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6 Lessons on the Power of Teacher Leadership

By Emily Douglas-McNab — January 15, 2015 5 min read
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Within every school there is a sleeping giant of teacher leadership, which can be a strong catalyst for making change." --Katzenmeyer and Moller (2001)

During the fall of 2013, the Tennessee Department of Education created the Tennessee Teacher Leader Council. The purpose of the council was to develop adaptable, exemplary, and innovative sustainable teacher leader models for implementation in districts across the state. This was done by pulling together highly effective district leadership teams representing the geographic, socioeconomic, and demographic diversity of all three grand divisions of the state. The six districts selected to serve on the Council were Clarksville-Montgomery County Schools, Dyersburg City Schools, Henry County Schools, Kingsport City Schools, Metro Nashville Public Schools, and Sullivan County Schools. These districts represent urban, mid-size, and rural communities. Each district explored research and uncovered their own beliefs on the often untapped leadership capital in their buildings: TEACHERS. The thought was that all districts must look at the entire leader development cycle: preparation, licensure, recruitment and hiring, evaluation, development and support, and that teacher leadership is the essential lever for developing shared leadership in buildings and districts.

The districts then created different, innovative teacher leader models aligned to their specific strategic plans and reflecting the educator professional learning needs most closely tied to increasing student achievement and growth. They all focus on teacher leaders, who, through transparent practices, act as a change agent to build capacity in self and others to increase effective educator practices and improve student learning. The models vary in their design, number of roles, and costs but share a foundational belief in developing teacher leader capacities, skills, and actions. The models address needs for “high quality, relevant, and ongoing professional learning related to the implementation of three critical areas: Common Core, TEAM evaluation, and Response to Instruction Intervention.” You can read more about these models in the Worth Beyond Measure:Tennessee Teacher Leader Guidebook.

Focus on a District: Kingsport

Kingsport City Schools (KCS) is located in eastern Tennessee. The district has 14 school buildings, a student population of about 7,050 students, and 499 teachers. KCS is an innovative district that recently received the 2014 SCORE Prize. The SCORE prize is given to districts and schools in Tennessee that through data, show that they are leaders in student learning. The video from SCORE below highlights Kingsport’s commitments and beliefs.

KCS’s teacher leader group is called “Teachers Leading Change (TLC).” Teachers Leading Change in KCS are teacher leaders who maintain their classroom positions and take on additional roles that they are then compensated for. The goal of the TLC model is to positively influence school culture, student achievement, build leadership capacity, and retain effective teachers. Kingsport teacher, Amy Southerland shared, “Being a Teacher Leader provides me the opportunity to participate in excellent professional learning, to collaborate with other teachers, to strengthen my teaching skills, and to see the ‘big picture.’”

“A key belief that guides our work in Kingsport involves the cultivation and development of leadership throughout the district,” said Superintendent Dr. Lyle Ailshie in an interview. “Our Teacher Leader Program has served as a highly effective cornerstone in our efforts to support and grow our employees from within. This type of personal professional growth tightly aligns with our goal to provide our students and families the very best educators in our pursuit of world class.”

The KCS TLC model was implemented in May 2012 and the process repeats each school year. While the district is being recognized for their work, innovative change in how teachers are being viewed is getting big results. Anne Marie Pierce, teacher at Jefferson Elementary noted that “The Teacher Leader Program allows me to continually work toward embedding best practices into my classroom and share with other educators in our system.”

The model looks to identify, select, and retain top teacher talent. Dory Creech, KCS’s Assistant Superintendent shared that the district focuses on “providing integrated and embedded leadership opportunities that not only develop the skills of our faculty, but ultimately serve to enhance the teaching and learning of our students. Our teachers have enthusiastically embraced the concept that leadership development does not just involve the growth of future administrative leaders, but also serves to benefit teachers in whatever role they may serve.”

Six Lessons Learned

Through the teacher leader work, the Tennessee Department of Education and the six participating districts learned many lessons worth sharing. Dr. Paul Fleming, Deputy Assistant Commissioner of Teachers and Leaders, shared six lessons learned that other states and districts can use as they take their teacher leadership learning and design quest.


  1. Know the context: Teacher leadership models must be driven by district and regional needs related to existing initiatives that advance student achievement and growth and take into consideration elements like district size, current culture for collaboration, and funding capacity.
  2. Shared Leadership Roles are Powerful: The development of specific teacher leader roles should be driven by, and aligned with, the standards and competencies defined in the national teacher leader standards. These standards provide the roadmap for designing and implementing the various teacher leader roles.
  3. Collaboration is Key: The best learning and design is collaborative--the six district teams met as an entire group monthly to develop, discuss, and reflect on new ideas.
  4. Focus on Teacher Voice: Teacher voices should be front and center when teacher leader roles and policies are being developed. Teacher leadership is reform in the best sense of the word as it has the power to be innovative, sustainable, and directly impact student achievement at the classroom level.
  5. The Process is as Much about Design as Professional Learning: Educators engaged in the development of teacher leader models for their districts highlight all of the components of highly effective professional learning: relevant, rigorous, ongoing, and providing opportunities for reflection.
  6. Don’t Forget to Embed Teacher Leadership Expectations into Administrator Evaluations: In 2013, the Tennessee Department of Education, in collaboration with numerous stakeholder groups, revised the statewide leadership standards and administrator evaluation rubric to include a specific standard and indicators on fostering and growing teachers as leaders. This signals the importance of developing teacher leaders in all schools and districts.

If you have questions about the innovative teacher leadership work happening across Tennessee, contact Dr. Fleming via email at Paul.Fleming@tn.gov or visit the Professional Learning and Growth website.

Be part of the conversation around K-12 talent management by using the hashtag, #K12Talent, on Twitter.

The opinions expressed in K-12 Talent Manager 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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