The Power of Teamwork and Teacher Leadership

Yesterday morning two friends and I competed in the 6th Annual Fronhofer Tool Triathlon in Upstate New York (okay, competed is probably too strong a word). We did the Olympic Triathlon event which featured a 1.5 K swim, 40K bike, and 10K run. It was hot, it was humid, and it was hazy. I was so thankful for my team mates sharing the load (I was also relieved my responsibility was the swim). Each of us could have done the event solo, but I was recovering from a pulled hamstring, our bike man was in his first “official” triathlon, and our runner was also signed up for the Sprint Tri that followed the Olympic distance event. Yes, sharing the load made the morning event downright enjoyable. Had we gone solo, our results and sense of accomplishment may have paled in comparison. Can the same rule be applied to principal as instructional leader? Would sharing the load make the whole process of instructional leadership more manageable, enjoyable, and successful for principals and teachers? Would there be a greater sense of accomplishment in a school where leadership is distributed? With school reform pressing forward, I think Yes.

In one of my earlier blog entries, I wrote about Teacher Leadership and School Reform (Pasted below) which speaks directly to the concept of sharing the load. With New York State schools now readying for a new year of Race to the Top initiatives, the time is ripe for districts to distribute the responsibility for instructional leadership to teacher leaders. Under fiscal duress, many schools lack the resources of time and administrative personnel for the good work of evidence-based observation, student learning objectives, data-driven decision-making, and common core learning standards. For a number of reasons, principals can not do this work alone and are going to need assistance from others. To successfully implement school reform and see student achievement increase, we must share the load. Schools have the intellectual capacity to do Race to the Top well, it’s just a matter of distributing the leadership to capable, committed, and well-respected teacher leaders.

Without simplifying the process of distributing leadership, it is indeed possible to cultivate the knowledge, skills, and self-efficacy of teachers interested in assuming leadership roles in their districts. It all starts by seeking out those teachers who have no plans to leave the classroom, but have the interest and capacity to lead their colleagues in curriculum development, pedagogy, assessment, and data-informed decision-making. Once identified, schools in partnership with BOCES and institutes of higher education can prepare teachers to conduct valid and reliable teacher observations, monitor progress of Student Learning Objectives, implement data-driven decision-making protocols (assess, analyze, action), embed common core curricula into lesson plans, and participate in the creation of a viable and healthy school culture. What exists now is a leveraged moment of opportunity to reform leadership in schools.

Teacher Leadership and School Reform

This past Thursday and Friday I was working with my Professional Standards and Practices Board for Teaching colleagues on the topic of career teacher ladders to help inform the Board of Regents’ actions on the Career Development Continuum later this year. New York State’s Race to the Top application speaks about the Career Development Continuum on pages 188 and 189, and adding teacher leader certification or annotation areas to a teacher’s credentials lends credence to a long over-due structure. Namely, greater assumption of instructional leadership responsibility for teachers. Teacher leaders are an untapped resource in our schools, and we know that principals are most effective when they share leadership with others. From the 2010 Learning from Leadership Wallace Foundation Report: “When principals and teachers share leadership, teachers’ working relationships are stronger and student achievement is higher.”

Studies on principals’ use of time paint a picture of overworked individuals and fragmented days, prohibitive for being the instructional leaders principals seek to be. Assigning administrative managers  may free up some time, but distributing leadership among teachers seems the best avenue for improving student achievement. This is especially urgent with today’s RTTT reform agenda. Teacher leaders augment and expand administrator expertise, energize the profession through multiple teacher pathways, provide principals with needed support, and help with the change process. Teacher leadership opportunities may also prompt our finest teachers to remain in the classroom while also stretching themselves and others.

New York State will proceed in its work to create the Career Development Continuum, and how the state ultimately defines and evaluates criteria for teacher leadership will be relevant to all educators. Each district has its own set of issues and challenges, but there are questions requiring resolution. Can a master teacher be a great teacher leader? What course work and preparation would be required? For reliability and validity, what assessment would best identify knowledgeable and skilled teacher leaders? What role does nomination play, and would colleagues, administrators, and/or community members be part of the process?

A Teacher Leadership Exploratory Consortium is in place, and teacher leader standards have been identified. It’s now a matter of establishing a Career Development Continuum to grow the teaching profession, improve student achievement, and help all schools manage the complex changes that lie ahead.

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