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School & District Management Opinion

5 Strategies to Empower Teachers to Be Leaders

How—and why—principals should improve teacher-leadership programs
By Matthew Finster & Amy Lamitie — March 28, 2023 3 min read
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Teacher talent is at a premium, with school districts struggling to attract and keep good teachers. Developing career-advancement opportunities, such as teacher-leader programs, is one strategy aimed at retaining effective educators.

Principals, who have the most direct influence on teacher-leaders, are consequently best positioned to retain effective teachers by supporting effective teacher-leader programs. Despite the potential and promise of such programs, they are often mismanaged or not fully supported.

We have seen the value of empowering teacher-leaders firsthand in our work for a regional Comprehensive Center that supports state education agencies and school districts in Kentucky, Tennessee, West Virginia, and Virginia. The Comprehensive Centers program, funded by the U.S. Department of Education’s office of elementary and secondary education, helps state, regional, and local educational agencies improve their capacity. As the center’s state co-leads for West Virginia, much of our work has focused on how teacher-leader programs can establish meaningful pathways that deepen teacher engagement, improve classroom conditions, and strengthen retention.

About This Series

In this biweekly column, principals and other authorities on school leadership—including researchers, education professors, district administrators, and assistant principals—offer timely and timeless advice for their peers.

In an article for the Journal of Education Human Resources last year, we identified several core management components that district and school leaders must understand to promote effective teacher-leader programs. As part of this work, we developed the free, online resource Managing Teacher Leadership, a collection of self-paced modules designed to build district capacity to design and manage teacher-leadership programs effectively.

Several of those important components fall directly within the purview of principals. Here are the five strategies school leaders can draw from our work to promote better teacher leadership in their schools:

1. Develop a unified vision and realistic goals. Principals should engage teams of teachers to develop a theory of action to communicate a teacher-leadership program’s purpose and goals, clarify and depict its strategies, and anchor work to a continuous improvement process.

2. Provide job descriptions. Principals should then provide detailed job descriptions for each teacher-leader role, including main duties and responsibilities. Those job descriptions can be used both during the selection or hiring process and to communicate expectations to existing teacher-leaders and other teachers. When these roles and responsibilities are vague, teacher-leaders rarely have adequate time to perform duties or collaborate with peers.

3. Use a fair selection process that focuses on teacher-leadership competencies. Principals should ensure multiple measures and perspectives, such as district-level or panel interviews, are included in the selection process for new teacher-leaders, rather than relying solely on their own recommendations. “Anointing and appointing” can create perceptions of favoritism and erode teacher-leaders’ chances of successfully working with colleagues.

4. Offer job-aligned learning opportunities. Principals should ensure that professional-development opportunities align with teacher-leadership responsibilities to advance their role-specific knowledge, skills, and competencies. The National Network of State Teachers of the Year’s Teacher Leadership Professional Learning Courses are a rich source of professional learning. Principals can also encourage teacher-leaders to identify relevant topics to guide professional learning for themselves, with tools from the American Institutes for Research’s District and School Leader Readiness Tool.

5. Assess school culture. There are many free or affordable tools available to help principals assess how favorable their school culture is for implementing teacher leadership, including the aforementioned District and School Leader Readiness Tool, the “Teacher Leadership Program Readiness Surveys” guide authored by one of us (Matthew Finster), and the school audit laid out in Charlotte Danielson’s Teacher Leadership That Strengthens Professional Practice. Surveys or audits can help principals gauge favorable conditions in their schools, such as the extent of mutual trust, open communication, participatory decisionmaking, and shared leadership.

Encouraging teacher-leaders does not happen by chance. Principals can intentionally promote them effectively by taking steps to establish common expectations that are aligned to the school vision and goals and are shared among teacher-leaders, the principal, and other teachers. Further, principals can incorporate these expectations into the selection process and help guide teacher-leaders’ learning opportunities.

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