Honing the Tools of Teacher Leadership: Teamwork and Creativity
This is the second of a six-part conversation on how teachers can grow in their leadership capacities.
This year has been all about the gospel of teacher leadership. This is the good news—teachers are capable of investing in our students inside and outside the classroom, and we are the most well-equipped professionals to address some of the issues threatening the future of education in our country. Teacher leaders have, of course, always existed, but historically, districts haven't done a great job of creating effective structures or systems for teachers to impact their schools on a large scale.
Now, as teachers across the country begin to voice their desire for more clearly defined leadership roles, it's time for schools to design and implement leadership systems that genuinely empower teachers to be strong leaders and highly effective educators.
In some schools, including mine, teachers are given professional autonomy and authority through the creation of authentic, collaborative leadership roles to impact decision-making. Teachers in these schools often work together in teams to create policies and programs to address the most pressing issues.
This shift from administrative decisionmaking to teacher-led decisionmaking is a small but important one. Everything starts with teachers. Gone are the days of administrators taking ideas to the staff and working to cultivate buy-in. Implementing teacher leadership teams is a simple concept that could drastically improve teacher morale and student achievement, but only if educators have time to collaborate and the freedom to be creative.
The Power of Teamwork
Teacher leadership teams work because they give teachers the opportunity to pool their ideas and expertise and have large scale impact without leaving the work they do in their classrooms.
To be clear, these teacher-leadership teams must transcend the timeworn committee format. Through a systematic process based on professional expertise, real teacher-leaders collaborate to develop research-based action plans that address the problems they see in their day-to-day practice. It's vital that the teams create and reflect often on a common vision and maintain a transparent process with their colleagues through frequent and clear communication. They can cultivate buy-in from stakeholders by seeking input through surveys, polls, and forums. All of this results in teacher-driven, teacher-created policies and programs for schools. We can't make large scale impact without clearly defining the outcomes we hope to achieve.
Lastly, it's key that the teams are open to all teachers. I can hear the collective groan now. What about Mrs. Nitpicker down the hall? What about Mr. Curmudgeon from the science department? The truth is that when the hard work begins, teachers who aren't as invested will stop attending meetings and teachers who are difficult to work with might revise their approach or change their attitude. Collaborative teacher-leadership teams don't just impact schools. By giving teachers opportunities to conduct authentic research and work closely with their colleagues, these teams have the capacity to provide some of the best professional development teachers may get all year.
Teacher leaders who are passionate about change and improvement are naturally creative people, and they have the capacity to come up with innovative solutions to the issues that affect their work every day. When teachers collaboratively lead the decisionmaking processes in their schools, their solutions will be all the more inventive and effective. Other professionals have the autonomy to dream up creative solutions, and the power to put them into practice. The educational establishment has spent decades relying on the expertise of non-educators, as if there is a fear of letting teachers creatively impact their profession. The current interest teacher leadership indicates that it's time for a change.
Teacher-leadership teams allow teachers to balance their creativity with pragmatism. To effect genuine growth and progress, teams have to dream big but start small, acknowledging when they need the help of administrators, counselors, and other educators in the building. Again, it's about sharing expertise, and many of the situations that teacher leadership teams might face will require the assistance and guidance of people who aren't classroom teachers.
Teachers deeply desire more autonomy and control, and their passion and expertise will sustain leadership teams and ensure their success. Administrators and districts are going to have to be willing to hand over part of their power to prove that they trust teachers as much as they claim to, but in return they'll see increases in teacher retention and student achievement.
Districts should be implementing structures that give all teachers the opportunity to have a voice in decision-making processes, supporting their diligent work, and following through on a promise of autonomy and authority. It's not hard to know what to do. The hard work comes in actually doing it.
Katrina Boone (@katrinaboone) teaches English at Shelby County High School in Shelbyville, Ky. She is also a Teacher Fellow for the America Achieves Fellowship for Teachers and Principals.
This is the first of a multi-part conversation on how teachers can grow in their leadership capacities.