What Do Teacher Leaders Need from Administrators?

As a founding member of the Teacher Leaders Network and a guy who is passionate about trying to stay in the classroom for my entire career, I'll never forget the first time that I paged through IEL's seminal report, Redefining the Teacher as Leader


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Strange, huh?  People remember lots of "first times"—riding a bike, kissing a girl, driving a car, landing a job, getting a paycheck—but remembering your first time with a policy document churned out by an edu-think-tank?

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Not so much. 

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Maybe that's why I feel like such an odd duck—a label that my TLN colleagues and I wear with pride. 

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(Image Credit:  Orange Duck by Ansik, licensed Creative Commons Attribution)

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Admittedly, there's not a lot of teachers whose skirts get blown up by policy documents. 

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But there are TONS of teachers who care deeply about serving as leaders in their schools and communities, creating what the IEL team writing Redefining the Teacher as Leader almost a decade ago described as:

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"A potentially splendid resource for leadership and reform that is now being squandered: the experience, ideas, and capacity to lead of the nation's schoolteachers" (p. 2).

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And there are TONS of edu-experts that argue about the importance of teacher leadership all the time.  Need a sampling?  Take these two quotes for a ride:

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  • "A crying need exists for excellent, practicing teachers to advance---to lead---by taking a more formal and explicit role in the supervision and improvement of instruction."  Mike Schmoker
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  • "The leadership shortage may be dire, but the leadership development potential is great, if only schools and systems will tap into the potential of teacher leadership.  Even though 50,000 leaders will retire in the first few years that this book is in print, hundreds of thousands of teachers will be at the peak of their professional experience."  Douglas Reeves
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Sadly, I'm here to tell you that the vast majority of our districts are still squandering the experience, ideas and capacity of our nation's school teachers. 

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In fact, little has changed in most districts—despite the never-ending rhetoric that surrounds conversations about teacher leadership.  Most of us teacher leader types are still stuck in a hapless search for organizational juice

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Need proof? 

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Then consider that over half (53) of the 140 teachers I recently surveyed are dissatisfied with the teacher leadership opportunities available to them and that just under half (49) don't believe that teacher leadership is valued in their schools.

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Pretty discouraging, huh?  Teacher leadership has been an uber-buzzword for so long that you'd think we'd see more promising trends in these kinds of numbers. 

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Now, knowing full well that us odd ducks can be a bit hard to understand, I had some of my buddies share their thoughts on the kinds of things that teacher leaders need from administrators. 

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Here's a sampling of what they wrote:

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"I need a principal to do more public acknowledgement of the work and effort we've put in."  David Cohen

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"What I wish every administrator knew about teacher leaders is that whether they're born or made, genuine teacher leaders are outstanding teachers first and foremost."  Gail Ritchie

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"I would like to be utilized...I would hope that I could bring a vital perspective to problem solving in the school and be asked to be involved at that level."  Heather Wolpert-Gawron

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"I need to know that my principal  is a true member of our school.  I need to see his/her face in the hallway, at PLC meetings, and at sporting events."  Sarah Henchey

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"As a teacher leader, I need an adminstrator who trusts me to think independently, make on-the-spot educated decisions, and have the ability to problem solve educational issues."  Cossondra George

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"Teacher leaders need the freedom to try new things in their classrooms. We are intelligent leaders who are learning and may hear about things before you do!"  Becky Goerend

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"Teachers need...a safe place to wonder in and personalize their learning. We do not make it easy for students to learn by making it difficult for teachers to learn."  Nancy Stuewe

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"Teacher Leaders need trust, freedom, and instructional leadership from our administrators."  Paul Cancellieri

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"Teacher leaders need an administrator who allows others to have input into how to (i) set the direction of the school, (ii) redesign the organization; and (iii) manage the instructional program."  Tania Sterling

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"I would say I need to be listened to, and to receive honest and helpful feedback on my ideas."  Bill Ivey

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Interesting stuff, huh?  Basically, what we're saying is that teacher leaders need nothing more than the confidence and trust of their administrators.

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And the even better news is that, in my survey of my teacher leader friends,  "informal words of thanks and praise from principals" rates as the most important reward necessary for encouraging teacher leadership----placing higher than release time from classroom responsibilities AND additional compensation. 

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To put it simply, we're competent and qualified—we're reading as much as you are, we're studying our craft in deep and meaningful ways, we understand the social dynamics of our buildings, we're perfecting our professional development skills---and putting our knowledge and skills to work ain't going to cost you anything more than a willingness to let us lead!

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That seems like a good deal to me.

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(Can I get an Amen from the choir, please?)

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About the AuthorBill Ferriter---the mind behind The Tempered Radical---is a sixth grade teacher in Raleigh, North Carolina.   A contributing author to two assessment anthologies, The Teacher as Assessment Leader and The Principal as Assessment Leader, he is also coauthor of Building a Professional Learning Community at Work™. His second book—Teaching the iGeneration—was published by Solution Tree in June of 2010.

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