Volume III Issue X


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Developing Teacher Leaders


Bruce Oliver

Bruce Oliver, the author of Just for the ASKing!, lives in Burke, Virginia. He uses the knowledge, skills, and experience he acquired as a teacher, professional developer, mentor, and middle school principal as he works with school districts across the nation. Bruce has written more than 150 issues of Just for the ASKing!  He is the author of Points to Ponder and co-author of Creating a Culture for Learning: Your Guide to PLCs and More.


The life of the school principal can be exciting, stressful, inspiring, unpredictable, rewarding, challenging, and ultimately very fulfilling. The role comes with defined responsibilities – instructional leader, financial manager, disciplinarian, building manager, and role model for students, staff, and parents. Other responsibilities are less well-defined and a little nebulous. One such role that can be neglected is the responsibility of the principal to provide leadership development opportunities for teachers. This can pay off with immense dividends for the school as well as for the teachers who develop important leadership skills.

For the past few months in Just for the ASKing!, I have addressed issues that focus on the principal’s responsibility to create a culture for learning. I have written about the importance of the principal being a visionary, a change agent, and a model for lifelong learning. I have also stressed that it is important for the principal to establish a school that is student-centered as well as a place where adults are expected to work together in a collaborative manner. A natural outgrowth of a collaborative environment is the development of leadership skills.

As I reflected on this often overlooked task that a good principal should assume, I considered some recent comments I heard from teachers as I worked with them in staff development sessions. Their comments, combined with first-hand experiences and a touch of common sense, led me to reach some conclusions about how a principal can best approach the task of developing teacher leaders:

Provide many opportunities for leadership. There is no one way to think about how leadership skills are developed or how certain people will respond if they are given encouragement and direction. Schools are places with numerous opportunities for adults to learn and advance their skills. Opportunities may include the school plan sub- committees, coordinator of the school-business partnership, instructional team leader, special projects chairperson, lead mentor, or club sponsorship. As a young teacher I was given a lot of creative flexibility in my role as the student government sponsor. As I look back fondly on that role, I can pinpoint with great specificity the skills I honed as I carried out that job and know that I still use those skills today.

Don’t overburden the same people. One common complaint I hear from teachers is that the same individuals are asked to take on new tasks again and again. Because they are dedicated individuals, they rarely say no. They wind up being stretched thin, and stressed out even though they truly want to do a good job. A principal can avoid this pitfall by spreading the leadership opportunities around among more staff members. The principal should likewise not simply ask for teachers to volunteer for leadership roles. Teachers are often flattered and inspired when a principal approaches them directly, asks them to take on a leadership role, and points out the skills that the individual possesses that can contribute to the task at hand.

Think big picture and long range. An important responsibility of a good leader is to think about the future of the school and the state of education in general. Someone will follow in the footsteps of the exiting principal someday and take the reins of leadership. Others may be department chairs, instructional coordinators, superintendents, or continue to be outstanding lifelong teachers. Leadership skills don’t just happen. They must be developed from first-hand experiences that a forward-looking principal can provide.

Don’t overlook the “diamond in the rough.”  As principals look across their faculties to determine which individuals should assume leadership roles, it is very possible that an individual with strong leadership potential will be overlooked. These teachers often think but rarely ask, “What about me?” My personal belief is that the more opportunities a principal provides for his or her teachers, the greater the possibility that an individual will emerge to do an outstanding job that no one would have predicted.

Be explicit about the role that the teacher leader will play. Principals who name staff members to leadership roles without explicit expectations may find that the teacher leader will be directionless, flounder in the role, and ultimately develop a “sour taste” for taking on such responsibilities in the future. The principal must be clear about the purpose of the leadership role, provide specific outcomes for the assigned task, and establish a timeline for the completion of the job.

Provide direct support. A principal who sets a group or committee loose to accomplish a task without providing direct support and guidance may find that the teacher group will go in directions that may lead to greater problems rather than clear solutions. As the school leader, the principal should stay informed about the jobs that school leaders do, and provide them with necessary support, direction, and encouragement.

Communicate with the entire staff about the progress of schoolwide initiatives. Individuals are often given leadership responsibilities related to a schoolwide initiative but the staff as a whole is “kept in the dark” about what the group or committee is doing or why they are in existence at all. The principal should communicate with everyone on the staff about initiatives that may impact their lives and keep everyone informed in a timely manner about the progress that is being made.

Help the teacher leader take corrective action if things are not going well. By meeting regularly with teacher leaders who are given important leadership roles, the principal will be better able to provide the necessary support they need to complete the job properly. By keeping his or her distance, the principal runs the risk of teachers misunderstanding their role, wasting unnecessary time, losing the focus of their purpose, or becoming mired in the many details involved in their work.

Encourage creativity.  Some of the best ideas I recall from my life as a principal came from teachers when they were encouraged to look for creative solutions to problems or develop new approaches to improve student learning.  A sign that was prominently displayed in my office read “Whatever It Takes.”  Very little is gained when individuals only consider the status quo.

Celebrate successes. Teachers need to know that their roles as leaders are truly appreciated. The principal should routinely recognize and reward the work that teacher leaders do. The recognition will encourage, inspire, and motivate individuals to look for additional leadership opportunities in the future. Sometimes a simple “thank you” can be very effective

As I reflect on the role the principal plays in developing teacher leaders, I conclude that the job is very much like that of a successful football coach.  Both individuals must have a successful game plan, take periodic time outs for reflection and analysis of the status of the team, make sure to avoid any illegal procedures, and occasionally punt when things aren’t going so well.  Both the coach and the principal understand that a strong kickoff is required at the beginning of the game, fumbles may occasionally occur, that penalties must be avoided at all costs, and that special teams can contribute in significant ways to the goal that both pursue.  Both leaders also know that an occasional pep rally may be necessary to keep the ball rolling and that it is important to periodically huddle with the players to establish the right play that will keep the team moving forward.  As they provide leadership, the coach and the principal must avoid piling on, and discourage grandstanding among individual players. Finally, both the principal and the football coach understand that handing off the ball can lead to heroic accomplishments, that they must always keep the end zone in mind, and that rejoicing in the victory of the players can be an incredibly satisfying experience.

Permission is granted for reprinting and distribution of this newsletter for non-commercial use only. Please include the following citation on all copies:
Oliver, Bruce. “Developing Teacher Leaders.” Just for the ASKing! October 2006. Reproduced with permission of Just ASK Publications & Professional Development (Just ASK). © Just ASK. All rights reserved. Available at www.justaskpublications.com.