Knowledgeable. Versatile. Creative. Engaged. Being college and career ready is no simple task. As high-risk student populations increase in school districts across the United States, it’s even more challenging to ensure that all students—not just a privileged few—experience the deeper learning necessary to drive success in the global economy.
As a principal with a more-than-full plate, you cannot lead your school in this important work alone—and you shouldn’t have to. Deeper learning for all students will require deeper learning and leading from their teachers, whose expertise needs to spread more rapidly than ever. And this may call for some critical shifts in your approach as principal.
Learning to Lead, and Leading Learning
Researchers such as Ben Jensen tell us that in top-performing jurisdictions, teachers lead their own learning in ways that fuel their leadership. Professional development is dominated by lesson study, where teachers investigate methods of other teachers. In this way, teachers not only improve their individual practice, but also jointly assess students’ deeper learning of content. Then they publicly present their findings to instructional directors, teacher educators, and well-recognized teacher leaders from other schools. Schools are designed for multiple cycles of lesson study annually, which are organized and “owned” by teachers themselves.
In Singapore, for example, senior and master teachers orchestrate lesson study. But the principal plays a major role as well—by cultivating, assessing, and sustaining the culture of lesson study, integrating it in teachers’ daily work lives. Principals are held accountable for the quality of professional learning that teachers experience.
Teacher leadership is a socially distributed phenomenon that develops over time as teachers gain efficacy; to do so, they must have repeated opportunities to reflect on what they master in the context of structured collaboration. Whether in the form of well-designed lesson study or similar practices, this type of professional development helps teachers get more comfortable with feelings of failure and “cop[ing] with difficult situations,” according to an article by Stacy Szczesiul and Jessica Huizenga in the Journal of School Leadership. The researchers also note that teachers learn to lead by developing skills in asking probing but gentle questions about their own practice, as well as that of those they seek to influence.
More than 90 percent of America’s teachers report that other teachers contribute most to their success in the classroom, according to a recent survey conducted by the MetLife Corporation. After all, teachers’ colleagues understand the nuances of the specific context in which they work. This also is in keeping with Dylan Wiliam’s research, which reveals teachers are influenced most by those who have “pedagogical credibility as a coach.”
Reciprocal mentoring—in which teachers are expected to offer feedback to those who are helping them in turn—is critical to developing their agency and confidence to lead. Growing numbers of teachers are beginning to network with one another—engaging in virtual reciprocal mentoring—through the Center for Teaching Quality (CTQ) Collaboratory and other online communities like Pinterest and BloomBoard.
While the public education system is ultimately accountable for how it supports teachers to learn and lead, external resources can play an important role. Scholars have found that teachers are most likely to learn to lead effectively when they develop and sustain “ties with external organizations and groups that supply intellectual, social, and material resources for their work,” as Judith Warren Little has described in School Leadership & Management.
Creating Optimal Conditions for Leadership
Shifting schools’ approaches to teacher learning and leadership is not merely a matter of setting intentions. Attempts at reform are often hamstrung by inadequate consideration of the conditions necessary for teachers to spread pedagogical know-how. As researchers Jal Mehta and Sarah Fine have shown, deeper learning outcomes for all students have been undermined by a number of organizational constraints, such as teachers with large classes and student loads, and policy barriers where schools are under relentless pressure to cover content on high-stakes tests.
CTQ’s work with teachers and investigations into research suggest a number of conditions are necessary to develop and support teacher leaders:
- A vision and strategy for teacher leadership, with stated goals and clear images of tasks to be done, must be in place.
- Supportive administrative leadership is imperative, where effective principals are able to identify the strengths of teachers and help them spread their expertise.
- School financing formulas must ensure appropriate and adequate human, fiscal, and physical resources are available-and that districts can rethink how to deploy people, time, technology, and money.
- Enabling work structures can address practicalities. For example, effective professional learning practices should be embedded into teachers’ daily work schedules.
- Teacher-led inquiry requires supportive social norms and working relationships characterized by relational trust, cooperation, and collaboration.
- Constructive organizational politics can expand roles for teachers without coming at the expense of principals and other administrators.
- A schoolwide and system-wide orientation toward inquiry and risk taking can support development of individual and collective teacher agency.
More than 25 years ago, the late Phil Schlechty made the observation that if school improvement was to be sustained over time, teachers would need to be seen as “inventors” and principals become leaders of leaders, who “create conditions” in which teachers thrive. Our school systems need to reimagine the role of the principal.
Reimagining the Role of Principals
A recent study by The Wallace Foundation found that effective school leadership develops teachers as leaders, as well as improves working conditions. As Vivianne Robinson has described in her book Student-Centered Leadership, one of the most powerful factors in explaining the impact of principals is the degree to which they “promoted and participated in teacher learning and development.”
Consider these four top-line recommendations—grounded in research—that can help you build a culture that encourages teacher leadership.
- Identify strengths around teachers’ capacity and potential to lead. The loudest person in the room—or the first to apply for a formal leadership role—may or may not be the most influential (or have the most potential) as a leader. Try approaching teacher leadership not as the work of a few individuals, but as a host of goals and tasks requiring different strengths. To move in this direction, explore tools that help you identify individuals’ strengths and weaknesses, getting past the first layer of who might be leaders or potential leaders. (For more information, visit www.gallupstrengthscenter.com.)
- Reallocate time for teachers to lead. Members of the CTQ Collaboratory have developed a toolkit for improving schools’ use of time for student and teacher learning (www.teachingquality.org/time). The National Center on Time and Learning (www.timeandlearning.org) offers resources to help school leaders rethink time, roles, and school design to advance professional learning and teacher leadership. One of the models they highlight is the Generation Schools Network (www.generationschools.org), which draws on a more focused curriculum and reallocated personnel dollars so teachers can learn and lead. You can build on new curriculum models where students get more and better learning time, and teachers have two hours a day to collaborate with one another, as well as 20 days of additional professional development per year.
- Use tools to measure the quality of professional learning in your school. Researchers have identified key characteristics associated with high-quality teacher learning and leadership—and new tools to measure school readiness. For example, you can assess the relational trust among teachers, administrators, and students—and continuously measure and improve the quality of teacher learning and leadership. CTQ has developed an instrument enabling you and your teaching colleagues to rate an array of organizational opportunities, as well as social norms and working relationships, that fuel professional learning that leads to more powerful student outcomes.
- Encourage teachers to go public with their expertise-sharing their insights and practices within and beyond your school. Find out how teachers in your school are already connecting beyond your building’s walls—learning informally and spreading their expertise via teacher networks and online communities. From social media platforms like Twitter to dedicated virtual communities like the CTQ Collaboratory, these venues are beginning to break down the long-standing barriers that have isolated teachers from one another and limited their leadership and learning. Seek ways to leverage their networking with educators and external organizations to benefit students within and beyond your school.
Shifts in Principal Preparation and Support
New approaches to training principals are afoot. For example, the McKinsey Management Program for School Leaders, in partnership with NASSP, focuses on how principals can better manage and engage team members, effectively communicate their ideas, and master challenging conversations.
But supporting deeper learning for all students will require systems-level change so principals can play the role of leaders of leaders. Conditions need to change for you as well—including more opportunities for you to learn with your administrative colleagues and be recognized for your efforts to spread teaching expertise.
America’s public schools face a future of rapid change, intensifying complexity, and growing uncertainty. The principal of a school need not be its sole or even primary instructional leader. If all students are to develop skills needed for 21st-century jobs and a rich civic life, then principals must begin to blur the lines of teaching and leading so more teachers can invent and lead. These new roles for principals in cultivating teacher leadership will only extend their own reach as leaders and ensure the excellent and equitable public education that all students deserve.
Barnett Berry is the founder and CEO of the Center for Teaching Quality, based in Carrboro, NC.