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Education Opinion

Bridges & Hedgehogs: Keys to Effective Teacher-Leader Roles

By Guest Blogger — May 08, 2015 5 min read
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Note: Rick is taking a hiatus while he’s off talking about his new book, The Cage-Busting Teacher. Meanwhile, this week’s guest posts will be written by Jonas Chartock and Chong-Hao Fu. Chartock (@jonaschartock) is the CEO and Fu (@chonghaofu) is the Chief Program Officer of Leading Educators, a national non-profit organization that works with schools, districts, and states to advance teachers’ leadership skills and opportunities to ensure all students have the opportunity to succeed in school and life.

Throughout the week, we have shared a lot, perhaps more than you ever thought you’d read, about teacher leadership. We examined teacher leadership as an incredible force in efforts to improve schools for all students. We described how three types of teacher leadership roles are busting cages, turtle tanks, and old school staffing models for student learning. Next, we shared the huge impact teacher leadership has had on the city of New Orleans and how districts around the country are picking up on this high-impact work. Then, we focused on the results of one such exciting program, the Teacher Leadership Innovation program in DC Public Schools. Today, we focus on what it takes for our schools to actually do this work well.

The Teacher Leadership Hedgehog

“What’s THE most effective teacher leadership role?” That’s a question we often hear from teachers and principals.

In answering that question, we often find ourselves asking many follow-up questions. For example, “What are your key priorities? What are the strengths and areas of growth for your faculty?”

We ask these questions because much of what makes the “effective teacher leadership role” is contextual, depending on the needs and strengths of the system. Teacher leaders have less time available to lead. They are, by definition, both teaching and leading. Any responsibilities that they take on have to be as high leverage as possible, so using any one role across schools makes little sense.

This led us to reflect on the Hedgehog concept from Jim Collins’s Good to Great. A hedgehog is simply the one thing that a company should do to drive success. In contrast, a Teacher Leader Hedgehog would be the one role that a teacher leader should focus on in order to have the most impact.

So, what would make a Hedgehog for teacher leadership roles? We believe the answer requires three features:

1) The teacher leader role must drive the purpose and mission of the school.

Most fundamentally, the teacher leader’s work must be closely tied to the school mission. It has to be one of the key priorities for the school. It’s work that people care about and that will benefit students. It’s talked about frequently, and it’s written into the school’s strategy and plans. You couldn’t imagine your year without it.

2) The teacher leader role must be something at which the teacher leaders can be the best in the world.

Teacher leaders must also be matched to areas of strength. To be credible with their colleagues, they have to have demonstrated their own mastery. For example, if a teacher leader is leading training on classroom management, it’s essential that they have mastered their own classroom skills and that they continue to develop their skills. Ask yourself: with development and training, could the teacher become the best in the world at this role?

3) The teacher leader role must drive the energy of the teacher leaders.

Finally, teacher leadership roles should drive the energy of teachers. Roles should be designed to be appealing so that other teachers aspire toward these roles. They should increase teacher motivation and retention. They should re-energize teacher leaders for the work. To do so, they should be designed to increase teacher leader autonomy and voice.

Here’s our visual of the Teacher Leader Hedgehog:

Imagine a teacher leader in region A. The role may fulfill the school mission and the teacher leaders may be the best in the world at the role; however, without sustaining energy and passion, few teachers are likely to apply for the roles, and those that do are likely to burn out.

Now imagine a teacher leader in region B. These teacher leaders have the skills to be the best in the world at their role and the role sustains their energy. But because these roles are not central to the school’s mission, they are often pet projects unlikely to drive school improvement. In these cases, the teacher leaders may benefit from their new roles, but they won’t maximize student learning or quality instruction.

Finally, imagine teacher leaders in region C. Their roles may align to the school’s mission, and they derive energy from their role. However, they lack the necessary skills. This might be a novice teacher who is eager, but ultimately unready, to take on the demands for a leadership role. It’s a case of the emperor having no clothes.

The strongest teacher leader roles are those that possess all three aspects of the Hedgehog Test. They align to a school’s mission, sustain the energy and passion of teacher leaders, and allow them to be the best in the world at their role.

Building Bridges to Overcome Barriers to Student Impact

Even when the role is right, why do some teacher leaders succeed while others, who are just as skilled, struggle? Often the success of a teacher leader depends on a simple adjustment in scheduling or a new way of thinking about old problems.

In our latest paper, “Building bridges: Connecting the gap between teacher leadership and student success,” we focus on ways to ensure that teacher leader roles succeed. We’ve worked with over 900 teacher leaders from across the country and collected lessons learned from them and their principals through a series of focus groups and surveys. Our new paper represents our attempt to learn from their success and challenges so that principals and policymakers can help teacher leaders build bridges over common obstacles.

It also marks the official introduction of the Leading Educators publication page. If you’ve enjoyed reading this week, we hope you’ll visit and find other tools on teacher leadership.

We would like to thank Rick again for this special opportunity to share our thoughts with you this week. Thank you all for reading and sharing your feedback and reactions, and, most importantly, thank you to so many educators for leading.


--Jonas Chartock and Chong-Hao Fu

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.