Professional Practices


June 2019    Volume IV Issue IV





Teachers as Leaders

When I began teaching, site-based management was in vogue. Teachers, usually those who wanted to be administrators, were provided with all sorts of managerial and administrative tasks. Then, we called this teacher leadership. Reminding myself that when we know better, we do better, I know that wasn’t true teacher leadership, although the intentions were noble. True teacher leadership connects teachers and principals in their shared mission: improving learning for students. We know that the most important factor in a child’s education is the teacher; when we invite and include expert teachers in improving the learning environment throughout the school, we aren’t removing our best teachers from the classrooms to become administrators. Instead, we are extending their reach. In this issue of Professional Practices for the 21st Century Leader, I explore the idea of shared leadership embedded in Professional Standards for Education Leaders (PSEL) Standard 7: Professional Community for Teachers and Staff. I discovered that schools are more complex and less complicated according to Johnston, Coughlin, and Berger’s Leading in Complexity and share some critical ideas for our work in teacher leadership. I offer conditions that promote teacher leadership, ways to find and elevate teacher leaders, and a tool to help assess our school’s capacity for teacher leadership.

Why Teacher Leadership?

Marcia Baldanza, the author of Professional Practices and a Just ASK Senior Consultant, lives in Arlington, Virginia. Until recently she worked for the School District of Palm Beach County, Florida, where she was an Area Director for School Reform and Accountability; prior to that she was Director of Federal and State Programs.


In The Many Faces of Leadership, Charlotte Danielson argues a persuasive case for the necessity of teacher leaders. She makes the following four points that have not changed, but can and must.

  • Teaching is a flat profession.
    The 20-year veteran’s responsibility is essentially the same as it is for newly licensed teachers. In many settings, the only way for a teacher to extend his/her influence is to become an administrator, and for many, this work is not interesting.
  • Many teachers’ tenure in schools is longer than that of administrators. In many cases, administrators stay in their positions for 3-5 years, whereas teachers stay far longer. Often, teachers hold the institutional memory and are considered the custodians of the culture.
  • The demands of the modern principalship are practically impossible to meet. Principals today are expected to be visionaries, competent managers, and instructional leaders. Additionally, the principal is the point person for all things accountability. Finally, wise principals lean on others to further school improvement goals.
  • Principals have limited expertise. Like all educators, principals have their own areas of instructional expertise. The principal cannot be expert in everything.

Considering these factors, school improvement depends on the active involvement of teacher leaders and deliberate support from principals. School administrators simply cannot do it all.

What Do Teachers Bring to Leadership?

I often write about and teach the importance of relationships in schools. Understand that relationships already exist in schools among and between teachers, students, parents, administrators, specialists, counselors, and support staff. The question to ask is, How do (or don’t) these relationships influence the adults in the building to do good things for students? Leadership is a type of relationship that mobilizes other people to improve their practice. Teachers have an extraordinary opportunity to exercise leadership because, as Linda Darling-Hammond writes, they are the most powerful influence, next to students, on other teachers’ practice. Where principals can shape teachers’ beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors, other teachers do shape them.

Princpals need teacher leaders of all kinds. Great schools grow when educators understand that the power of their leadership is in the strength of their relationships. Gordon Donaldson writes that while school administrators play an important and vital role in improving relationships and outcomes for students, teachers are uniquely positioned to contribute and have developed special assets that enhance the school leadership mix.

Donaldson’s Three Assets

Building Relationships
Teacher leaders have earned the trust and respect of other teachers. They are in the trenches with colleagues. They struggle with the same instructional issues, and they have demonstrated their success in the eyes of their peers. They are motivated by a desire to help students and support their fellow teachers, not to enforce a policy or evaluate others’ competencies. These leaders are not burdened by administrivia and can focus on small, intimate one-on-one relationships to improve teacher practice.

Maintaining a Sense of Purpose
These teacher leaders listen attentively to their colleagues and help them sort through many issues, keeping basic goals as the top priority. With strong relations and faced with the same classroom challenges as their peers, this teacher leader is able to facilitate professional dialogue, learning, and group process in order to mobilize others to act.

Improving Instructional Practice
These teacher leaders have developed instructional expertise that is shared with others. Because this teacher understands how important relationships are, he/she is comfortable sharing successes and failures with others and learning from them. They can draw on their relationships and their strong sense of purpose to help colleagues explore, share, and improve practices they use daily with students.

Leading Complexity in Complex Times

I find great value in studying leadership from a variety of sources. Great leadership is great leadership, whether it is as a CEO of a Fortune 500 company, manager of the local coffee shop, conductor for a youth orchestra, or school principal. I read an article titled “Leading in Complexity: What makes complex different and how can leaders respond effectively?” that helped me distinguish between complicated problems and complex ones. The aut hors, Johnston, Coughlin, and Berger, believe organizations are generally quite good at solving complicated problems. They either develop the needed skills in themselves and their employees or hire those who can meet the need. These organizations are good at breaking the complicated problem into manageable chunks and take them one at a time. They identify best practices, decide what things will likely lead to success outcomes, and then focus on those. They are data driven and fact based. Sound familiar? Sound like the school improvement planning process and plan? This approach can be useful and helpful, except when it isn’t.

The authors point out that all problems are not created equal. They argue that it is important for leaders to know the nature of the problem, but also how to adjust their approach accordingly. It turns out that most people like certainty more than they like uncertainty, which is why we treat all problems as if they can be solved (making them complicated). Snowden and Boone suggest that leaders resist the temptation to narrow or solve to soon; experimentation and monitoring are more helpful as is diversity of perspective. Here’s where teacher leaders can help. I believe our major problems in schools are of a complex type. Snowden defines these as the domain of unknown unknowns. Specifically, leading change or shaping a culture are the problems he is describing. This is where the honest perspective of the classroom can help the principal. While there are several strategies that are more effective than others in school improvement and may be described as complicated, the real long-term, sustainable and dynamic work is complex and requires a different approach. The authors describe the leaders as having an agile and ready stance. This is a different way of thinking and leading. There is no one right answer and the behaviors of openness, curiosity, and uncertainty prove beneficial. Ponder this concept for a while and then access the article at: It’s full of usable information that might just make a difference as you plan with the new school year in mind.

Conditions That Promote Teacher Leadership

Why do some schools have many teacher leaders and others have few? Are there conditions that can promote or hinder teacher leadership? Let’s explore this.

I read a guest blog in Peter DeWitt’s EdWeek  Finding Common Ground blog that stuck with me. Below are my take-aways from what literacy coaches Lisa Billings and Amy Giska wrote. Nobody knows (or should know) more about the students in our schools than the teachers in the classrooms. Teacher leaders hold an enormous amount of knowledge that the principal doesn’t readily have. Teacher leaders bring different perspectives, creative solutions, and inspiration to a school’s vision. The authors encourage us to unlock the teacher leadership that is hiding in each of our buildings.

Conditions for Unlocking Teacher Leadership

Give permission to speak freely.
When we establish an environment where speaking freely is part of the culture of the group, we feel the most personal growth and sense of empowerment. Many teachers don’t speak up because they feel their ideas are not valued or because there is an expectation that agreement is preferred. Watch this! This can be a blind spot for principals.

Give breakthrough experiences to emerging leaders.
Developing teacher leaders is messy and uncomfortable. Principals can help by giving the emerging leaders opportunities before they are entirely ready for them. These can be transformative. Look for strengths in people that they don’t see themselves. When emerging leaders are given these opportunities, they experience vulnerability, discomfort, and personal growth.

Invite disruption.
Principals can create an atmosphere of innovation by asking a few critical questions:

  • Is there another way to look at this situation?
  • Is there a better way to do this?
  • This is working. What can we do to improve?
  • Who else can help us achieve our goals?

Support big dreams.
(Even if they are bigger than your building.) Invest in your teachers’ dreams. Ask them what they want to be doing in five, ten, fifteen years. Knowing what motivates your teachers creates buy-in and retention. After all, you don’t want an assistant coach who doesn’t want to be the head coach. Help teachers scale their impact. Look for ways for them to expand beyond the classroom while remaining in the classroom. Examples might be presenting at a conference, writing a proposal, authoring an article on a practice they have refined. Hidden leaders step forward when they know someone cares about where they are going and is willing to help them get there.


We can no longer treat education as a private practice. Teacher leaders have expertise and are compelled to share with others. Teachers everywhere should be committed to the growth of their students, certainly, and equally committed to the growth of each other. It is no longer acceptable for teachers to learn something and become expert at it (for example project-based learning, readers’ workshop, hand on geometry, technology use, etc.) and be limited to the four walls of the classroom. When teachers and teaching remain private the school’s instructional capacity remains static or diminishes. Neither scenario is acceptable.

Susan Moore Johnson, and Morgaen Donaldson describe the “triple threat” of autonomy, egalitarianism, and seniority that I have observed. I’m sure you have too. They suggest that colleagues resist the teacher leaders’ work because they see it as an inappropriate intrusion into their instructional space, an unwarranted claim that the teacher leader is more expert than they are, and an unjustified promotion of a novice to a leadership role. Further the authors offer five specific behaviors that principals should incorporate to support their teacher leaders.

Johnson and Donaldson’s Ways to Better Support Teacher Leaders

Define Teacher Leader Roles.
Roles must be introduced deliberately and supported fully. Informal roles with unpredictable funding will never be taken seriously. To be viable, these roles must have defined qualifications, responsibilities, and selection process.

Help Teacher Leaders Navigate Relationships.
The principal can make or break the role of teacher leader. It is not enough for the principal to be a passive supporter. Principals need to anticipate the resistance that teacher leaders might encounter from colleagues and help them navigate these relationships to be able to do their work.

Communicate Your Game Plan.
Principals need to have a game plan that is clear to all staff and communicate how the teacher leaders will contribute to the school’s improvement efforts. Principals need to be transparent about the qualifications and responsibilities of the teacher leader role and encourage applicants to participate in a fair selection process.

Integrate Teacher Leaders into the Culture.
Principals must work with the schedule and resources to incorporate the work of the teacher leader into the structure of the school (common planning time, substitute coverage, use of faculty meetings for professional development). Doing otherwise, or nothing, dooms your teacher leaders to failure.

Set and Support New Norms of Collaboration.
Principals must guarantee that teacher leaders are not pulled into administrative duties such as arrival/dismissal, cafeteria coverage, filling in for an absent/sick teacher, etc. The school culture is so critical to the success of teacher leaders, all staff must see the principal’s practices and priorities as reinforcing a new set of norms that promotes collaborative work, bridge classroom boundaries, and recognize expertise.

Elevating Teacher Leadership

In 2016, Learning Forward published A Systematic Approach to Elevating Teacher Leadership available at This comprehensive guide to to teacher leadership offers both components the make up a system of teacher leadership and defined assumptions about teacher leadership. I took the four components and ten assumptions and turned them into a self-assessment that can be used to define high quality leadership and as a goal-setting instrument. See the tool I created below.


This tool is available on our website at


Resources and References

Billings, Lisa and Amy Giska. “Unlocking Teacher Leadership: Finding the Hidden Leaders in Your Building.” EdWeek Blog, June 30, 2017.

Blase, Jo and Joseph Blase. Teachers Bringing out the Best in Teachers: A Guide to Peer Consultation for Administrators and Teachers. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press, 2006.

Danielson, Charlotte. “The Many Faces of Leadership.” Educational  Leadership, September 2007.

______________ . Teacher Leadership That Strengthens Professional Practice. Alexandria, VA: ASCD, 2006.

DeWitt, Peter. Collaborative Leadership: Six Influences That Matter Most. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press, 2017.

Donaldson, Gordon. “What Do Teachers Bring to Leadership?” Educational Leadership. Alexandria, VA: ASCD, 2007.

Elmore, Richard. School Reform from the Inside Out: Policy, Practice, and Performance. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press, 2004.

Hall, Pete and Alisa Simeral. Building Teachers’ Capacity for Success. A Collaborative Approach for Coaches and School Leaders. Alexandria, VA: ASCD, 2008.

Johnson, Susan Moore and Morgaen Donaldson. “Overcoming Obstacles to Leadership”. Education Leadership. Alexandria, VA: ASCD, September 2007.

Johnston, Keith, Carolyn Coughlin, and Jennifer Garvey Berger. Leading in Complexity: What makes complexity different and how can leaders respond effectively? New Zealand: Cultivating Leadership, 2014.

Killion, Joellen, et al. A Systemic Approach to Elevating Teacher Leadership. Oxford, OH: Learning Forward, 2016.

Killion, Joellen and Cindy Harrison. Taking the Lead: New Roles for Teachers and School-Based Coaches. Oxford, OH: Learning Forward, 2006.

Kim, Anthony and Alexis Gonzalez-Black. The New School Rules: 6 Vital Practices for Thriving and Responsive Schools. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press, 2018.

National Policy Board for Educational Administration. Professional Standards for Educational Leaders 2015. Reston, VA, 2015.

Rutherford, Paula, et al. Creating a Culture for Learning: Your Guide to PLCs and More. Alexandria, VA: Just ASK Publications, 2011.

Tools and templates available at

Snowden, David and Mary Boone. “A Leader’s Framework for Decision Making.” Harvard Business Review, November 2007.

Spillane, James. Distributed Leadership. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2006.



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Please include the following citation on all copies:
Baldanza, Marcia. “Teachers as Leaders”  Professional Practices, June 2019. Reproduced with permission of Just ASK Publications & Professional Development. © 2019 All rights reserved.