The great aim of education is not knowledge, but action. ~ Herbert Spencer
From Novice to Expert
When we think of great leaders, we often think of someone we know or someone who we have read about or studied. For us, the greats, like Lincoln, quickly come to mind. It’s easy to think of his influence, key characteristics, and noble qualities, which set him apart from so many others who have led from the same office. We know, though, that titles and degrees don’t make leaders, and experience alone is not a great teacher. Understanding theory, contemplating concepts, and even studying situations doesn’t compare to being fully immersed in practical experiences. Yes, these growth activities are great for the novice leader and will help her to lead with more efficacy, but there’s no substitute for practicing a specific skill and taking the opportunity to learn from the experience, gain valuable feedback, and set a course toward mastery. As the adage says: “one hour in the field is comparable to twenty hours in the classroom.” We may think of Lincoln as an expert leader, but he, too, was once a novice.
Practicing to Lead Better
Leadership is a multidimensional skill that takes significant practice to get better. One of the most frustrating things is that even as you begin to master one aspect, another area quickly reveals itself as a weakness. It’s the humble and reflective leader who grows and learns from all situations, continually evolving as they work toward being highly effective.
This month we are totally focused on developing teacher leaders, who are critical to the success of any school. But, just because they are excellent classroom teachers, does not mean that we can assume that the skills that make them a terrific teacher translate into sound leadership strengths. Although they may put considerable effort into leading their department or a school-wide initiative, teacher leaders often don’t get enough feedback on how well they are leading. Teacher leadership teams are a widely used practice for managing change initiatives and special projects in schools, but too often they are not supported in their growth as leaders.
Teacher Leader Training
When we think about teacher leaders and training, we need to separate and distinguish actual leadership skills versus pedagogical expertise. For example, our math department chair needs to be a master within the domains of curriculum, instruction, and assessment and must also possess the ability to skillfully lead a department. Real teacher leadership goes well beyond ordering supplies and delivering messages from the principal. Great teacher leaders know how to skillfully address teacher and student needs, review data, and drive a course of action aligned to the vision and mission of the school.
This dynamic role requires them to receive cycles of coaching and direct feedback as they learn to lead better and grow faster. They simply cannot become an expert without targeted, well-developed training, based on the practical experiences they encounter in their roles.
Take the following challenge to support your teacher leaders and their growth in a specific area of practice:
- Identify a specific leadership competency that you would like to support for your leadership team or a specific leader on the team. Review the skill at an upcoming leadership team or face-to-face one-on-one meeting. Be sure to discuss what it looks like in action.
- Schedule a time to visit a department meeting that one of your teacher leaders is running. Be prepared to observe the leader practicing the skills you discussed. Take note of what they do well for specific praise. You want to focus on strengths before making any corrections or recommendations. Note one nuance that could help the leader to hone their skills to be better for the next meeting.
- Continue the cycle. One-and-done feedback sessions aren’t typically enough for real change to occur. Keep your teacher leaders on a cycle of feedback just as you would with feedback for your teachers regarding their classroom practices. As you support their strengths and provide critiques to their methods, follow up on those specific recommendations so that you’re seeing the results in action over time.
Technical Tip: When identifying leadership skills to bolster, use a set of teacher leadership standards. You can, of course, use the skills you’re discussing in your book study, but there are leadership standards, and standards specific to teacher leaders that you can reference with ease.
Leadership Continuum Model
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