I’m in my current role primarily because of my time as a teacher leader. During the latter five years of my 10 years teaching, I served as our science department chair, and in this role, I was bitten by the leadership bug. I had the chance to see the workings of our school from a different angle, one sometimes at odds my usual viewpoint. This role was difficult, because unlike in some schools and districts, I was a teacher leader with no true administrative role. I wasn’t evaluating or observing my colleagues, nor did I have any major say in scheduling, student/teacher connection or budgeting. Yet this experience gave me a sense of the amazing learning opportunities that educational leadership can provide as well as the challenges that arise when teachers find themselves in leadership roles beyond the classroom.
My time as a teacher leader, and now my time working with teacher leaders, has helped me understand areas where we can support the growth of leaders in all roles. Just as importantly, the three steps below can help to support these leaders, who are dipping their toes in the educational leadership pool, so they can get a sense of whether they want to go deeper.
Give them a say
One of the biggest challenges for me as a teacher leader was feeling as if I had responsibilities and no opportunity to weigh in on them. In many ways, this can be much the same for our students if they feel they aren’t in a learning environment that recognizes their need for voice and choice. Teacher leaders, whether with administrative responsibilities or not, should play a significant role on building and district executive committees; while they may not be the ultimate decision makers, these committees should have a bearing on decisions. Besides being beneficial for the teacher leader, this is ultimately a big win for the leaders themselves. Teacher leaders bring a perspective that longtime administrators may have forgotten, and, as such, the voice of the teacher leader can help shift a decision or reinforce one. That unique perspective and direct line to other teachers and students is valuable. By welcoming it, building and district leaders can give teacher leaders the voice they need and provide additional viewpoints that wouldn’t be possible otherwise.
Delegate and give space
Teacher leaders need to feel needed; they need responsibilities that matter, and they need to be given the opportunity to succeed as they develop their own leadership. Building and district leaders need to be comfortable giving their teacher leaders roles with rigor; delegating challenging opportunities helps give teacher leaders the chance to further develop, and it also provides an opportunity to determine whether these types of roles truly fit the people who are in them. But delegating by itself isn’t enough. When we delegate, we must be willing to give space. We can’t micromanage. While our personalities and past experiences may push us to want to have direct oversight, the development of others requires there to be a means of figuring it out on one’s own.
Wait in the wings
Despite the need for teacher leaders to have independence, they also need to know that there is support if and when it’s needed. Delegating and giving space can never mean simply walking away. Instead, it means that relationships have been built that allow for teacher leaders to feel comfortable taking a risk while also knowing that if they get stuck, there are those who can provide assistance and answer questions. For a few of the years that I served as a teacher leader, it was hard to know if that support was truly there; it made taking risks even riskier, and I imagine I was a less effective developing leader than I would have been otherwise. Thankfully, that support network can come from many places. The lesson is that, as in most aspects of our lives, we tend only to expand our boundaries when we know that others can bring us back if we travel too far.
The life of a teacher leader is exciting, challenging and confusing. And of course, it has the potential to be deeply rewarding. Without my years serving in that role, I doubt if I would have found myself pursuing an educational leadership degree, and I likely wouldn’t be in my current role. Happily, as I reflect on my experiences, in one way or another, I found myself on the receiving end of the three foundational experiences above. Whether provided directly from building and district leaders, or experienced thanks to another network, the three tips above can help educational leaders looking to help teacher leaders who are bitten by the leadership bug and ready to lead future generations of learners of all ages.
Fred Ende (@fredende) is the assistant director of Curriculum and Instructional Services for Putnam/Northern Westchester BOCES in Yorktown Heights, N.Y. Fred blogs at www.fredende.blogspot.com, Edutopia, ASCD EDge and SmartBrief Education. His book, Professional Development That Sticks is available from ASCD. Visit his website:www.fredende.com.
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