Let Your Teachers Lead

Five steps to maximize collective efficacy with a building-wide leadership structure.

For principals, tasks are plentiful and varied. Some require our time and attention, while others can be completed—often masterfully—by others, as long as we’ve developed their leadership capacity. Developing effective teacher leaders is essential for productivity, for professionalism, and for student outcomes.

Teacher leadership is often defined as leading both in the classroom and outside it. It might manifest as committee participation, mentoring, or serving as an exemplar for others. To harness the power of teacher leadership, principals should consider developing a building-based leadership team structure that has a clear purpose, aligns to building goals, and focuses on collaborative problem-solving.

Such a structure is supported by education consultant Jenni Donohoo’s writing on collective efficacy, which concentrates on staff sharing the belief that their work can have a positive impact on student learning and achievement. “Team members’ confidence in each other’s abilities and their belief in the impact of the team’s work are key elements that set successful school teams apart,” Donohoo says.

Fostering collective efficacy alongside teacher leadership development is a match made for school improvement success. In order to get started in this work, principals should follow five steps:

1. Establish a Clear Purpose for Your Team

When a principal is developing—or relaunching—a building leadership team, establishing a clear and concrete purpose is the first step toward success. Ask yourself: “What are we doing, and why are we doing it this way?” These simple, foundational questions can help you work toward the reason behind your work.

Establishing the “why” of your leadership team is necessary even before you pick out the staff who will populate it; having a purpose helps ensure that you will assemble the right team to accomplish that purpose. Principals might consider the Thinking Collaborative’s six elements of a professional community as they develop the purpose. All will help ground the team’s purpose in the trappings of a team.

The first element focuses on establishing a common purpose with a shared set of standards. This can help the team develop support for their work. The second element connects to the belief of collective efficacy as a cornerstone for collaboration, and the third focuses on the interconnectedness of teachers’ work.

Element four asks teachers to consider how to connect and collaborate by physically opening classroom doors. The fifth element highlights the importance of relational trust in professional communities, and the sixth details the work of teams as collaborative. Rooting your purpose in these beliefs will guide your team toward collaboration and trust.

2. Connect Your Purpose to Your Goals

Once you’ve established your leadership team’s purpose, it’s time to connect that purpose to specific goals, tasks, and outcomes you want your team to accomplish, moving from the theoretical to the practical. For example, your team’s purpose might be to collaborate effectively to solve problems, but the goal might be to establish a clear and cohesive MTSS process for your building to use on a weekly basis during student problem-solving meetings.

Having both a purpose (based on theory and beliefs) and specific (concrete and actionable) goals will help your leadership team feel driven. Your school’s goals might be set based on district data or specific, building-based targets, but ideally, these goals should be inclusive enough to make the whole staff feel connected.

As your leadership team begins its goal-driven work, you’ll want to balance each agenda to ensure that teacher leaders understand the tasks, as well as the strategies used to accomplish them. This helps teacher leaders understand the team’s rationale as each task is completed. A slow but steady pace is a smart approach to ensure that you don’t lose sight of your purpose.

3. Establish a Balanced Group

As you proceed with the work, you’ll want to be certain your team’s membership is balanced. You might need to be creative; based on the culture of your building and other factors such as teachers’ contracts, you might decide to ask for volunteers or nominations via an electronic or paper form. Set aside time to gather this information and review it.

In the event that you have more interested teacher leaders than positions on the team, consider how membership might work. For example, you don’t want to have all teachers on the team from one grade level and none from another. You might also have groups select a representative. For some school cultures, this works well, while for others a more anonymous process is preferable.

You also might want to consider term limits. A rotation of representatives helps keep the group balanced, and it has the added bonus of offering leadership training to more staff members. This can help the professional learning communities (or teams) function more smoothly. Another consideration related to balance is voice; some teachers will be more vocal than others, and you will want to be sure that the leadership team includes the representation of less-vocal teachers.

4. Set Norms, Working Agreements, and Agendas

Now that you have a purpose, clear goals with tasks and outcomes, and balanced representation, use your time wisely as you begin to meet as a leadership team. Clear, specific agendas with identified norms and working agreements are important elements of productivity.

Norms can be defined as general practices that are beneficial in all settings, while working agreements are specific expectations based on group needs. Working agreements might include “Be on time” or “Silence your cellphones”—specific actions that help ensure productivity. For norms, I suggest turning to Thinking Collaborative’s seven P’s of collaboration:

  • Pausing. Use wait time to allow more voices to be heard.
  • Paraphrasing. Rephrase back what another person has said to check for understanding. Be sure to remove “I” statements and begin with “You shared …”
  • Putting ideas on the table. Ideas are the heart of collaboration, so be sure members are sharing openly and honestly.
  • Posing questions. Ask open-ended questions to invite participation.
  • Paying attention to self and others. This is helpful to balance participation.
  • Providing data. When possible, reference data (student achievement or otherwise) to root for the work of the team.
  • Presuming positive intentions. When we presume that others have the best intentions in mind, it helps conversations become more productive.

Develop and share an agenda for each meeting in advance. This should include the purpose, goals, norms, and working agreements, as well as topics for discussion. An agenda might aid the group’s focus.

5. Lead With Collaboration in Mind

During each building leadership team meeting, principals should facilitate agenda items and initiatives. These strategies can help:

  • Find areas of agreement. Expressing agreement with another team member helps acknowledge similarities and moves the conversation forward. You might say something like, “You and I are both concerned about how our students learn language.”
  • Recognize others’ expertise. Focus on the shared expertise of the group. You might say, “You’re very experienced in this area. What ideas do you have to offer, and what have you done in the past when facing a similar problem?” This helps draw in more members of the group.
  • Return focus to the objective. Help the group stay on track and focused. You can say, “You’re right. Some students struggle to demonstrate positive social skills. That’s why our work on this topic is so important.” This eliminates story­telling and refocuses on the objective.

With each of these strategies, principals can guide the group toward their goals and outcomes while keeping the focus on collaboration and teamwork. Ultimately, teacher leaders will feel empowered and supported, which will strengthen the school overall.

Courtney Goodman is principal of Field Elementary School in Park Ridge, Illinois.