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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Unlocking Teacher Leadership: Finding the Hidden Leaders in Your Building

By Lisa Billings & Alison Giska — June 30, 2017 4 min read
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Today’s guest blog is written by literacy coaches Lisa Billings and Ali Giska, authors of Leading with Imperfection.

Nobody knows more about the students in our schools than the teachers in the classrooms. Teachers breathe life into schools; they have a pulse on the challenges, misconceptions, and celebrations that occur each day. Teachers hold tremendous capacity to be professional leaders--even from within their classroom. They bring different perspectives, creative solutions, and inspiration to a school’s vision.

However, many potential leaders remain in their comfort zone instead of stepping forward. How many educators in your building are waiting to lead? Imagine the possibilities if you can unlock this leadership and allow teachers to carry a vision forward. Are you ready to identify your emerging leaders and let them lead?

Give Permission to Speak Freely
Think back to a time when a leader in your life encouraged you to speak freely and gave you the space to actually be heard. When we reflect back on the environments where speaking freely was part of the culture of a group, we felt the most personal growth and feelings of empowerment. The acceptance, encouragement, and positive discourse gave us the space to innovate and solve problems. It even gave us enough courage to write about hidden leadership through our blog, Leading with Imperfection. Finding our voice meant discovering our potential.

Unfortunately, this is not happening nearly enough. Most educators remain quiet, cemented in the belief that their voice is not valued enough to be heard.

Reflect on the culture of your building. Are there hidden leaders who sit quietly in meetings? Instead of sharing potential solutions and innovative ideas, do they offer agreement to maintain the status quo?

According to Matt Kincaid and Doug Crandall, authors of Permission to Speak Freely: How the Best Leaders Cultivate a Culture of Candor, “People harbor a hidden bias against creativity...We prefer known solutions, especially at times of uncertainty.” Teachers may not speak up because of an expectation that agreement is valued. This might be a blind spot many administrators don’t even know they have. When you ask for ideas, what do you honestly want to hear?

Become more comfortable hearing the unfiltered thoughts and ideas from your staff. Keep in mind:


  • One person can’t have all of the solutions to the challenges we face in schools.
  • New perspectives can bring fresh ideas to old problems.
  • Most people who speak up come from a place of positive intent.

Give Breakthrough Experiences to Emerging Leaders
The development of teacher leadership is often a messy, uncomfortable process. Many teachers aren’t even aware of their emerging leadership. One way to build their potential is to give them opportunities before they are entirely ready for them. Breakthrough experiences like writing a conference proposal, attending leadership meetings, or mentoring informally with current leaders can be transformative to educators who may have never imagined themselves as leaders.

Look for strengths in people that they don’t see in themselves.

What happens when you give breakthrough experiences to emerging leaders? They experience vulnerability, discomfort, and personal growth. Keep your emerging leaders out of their comfort zone.

Invite Disruption
Innovative ideas require imperfection. Let educators in your building know that it’s okay to try new things. Encourage leadership within the walls of the classroom. Create a culture of productive disruption by regularly asking these questions:


  • Is there another way we can look at this problem?
  • Is there a better way to do this?
  • This is working. What can we do next to make it even better?
  • Who else can help us achieve our goal?

Disruptive thinking takes time to be productive. Give these new ideas (and emerging leaders) space to be imperfect. This messiness is what almost always leads to growth.

Help Hidden Leaders Find Their Marigold
Jennifer Gonzales, editor in chief of The Cult of Pedagogy, explains the “marigold effect” as the positive effects of teachers nurturing and supporting other teachers in a building. This support system is often the only way teachers thrive.

How can administrators capitalize on the marigold effect? Celebrate partnerships and highlight collaboration instead of only praising individuals. This tends to isolate teachers, and most people can’t do what they do alone. Cultivate partnerships by identifying the marigolds in your building and the teachers who need them the most.

Support big dreams. (Even if they are bigger than your building.)
Do you know what members of your staff want to be doing five years from now? Ask them and help them get there. The common coaching belief applies: You don’t want an assistant coach who doesn’t want to be head coach. While it may seem counterintuitive to invest in people who may have intentions beyond your building, this investment is what creates teacher buy-in. When teachers have full ownership of the vision of a school, teacher retention rates can actually increase. Invest time in finding out their passions.

Help educators scale their impact by encouraging them to apply for opportunities outside of the school system. Organizations like IREX (Teachers for Global Classrooms), Learn Zillion, and Google’s Certified Innovator Program provide experiences for teachers to expand their leadership and collaborate with other educators while remaining in the classroom full-time. Research these opportunities, make them visible to staff, and spread the belief that leaders never stop learning.

Find out what defines people. Encourage them to speak, take risks, and lean on those around them. Hidden leaders step forward when they know somebody cares about where they are going--and is willing to help them get there.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground 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.


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