Thursday, February 4, 2016

Developing Teacher Leaders

One of the biggest compliments I've received during my 11 years as a school administrator came from this past school semester. It occurred via the chat feature within gmail one evening, far removed from the school day. This staff member shared, "I've grown more as a teacher and as a leader while working at Union than I've ever thought possible. Thank you." 

I leaned over to my wife and had her read the teacher's comment. I was beaming with pride at the compliment. It was at this point that I realized one of the main elements of my vision for school leadership is the responsibility I have as a school administrator to develop the best teacher leaders possible for our school and for our community.

How does a school administrator create teacher leaders? It's not easy. Here's what I do.

1) Create an environment where it's ok to take risks. 

I want my teachers to feel comfortable to try new ideas in the classroom. I want them to be ok with a daily failure or three. Just as it is important to teach our students that Failure is the First Attempt In Learning, we need to take these same risks as educators. Once, looking for a better delivery system of our weekly Meeting in a Memo, I attempted to use Google Classroom to push out the weekly information to our teachers. I gave it two weeks before abandoning the process entirely. It was a complete failure. I didn't stop, however, looking for a better solution and now have a running google document that seems to work best to share this information with our staff and allow for collaboration as well. If your teachers see you take a risk that results in a failure, they'll be watching you to see how you respond. Fail forward into a better solution.

2) Say YES! as much as you can.

One of our 6th grade teachers approached me a few weeks ago, inquiring about the possibility of a field trip for our entire sixth grade class to the local Tech Museum. We hadn't experienced an all-grade field trip (outside of the annual 8th grade Great America trip) in a long time. This teacher asked if I would be ok with her researching the idea. Yes was my response. 

She later returned with more information about the possible field trip than I would have expected. I sensed she was becoming a bit excited about the possibility of the field trip. There were a few hiccups in her plan about buses, organization, and cost. This is where the principal can help. I directed her to our amazing bus guru / admin assistant to schedule the two separate bus companies' availability. I encouraged her to speak with our activities director about how to best organize the trip. Most importantly, I told her I'd cover the cost of the buses and entrance fees for the entire sixth grade. When I get the sense you're excited about student learning, I'm going to do everything I can to say YES to whatever it is you want to do. And yes, the kids had a blast.

3) Encourage their growth through all means possible.

Over the past four years as the principal, I'd like to think that almost every staff member has attended at least one conference. Many of our teacher leaders have attended multiple conferences each year. Our school district has even brought the CUE experience to our staff development days. Sometimes, however, you need to pull your staff along. Tap them on the shoulder about an opportunity. Offer to help write their introductory letter to an invite-only conference they want to attend. Sometimes, you need to push them. Two of our teachers presented at the annual CLMS conference without signing up to do so. I did it for them. Of course, I let them know that I had turned in a presentation request on their behalf after I had clicked "submit." I had seen them present at a previous conference and knew that they had something amazing to share with a larger audience. They ended up having a packed room of eager teachers, all of whom were hanging on their every word. I think at this point they began to realize that they may actually be the #edurockstars I kept telling them that they were. 

4) If you want them to grow, you have to take the first step.

One of my least favorite things has always been to speak in front of large groups of people. This may sound odd coming from a middle school principal who presents in front of 50 staff members weekly and our parent community quarterly, but it's always something I never felt comfortable with. Over the past few years, I've slowly begun to break free of my admitted fear of public speaking. It began with a small presentation alongside my then-principal Erik Burmeister followed by a presentation with three teachers in celebration of our Schools to Watch award. Next, a small push from our district's CTO to present at a conference. I then partnered with the amazing Adam Welcome to combine our presentations at a local CUE event. It then grew to a larger #FallCue presentation with fellow administrators and various superintendents in the audience. If I expect my staff to take these risks and conquer their fears, I've got to be very public about doing the same. 

5) Attend conferences with your staff

Let me clarify: Please don't be the administrator who invites your "best friend" teachers to the conference so you have a great social experience. Truly look at the conference and try to judge who would benefit most from the experience. Try your best to offer the conference opportunity to all of your staff members, even if you have to tell some staff members no. If they trust you, they know they'll have a second opportunity somewhere in the future. 

In attending the conference, check in with your teachers frequently. Help create a shared google document to take community notes on the various sessions. Hear about a great presenter? Attend that presenter alongside your teachers. Learn with them. Continue the conversation through lunch and dinner meals. Sit together and enjoy the time you have to get to know your staff a bit better. The conversations that happen during the conference but outside the sessions might be the best learning opportunity your attending teachers will experience. Use this time wisely.

6) Hire well and develop better.

We have been incredibly fortunate to have hired amazing teachers over the past four years. At Union Middle, we've built a teaching community that is second to none amongst middle schools in California. It's a challenge to think of my next venture in education, knowing that I can't bring the Union Middle School staff with me... not to say I won't try. Hiring well is one of the most important jobs of a school administrator. When you add positive and dynamic energy to your already-acclaimed staff, you create something special and have the opportunity to build true teacher leaders. And that's where the teacher leader development enters the conversation. 

My goal is to give these teacher leaders a stronger voice in how our school continues to develop and grow over the next few years. We have slowly begun to implement optional instructional leadership team meetings where we discuss data and determine how to improve our practice. I solicit constant feedback from our staff in the form of google form surveys, individual conversations via email/chat, or weekly check-ins. It can be daunting and challenging to relinquish the opportunity to say as a school principal "This is my vision and this is what we're going to do". What I've found, however, is that true teacher leaders don't need to hear my vision to become better educators; they just need my support, guidance, and encouragement to assist along their journey. 

One of my proudest (and saddest) moments over the past year was when three of our teacher leaders left for TOSA and administrative positions in other districts. I know I'm going to lose a few more talented teachers to TOSA and administrative positions in the near future but that's ok. I know they'll be well prepared and continue to be positive change agents for kids for those districts. Their departures provide our other staff members an opportunity to increase their leadership capacity and to begin their own ascent within the teacher leader ranks. 

Administrators - It is our job to build the next generation of teacher leaders. It's probably one of the best jobs in the world. Enjoy.

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