Schools often have very defined leadership structures, most likely a principal and assistant principal, that make decisions and ensure the good order of the school. But each teacher is also a leader within their own classroom, and many teachers often display leadership qualities that can and should extend outside of the classroom. How can school leaders cultivate leadership and inspire others to use those qualities to push the whole school toward continual improvement?
Every day we are inspired by the amazing work our teachers and students are doing, and we can spot leadership potential even in the smallest spark. Some teachers obviously have leadership qualities and have the desire to pursue them. But true cultivation of leadership comes from finding a spark in an unlikely teacher or an unlikely way. Find a small action or idea that you recognize as potential leadership and go talk to that teacher. Tell them what inspired you and encourage them to pursue a leadership role in their department or grade level to extend it beyond their classroom. Leadership can mistakenly be associated with large or grandiose ideas or actions, but encourage teachers to take a step toward leadership in a small way—just one idea or action—and with your support.
It is easy for teachers and students to assume that school leaders have all of the answers, when really, we should be asking questions throughout our day. We should be acknowledging that the teacher is the leader in their own classroom and asking questions about why and how lesson activities were designed to push learning forward. Asking questions encourages teachers to reflect on their actions and challenge their own thinking, one great quality of leadership. Questioning also demonstrates a curiosity and respect in the teacher’s instruction when phrased in a positive and inquisitive manner. Demonstrating respect can provide support and confidence for a teacher to be more comfortable pursuing leadership.
One of the most dangerous phrases in our language is “we have always done it this way.” Classroom and school routines provide consistency that students need, but leaders encourage and embrace risk-taking. We should be pushing our teachers to try something new, even in small ways and even if it makes them feel uncomfortable. The most important part of encouraging risk-taking is reassurance that failure is okay. Push the teacher to try! Tell the teacher that it is okay to fail, and mean it. The failure may lead the teacher in another direction that they never would have pursued before. And as a leader, it is important for us to model this by taking risks ourselves, trying something new, and acknowledging successes and failures.
Push the teachers with leadership potential to share their victories—small and large—with other teachers. The best teacher is the best thief who steals ideas from others and makes them work in their own classroom. Sharing positive and negative outcomes of risk-taking opens dialogue and pushes teacher leaders to inspire others. One activity we have done at my school is to have one teacher share out a best practice at faculty meetings. This involves the school leader recognizing one teacher’s classroom victory and pushing them to share it with others at the meeting. Also encourage teachers to observe others in action to collect and inspire ideas. One practice I would like to try is to consistently invite teachers whom I see as having leadership potential to accompany me on classroom visits during one period each week. This practice gets me into classrooms and shows teachers that I see collaborative leadership qualities in them.
Don’t put all of the pressures of leadership on your own shoulders! As school leaders, we should be recognizing tiny sparks of leadership in our teachers and encouraging them to pursue leadership in a variety of ways. This vision of collaborative leadership helps all of us to push for continual improvement in our school and in ourselves.
What are your best practices in cultivating teacher leadership?
Lauren Carreiro is in her fifth year as a Dean of Students at Ashland High School in Ashland, MA. Prior to becoming an assistant principal, she taught math at Braintree High School in Braintree, MA. She was the 2018 Assistant Principal of the Year for Massachusetts. Follow her on Twitter @clockerdean.