A leader helps others find their way. The payoff for a principal who is able to empower teachers into leadership roles is staggering. Not only can this work have a powerful influence on school culture, it can also develop a new and powerful vision for a school that is deeply rooted in teachers working together collaboratively.

Redefining leadership in a school is not as simple as tapping talented people to head up new committees. Rather, strong foundational work must first be laid down to ensure that multiple levels of leadership are able to emerge in a school that is both authentic and diverse.

1. Meet in the Trenches

Principals are often more interested in asking teachers to join forces to lead instructional efforts by committee assignment than they are in immersing themselves in teachers’ daily work. Because many principals rely on the excuse that they “cannot be experts in every instructional area,” their seat at the instructional table has been largely inconsequential. When discussions turn to improvement of lagging test scores, many principals become critics of the results obtained with no true understanding of the underlying factors. It is one thing to count how many questions are missed; it is an entirely different proposition to understand which types of questions tend to be missed and why.

The good news for principals is that you do not have to enter instructional conversations as the expert. Visiting collaborative team meetings and trying to be an expert on the European conquests one day and African poetry the next will immediately expose the limits of most instructional leaders. A principal must enter these conversations with the confidence and perspective of a learner. From this honest position, the principal can ask the sort of questions that move a group of deadlocked professionals, gain insight into their frustrations, and reveal what next steps need to be taken.

By joining the conversation at team meetings, the principal gains firsthand experience of who is emerging as a potential leader and who may benefit from the expertise of their peers. Principals who engage with teachers in conversations about their work and that of their peers without observing it personally often appear to put the teacher in the role of an administrative confidential informant. Great teachers do not appreciate being put in this position. The best teachers seek a discussion about their instructional program and how to make it better. If a principal speaks their language and will meet them on their home turf, the entire conversation can be redefined.

2. Move Beyond Department Chairs

Historically, teachers have shied away from assuming leadership positions quite simply because they do not see this as the job they were hired to do. This has also been exacerbated by lingering traditional roles for department chairs, such as ordering supplies and tracking expenditures—not being engaged in the sort of activities that require true leadership vision.

Just as a principal is wise to recognize this difference between managing and leading in their own work, it is imperative for a principal to recognize that assigning managerial tasks to teachers does not affect leadership capacity. In the name of teacher leadership, principals often ask teachers to be a part of committee work or school improvement efforts that are, in actuality, simply assisting the principal with managing compliance paperwork.

Managerial tasks do not stir the blood of dedicated teachers. They desire to solve complex problems that they are faced with in the classroom. Principals must capture their attention to lead in these areas.

3. Identify a Problem, Find an Expert

All principals are guilty of daydreaming about how to get their most talented teachers to rub off on their colleagues. Unfortunately, expertise is not always contagious. Because principals often spend their hours in the role of problem solver, they may forget that they also have a responsibility to ask difficult questions.

Asking the right kinds of questions, indeed ones worthy of examination, is not exclusive to a building principal. Certainly, teachers see the work from a distinct perspective, and meaningful leadership roles near that work must be discovered and developed. Since leaders emerge in any environment where critical questions are being asked, it immediately expands the possibilities for who may be a valuable leader. Indeed, building capacity to take on leadership roles should not be limited to veteran or highly experienced teachers. Anyone with a passion to investigate the problems in our classrooms has already begun to take the necessary steps to find the solutions. Harnessing this professional curiosity and passion is at the heart of building leadership capacity.

4. Create New Space

In education, time is a form of currency. Teachers tend to devote their spare time to their students, because working with kids is their primary source of passion and their comfort area. Nudging teachers in new directions requires time and taps precious physical, emotional, and mental energy reserves. Without genuine acts of support, many teachers may not gravitate toward leadership tasks.

Principals must carve out a time and place where teachers can emerge as leaders. Despite all of our practices, this time and place is not in the conference room during a committee meeting. Leadership roles are sown within the classroom experience. The classroom is the teacher’s laboratory. Focusing and fostering experimentation in the classroom to test possible theories to difficult and frustrating questions is the nursery of teacher leadership.

One powerful forum where teacher leadership can flourish is through the development of lab classrooms. When teachers have new ideas, they can invite other professionals into the room to observe and offer feedback to assess what works. Typically, teachers are so preoccupied in their own rooms that they never witness their neighbor’s practice. When these observations are paired with collaborative discussions of student performance, teacher leaders emerge. This dialogue expands the skill set for all participants and increases the likelihood that best practices will take root in more classrooms.

5. Occupy Vacant Land

Principals want to see everything get better-now. This is a real danger in the delicate process of developing teacher leaders. Many promising efforts are thwarted because principals hope that great teachers can wield sweeping, schoolwide influence. Rather than trying to produce a tidal wave of reform, a leader is much better off trying to nurture pockets of greatness with the expectation that each pocket grows and extends its tentacles of influence, forming a schoolwide network of leadership talent.

Many teachers are motivated by deep and abiding desires to get better at their practice, and are willing to help if they believe others truly wish to join in the work. Nurturing a prospective teacher leader is as simple as identifying their points of passion and offering them support to fan the flames of that passion. In turn, those who are willing to learn from teacher leaders may, in fact, possess great social capital with other more reluctant peers. Like building blocks, these reluctant teachers may add another layer of interest and become involved because of their faith in their peers, instead of depending on any specific leader.

The first steps are as easy as walking into a classroom full of students. Refrain from calling a meeting in the office to brainstorm potential leaders and their roles. Rather, meet your potential leaders where their light shines brightest—in the classroom.

Stephen V. Newton, PhD, is director of instruction for Laramie County School District 1 in Cheyenne, WY.

Making It Work

To build teacher leadership capacity at your school:

  • Notice what problems a successful teacher continually grapples with.
  • Ask several questions to understand the problem fully, and bring other curious professionals into the conversation.
  • Provide support and resources to keep emerging teacher leaders immersed in these difficult problem-solving activities, especially with their less-informed peers.