When teachers collaborate to bring about change, develop professional learning communities, and continually revisit core curricula to make sure the content responds to all students’ needs, they embrace shared leadership roles. Sometimes, it’s the needs of the students that nudge teachers to collaborate and create change. This occurred recently in a local intermediate school where I, the author, facilitates professional learning and teach fifth-grade students who read on a K -Grade 1 instructional level.
The fifth grade English language Arts (ELA) team wanted an extra class to support these striving readers. However, the principal was new and was not convinced that taking away one of two electives of students would work favorably. Continual discussions and dogged persistence on the part of three ELA teachers resulted in an agreement to schedule an extra daily reading class. The principal gathered additional time for this class by removing a few minutes from other classes. To obtain support, teachers called parents and spoke to children carefully explaining why they would lose an elective as well as the purpose of additional reading instruction.
Administrators and teachers agreed to monitor progress carefully, and if students did not improve by the end of the year, they would look for other solutions. In addition to 60-minutes of reading and language arts, these students had an extra 73-minutes of reading instruction that included: a daily, interactive, instructional read aloud, building fluency by practicing reading and performing self-selected poems, and guided and independent reading (Fountas &Pinnell, 1996; Rasinski & Griffith, 2011; Robb, 2013). What made this curriculum a resounding success was that the school district funded classroom libraries of 600 hundred books in each fifth-grade class and purchased beautiful and engaging books for students to learn from and read. However, it was teachers using leadership skills to advocate for students’ needs that enabled students to make two to four years progress in reading instructional levels.
For collaborative teacher leadership to support students’ learning and teachers’ professional growth, schools need to embrace the concept and make it a sustainable aspect of their mission (Levin & Schrum, 2016; Wilhelm, 2010). For this to happen, the concept of sharing leadership, because it benefits the entire school community, needs to be one of the principal’s core beliefs.
School Principal Creates the Conditions for Shared Leadership
For teacher leadership to flourish in a school, a principal develops an environment that encourages taking risks and supports teachers who advocate for students, encourage professional learning, and take measures to improve curriculum (Hallinger & Heck, 2010). When administrators play a key role in developing teacher leaders, such encouragement creates a culture that offers leadership opportunities and develops respect for ideas that teachers raise for students and school improvement.
Providing time for teachers to meet during the school day and plan advocacy initiatives empowers them to work collaboratively to solve problems, resulting in benefits for all school stakeholders (Latham & Wilhelm, 2014; Wilhelm, 2013). Here’s what principals can do to develop a culture of leadership among staff members:
- Schedule common planning times for departments or grade level teams.
- Save time by emailing procedures and announcements to staff in order to offer teachers time to meet during full faculty meetings.
- Honor successful advocacy initiatives with a note and/or conversation.
- Provide ongoing professional learning for all staff so they are connected to best practices and technology.
- Meet with teams and departments and listen to their suggestions for school improvement. Then, encourage teachers to create and implement advocacy plans.
By distributing leadership among teachers, principals allow them to explore and find ways to advocate and lead that best fit their talents and skills. Ultimately, teacher advocates can advance school initiatives and have a positive effect on school change and improvement. Moreover, when principals share leadership opportunities with teachers, they enhance and nurture the personal qualities of teacher leaders.
Qualities of Teachers Who Collaborate & Advocate
Teachers who organize advocacy groups with the goal of supporting all students, improving instruction, curriculum, and communication have traits that enable them to succeed in leadership roles. Some of these traits develop as teachers gain experience while others are part of their personalities (Berkowicz & Myers 2017). Here are ten traits teacher leaders possess. They consistently:
- Treat others with kindness.
- Build positive relationships with colleagues, students, parents, and administrators.
- Listen actively to others to respond to their ideas.
- Maintain confidentiality and are trustworthy.
- Have an open mind, are flexible, and can listen to and discuss views that they presently do not embrace.
- Have a clear understanding of their school’s culture.
- Offer colleagues positive feedback including new ideas and professional materials that discuss best practices, differentiation, and balanced literacy.
- Support new and experienced teachers by observing and/or listening, then providing feedback that helps and matters.
- Share instructional resources with colleagues.
- Put students at the center of all teaching and learning decisions.
All ten traits can be learned through reflection, practice, and by interacting with colleagues who possess them (Dweck 2007; Levin & Schrum 2016).
What Does Collaborative Leadership Mean for Teachers?
For teachers as leaders to make a difference and become an integral part of a school, their decision to lead should be collaborative, involving other faculty members, and supported by their principal (Wilhelm 2010, 2013). Teachers can involve themselves in two kinds of collaborative leadership:
- Formal teacher leaders are department or team leaders, mentors, or instructional coaches. Usually teachers apply for these positions and receive training to insure success.
- Informal teacher leaders improve schedules, recommend curriculum changes, and lobby for professional learning opportunities.
This article focuses on advocacy because it is the ideal role for teachers who are passionate about their students, curriculum, and teaching. They also have the expertise to maintain advocacy and provide a model for colleagues to adopt (Fleischer, 2018). Here’s what teacher-advocates can do:
- Create an advocacy group for professional learning using social media, book studies, and sharing articles and student work on Google Documents.
- Organize grade-level groups who discuss students in order to identify the most effective interventions.
- Be inclusive and invite colleagues to study scheduling issues and then suggest changes to the principal. The more teachers and staff are included in an advocacy group, the greater the outreach for your messages and ideas would be. Moreover, as the outreach increases, the more staff you empower and the greater the diversity of feedback you receive on issues.
- Form a group to review curriculum and make sure core content responds to every students’ needs. Look to differentiation instead of one-size-fits-all (Robb, 2010).
- Become a catalyst for positive change in your school and district. Use social media to spread ideas. Create podcasts and videos and post them on your school’s websites for parents, other schools, and the surrounding community, so you inspire others to join initiatives to support children and teachers.
When advocacy is part of teachers’ responsibilities, collaboration and communication increase, groups generate more ideas and have more choices, and the end result is school improvement.
Teacher Advocacy Fosters Collective Efficacy & Growth Mindset
Since teacher advocates have a strong belief in their ability to work hard and collaboratively create positive change, they possess self-efficacy and a growth mindset (Donohoo, 2017; Dweck, 2007). These teachers believe all children can learn with support from caring adults and by working hard. They believe in Dweck’s power of ‘yet’ that lets students know they might not have mastered a concept ‘yet’, but with consistent work and support they will (Dweck 2007). They discuss growth mindset, so everyone knows that mastery occurs at different times. Students come to understand that they can improve and achieve with support and practice.
Over time, students might abandon the fixed mindset that whispers: You have no ability to change your learning patterns and to improve reading achievement in all subjects. As a result, self-efficacy and a collective efficacy develop among students learning with teachers who believe their students can and will improve. The important work they do for children, curriculum, their colleagues, and building professional learning communities provide much needed support for administrators.
Teacher leaders become advocates for students, and as they support learners they develop self-confidence and self-efficacy among their students. In addition, teacher leaders have a growth mindset; they understand that with practice and hard work goals can be achieved. Administrators who distribute leadership by encouraging teacher advocacy develop an inclusive and collaborative school culture. In addition, such a culture has the potential of collectively embracing a growth mindset and collective efficacy.
About the Author
Author, teacher, coach, and speaker, Laura Robb has completed more than 43 years of teaching in grades 4-8. She presently coaches teachers in grades K to 8 in Virginia, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. Robb returns to teach each year. This year she’s working for five months with fifth grade students who entered intermediate school reading at a first grade level. Laura Robb has written more than 30 books for teachers. In 2016, two new books were published: The Reading Intervention Toolkit, by Shell Education in April 2016 and Read Talk Write: 35 Lessons That Teach Students to Analyze Fiction and Nonfiction, published by Corwin Literacy in October 2016. Corwin Literacy also published Robb’s Vocabulary Is Comprehension: Getting to the Root of Complex Texts was available in September 2014. Her newest for Heinemann is a First Hand Curriculum: Smart Writing: Practical Units For Teaching Middle School Writers and a book, and a professional book, Teaching Middle School Writers: What Every English Teacher Needs to Know. For Scholastic, Robb has completed several best sellers including the second edition of Teaching Reading in Middle School, Differentiating Reading Instruction, Teaching Reading in Social Studies, Science, and Math, and her newest, Unlocking Complex Texts. Robb has designed classroom libraries for Scholastic for grades 3 to 9. She developed, with Jeff Wilhelm, XBOOKS for middle school readers: nonfiction print texts with an online curriculum organized by themes such as forensics, tyrants, war, medicine, and strange.
Robb is a keynote and featured speaker at conferences and leads workshops all over the country and in Canada and writes articles for education journals. She is a regular contributor to www.therobbreviewblog.com and has a series of podcasts with her son, middle school principal, Evan Robb on https://therobbreviewpodcast.podbean.com.
Berkowicz, J. & Myers, A. (2017). Qualities every teacher should have. Education Week’s Blogs, Leadership 360.
Donohoo, J.A.M. (2017). Collective Efficacy: How Educator’s Beliefs Impact Student Learning. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin
Dweck, C. S. (2007). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York: Ballentine Books.
Fleisher, C. (2018). Making this work sustainable. In voices from the middle, 25 (4), 66-68.
Fountas, I. C. & Pinnell, G.S. (1996). Guided Reading: Good First Teaching for all Children. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Heck, R. H. & Hallinger, P. (2010). Collaborative leadership and school improvement: Understanding the impact on school capacity and student learning. In School Leadership & Management 30(2), 95-110.
Latham, M. E. & Wilhelm, T. (2014). Supporting principals to create shared leadership. Leadership, 43(3), 22-26.
Levin, B. B. & Schrum, L. (2016). 30 reasons to thank teacher leaders Available at: Corwin-connect.com
Levin, B. B. & Schrum, L. (2016 ). Every teacher a leader: Developing the needed dispositions, knowledge, and skills for teacher leadership. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Essentials.
Rasinski, T. V. & Griffith, L. (2011). Fluency Through Practice and Performance. Hunting Beach, CA: Shell Education.
Robb, L. (2013). Unlocking Complex Texts: A systematic framework for building adolescents’ comprehension. New York: NY: Scholastic.
Wilhelm, T. (2010). Fostering shared leadership. Leadership, 40 (2), 22-24.
Wilhelm, T. (2013). How principals cultivate shared leadership. Educational Leadership, 71(2), 62-66.