference between being treated like a team member or being treated like an underling.
    • Celebrate the successes. No matter what the challenge, large or small, celebrate it with the person you are mentoring. It doesn’t matter that you learned how to handle that situation years ago; it’s new territory for your mentee.
    • Be honest. If the teacher you are coaching or leading makes a mistake, talk to him or her about it in an open, honest way. Don’t judge, just explain. Remember, this, too, is a teaching moment, just like any you’ve had with a student.
    • Have empathy. This advice makes all the above advice easier. Remember when you were a new teacher; you were grateful when someone showed you where the restroom was or told you how to read the body language of the principal. Everyone is learning, all the time – even teachers.

    ‘They don’t teach this in school’

    Oh, but that’s where you’re wrong. Dominican University of California’s Professional Learning Division (DominicanCAonline.com) offers a series of three courses specifically meant to help teachers learn more about administration, teacher evaluation and classroom skill.

    “Being a school leader is not an easy job,” the university says. “The best schools have an effective school leader or group of leaders focused on achievement and performance. Like any leader – mayor, governor, coach – a school principal or administrator sets the stage for long-term achievement and must be able to juggle a variety of responsibilities when dealing with other administrators, teachers, support staff, students, and parents.”

    The series of courses is:
    Teacher Evaluation – Doing What Matters in Teacher Observations
    Teacher Evaluation – Doing What Matters in Teacher Feedback
    Teacher Evaluation – Doing What Matters in Teacher Growth

    The series is designed for aspiring and practicing administrators, department coordinators, teacher leaders, peer observers/evaluators or any educator responsible for teacher growth and evaluation.

    “In short, addressing the teacher leader paradox depends on changing schools, says Learning Forward. “Far from a stand-alone reform, effective instructional teacher leadership depends on facilitating norms that open classroom doors, deprivatize practice, and foster instructional improvement. In redefining the peer relationship and establishing pathways for teacher leaders to be both trusted peers and instructional experts, we stand not only to deepen the work of teacher leaders, but also to improve schools.”