Leading Together / A Balance of Power - ASCD
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March 1, 2020

Leading Together / A Balance of Power

To support teacher leaders, principals must provide equal parts power and empowerment.

Leadership
Professional Learning

Today's effective administrators recognize that teachers have specialized expertise and a uniquely important perspective on teaching and learning by virtue of their classroom positions. They know that teachers have deep knowledge of their content and how to teach it, authentic relationships with students and their families, and firsthand insight into the opportunities and challenges of implementing their curriculum for these students, at this time, in this setting. Good leaders recognize, accordingly, that teachers need a greater voice in school decision making and need to share a larger sense of responsibility for school improvement. They want to empower teachers through teacher leadership.

At the same time, many teachers recognize that their first duty is to the students in front of them. Although their schools stand to benefit from their engagement as leaders, sharing responsibility for decision making beyond their classrooms can involve both a steep learning curve and time that is in short supply. Considering the cost-benefit analysis, they won't extend themselves in ways that might jeopardize the success of their students.

School administrators, therefore, need to strike a balance between providing teachers with the power to bring their unique and grounded ideas forward and providing them with scaffolding that will ensure their contributions can be made efficiently and effectively. They need to get the balance of power and empowerment just right.

Striking a Balance

At Boston's Donald McKay School, where Jordan is principal, educators have been working to achieve this balance. Here, 60 teachers serve 850 preK–8 students, 89 percent of whom are Hispanic and 92 percent of whom are designated as high needs. Like most Boston public schools, the McKay has an instructional leadership team comprised of one teacher leader from each of the school's professional learning communities. This includes grade-level teams in preK–5, content teams serving grades 6–8, special department teams (such as arts and ESL), special education inclusion, and the principal. The school's 22 teacher leaders each plan and facilitate their own weekly PLCs, and also rotate responsibility for planning and facilitating the schoolwide Teacher Leadership Team (TLT) in pairs. The TLT also has subcommittees that come with additional responsibilities.

If the role of teacher leader sounds like a lot of work, that's because it is. And whether teachers regard the role as burdensome or empowering depends upon the principal's allocation of support and autonomy. The McKay School's routines support a balance in several ways.

Collective Autonomy: At the McKay School, Teacher Leadership Team meetings are structured to focus on two key areas: school improvement efforts and leadership development of the team's members. The team's year-long priorities are established through data-informed consultation during a summer leadership retreat, and the specific objectives of each meeting are agreed upon at the end of the prior meeting. Whether the team sticks to this year-long plan, takes a new tack, or decides to carry over topics from one meeting to the next, collective teacher voice drives the direction. Within those meetings, teacher leaders develop and practice leadership moves, such as protocols for shared decision making, to ensure informed decisions are efficiently made and reflect all voices.

Coherence by Design: When their turn is approaching to facilitate one of the TLT meetings, teacher leaders develop objectives into full agendas with the scaffolded support of an agenda template that lays out key components and with growth-oriented coaching support from the principal and/or the school's leadership coach. As part of the agenda, time is devoted to connecting TLT decisions and next steps to the work of content and grade-level teams—and vice versa. This ensures the work of whole-school improvement is impacting classroom practice and insights from classroom practice are informing whole-school improvement.

Two-Way Learning: At the McKay, teachers establish leadership goals (such as building shared ownership or including all voices in their TLTs) informed by self-assessment tools and reflection from their own meeting facilitation experiences. As principal, Jordan conducts one-on-one check-in meetings with each teacher leader every six to eight weeks to revisit these leadership goals and to provide individualized leadership coaching. He also recommends resources teachers might need to meet their leadership goals. It's important that he learns from these meetings by listening for themes across the conversations. Teacher leaders advise the principal with their thoughts about schoolwide initiatives, successes and challenges, and next steps. This ensures leadership development conversations are personalized, but also contribute to organizational learning.

Communication: Each Friday, Jordan sends a bulletin to teacher leaders to provide guidance on the fixed and flexible components of the following week's PLC agendas. The fixed components (such as looking at student interim assessment data) are determined in two ways: in TLT meetings or through Jordan's whole-school assessment of instructional needs. The flexible components provide direction but not directives about the rest of the meeting: whole-school initiative reminders (e.g., PLC question implementation, coteaching support, and whole-school alignment work), ideas for additional agenda topics (e.g., discussion of a provided article), and helpful leadership resources. With the support of this bulletin, teacher leaders are prepared to create agendas that will suit both their team and schoolwide needs, and they are empowered to choose how to best allocate guidance and resources.

Worth the Struggle

It may feel risky for principals to allow teachers to direct their own teams and schoolwide meetings. It's even riskier to do so without providing the right balance of support. Principals need to learn when to step up and when to step back. Principals must base the support they provide on the real-time, organic needs of teacher leaders and respond with vulnerability, honesty, expertise, and a wide range of practical resources, including time, professional literature, data, and access to internal and external colleagues.

When administrators try to make school decisions alone, without the benefit of teachers' perspectives, it is as though they are working with one hand tied behind their backs. This is a disservice to students. Yet, when they empower teachers with the right balance of support, they not only model the kind of empowering interactions that are needed in classrooms, they also maximize the leadership influence of teachers in a way that ultimately benefits students.

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