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Education Opinion

Turtles, Tanks, and Three Types of Teacher Leaders

By Guest Blogger — May 05, 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.

Sometimes it’s not a cage that needs busting but a tank. A turtle tank, to be specific.

Noel Tichy, a business school professor at University of Michigan and an expert on front line leaders, argues that we often put our staff in metaphorical turtle tanks. Put a turtle in a small tank and it stays small.

Move the same turtle into a larger tank and it starts to grow. In other words, a turtle’s size is proportional to the size of its environment.

So we would argue is the case with teacher leaders. Many teachers today find themselves in tight teacher tanks. Their decisions on curriculum, scheduling, and their professional learning are tightly controlled. They often work in isolation, with few opportunities to exercise their professional judgment. They are kept in the small tank, and their impact stays small.

Teachers, unlike most knowledge-based professions, have few opportunities for advancement while continuing to practice the job they love. Lawyers can make partner while still practicing law. Doctors can become chiefs of surgery while still practicing medicine. Only in teaching do we ask our most talented teachers to give up what they love doing if they want to advance.

But imagine a different profession. A profession where teachers are entrusted with our most vital education priorities. A profession where the best and brightest are attracted, retained, developed, and empowered; where teachers have the opportunities to leverage their strengths—whether writing curriculum or mentoring colleagues—to advance the quality of instructional practice. If we build a bigger tank, we will have bigger turtles. If we give teacher leaders meaningful opportunities to lead, we will see results.

Three Types of Teacher Leaders that Bust the Turtle Tank

As we discussed yesterday, “teacher leadership” can signify a wide variety of roles, philosophies, and skill sets. At Leading Educators, we focus on developing the skills and opportunities of three types of instructional teacher leaders that each have the capacity to bust the turtle tank: team leaders, coaches, and initiative leaders.

Type I: The Team Leaders

Michelle Aguirre led the kindergarten team at the Foreign Language Academy in Kansas City Public School. In the previous year, only 43% of students in the school read on grade level. Michelle kept her team focused on their SMART targets and data tracking, developed their skills through a high quality professional learning community, and continually celebrating student success. Michelle’s work led to 98% of her students meeting or exceeding their goal on the DRA2 and 83% of them reading above grade level.

Michelle is an example of the team leader. Team leaders can vary greatly in the types of functions they serve, from curriculum planning to data analysis to establishing a strong student culture. They also vary greatly in their level of responsibility. Some serve mostly as facilitators for their teams, while others have explicit leadership and management responsibilities. All of them, however, share a need to develop strong competencies in managing team dynamics and facilitating adult learning. Their roles benefit from having a scheduled common planning time to work with their teams as a group.

Type II: The Coach

A second type of teacher leader serves as a one-on-one coach for other teachers. These teacher leaders could be mentors for new teachers. They might be peer coaches from whom other teachers receive support, or they might be a coach with formal supervision responsibilities. Naturally, teacher leaders as coaches require significant training in coaching skills. Coach roles also tend to require more release time for teacher leaders than team leader roles, and they may require significant emotional intelligence, as peer dynamics for new coaches can be quite complicated. As such, these roles may serve as stepping stones for teacher leaders who have already served as team leaders. For more on how these roles are impacting results in Denver Public Schools, check out this profile from Leading Educators and the Aspen Institute.

Type III: The Initiative Leader

Amanda Gaillina served as a culture leader for ReNEW Charter Schools in New Orleans. She focused her work on third- and fourth-grade students who were frequently out of class due to absenteeism and in-school suspensions and who, as a consequence, were severely behind academically. Her culture team used interventions such as individualized behavior and attendance trackers, incentivized rewards, home visits, student contracts, school buddies, and a phone call system to keep parents informed of the students’ progress. As a result of Amanda’s work, 74% of her target students scored proficient on the Louisiana State Assessment, up from 60% in the previous year.

Amanda is a prime example of a teacher leader as an initiative leader. These roles leverage a teacher leader’s expertise to implement a broad initiative that is crucial to the school’s success. For example, past Leading Educator fellows have implemented schoolwide standards-based grading initiatives, blended learning initiatives, and guided reading initiatives. In each case, it was crucial for the teacher leaders to work with administrators to secure support and resources, create a project team, deliver professional development, and plan and manage an initiative over the course of a year or even longer.

George Box observed, “All models are wrong, but some are useful.” Accordingly, we know any attempt to divide instructional teacher leadership into three types is fraught with possible exceptions. Still, we have found these categories helpful for our own thinking. They have guided the creation of our Teacher Leader Competency Framework, and they allow us to differentiate professional development. In sharing them, we hope to build common language on teacher leaders that bust the turtle tank.

Let us know about your tank and/or your thoughts on our framework in the comments section below, or tweet us your thoughts or questions at @chonghaofu, @jonaschartock, and @leadingeds.

--Jonas Chartock and Chong-Hao Fu

Source for the first image: Wendy Longo Photography

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.