Skip to content
ascd logo

April 1, 2000
Vol. 57
No. 7

Teachers Leading Teachers

A school looks within its own community to discover and develop leaders who can offer readily available, site-specific resources and expertise.

Public policymakers, unhappy about student learning, pressure teachers to make fundamental changes in their teaching. The research is clear, however: Typical staff development approaches, especially the familiar one-shot workshop, do not result in improved teaching practices. Resources devoted to workshops presented by charismatic experts and disconnected from teachers' everyday practices are largely wasted. Typically, enthusiasm swells immediately after an expert's visit but is hard to sustain when teachers encounter difficulties in implementing the recommended changes in their classrooms.
So what do teachers need to make meaningful, enduring changes that will improve student learning? A basic requirement is ongoing professional interactions with colleagues, especially a sustained, week-by-week focus on specific teaching and learning issues. Improved teaching practices also require on-site expertise and leadership. Creating internal resources for reform increases the likelihood that curriculum and teaching improvements, from both internal and external sources, will become integrated, sustained qualities of a school's functioning.
Seeds University Elementary School (UES), UCLA's laboratory school, has been experimenting with the role of teacher-leaders to provide ongoing, in-house expertise to teachers who are striving to improve their teaching and their students' learning.

The Teacher-Leader Role

  • Expertise in a curricular area chosen for schoolwide focus,
  • Leadership skills, both the skills the teacher-leader possesses when chosen and his or her potential for further development, and
  • Image among peers as a legitimate leader who is an expert in the curricular area and an accessible and supportive resource for information and assistance.
  • Meet with the principal to discuss progress and set new goals;
  • Visit classrooms to observe other teachers and gain a schoolwide perspective on curriculum;
  • Assist other teachers in improving their practices by planning with them, demonstrating lessons, providing feedback on observed lessons, sharing assessment strategies, and providing resources;
  • Enhance his or her own knowledge of subject matter and of effective practices by attending conferences, reading, or consulting with outside experts; and
  • Help the school develop a coherent instructional program with clear, well-articulated standards.

Three Scenarios

Teacher-leaders use a variety of strategies as they help teachers meet the school's goals for student learning in a particular subject. For example, the literacy leader at UES often works individually with teachers. A teacher might approach the literacy leader with questions about the best way to address the diverse skill levels of her students. The literacy leader observes the teacher's instruction and helps her plan lessons to accomplish particular literacy goals. The literacy leader might assess individual children with reading difficulties to determine specific needs and consult with the teacher on strategies. Occasionally, the literacy leader will coteach a lesson to support a teacher trying new methods.
The technology leader often uses questionnaires to assess teachers' needs and plans after-school workgroups on particular skills, such as creating electronic portfolios of student work. For example, teachers developed a template for the portfolio, learned to use a scanner to include images of student work, and explored having students record audio annotations. Each teacher gained immediately useful technological skills. The teacher-leader helped individual teachers plan student activities and supported teachers as they used their new technology skills to improve student self-assessment and learning.
The mathematics leader has worked with the whole faculty to review the school's mathematics curriculum. With the principal's assistance, the leader chaired faculty meetings focused on effective mathematics instruction and worked with teachers to review student work. Under her leadership, teachers produced written exit expectations for what students will learn in mathematics at each level in the school. The leader is currently helping teachers develop new strategies for ensuring all children's success in achieving the standards.
Evidence of the success of the teacher-leader role in enhancing teaching and learning throughout the school comes from several sources. The faculty ratified specific exit expectations for student learning in technology, mathematics, and language development for all grade levels across the school. Literacy expectations are in the planning stage. This development is a particularly powerful indicator of the leaders' success because teachers had talked about exit expectations for three years before the leader program was established. In classrooms, technology use has increased as a part of inquiry-based learning in science, history, and social studies. And standardized test scores in math and literacy have improved. We expect to see continued gains in student achievement as the leader roles mature fully in the coming years.

Lessons Learned

For a research study conducted in the second year of implementing of the leader roles, we observed the leaders at work, talked informally, and conducted formal interviews with leaders and teachers. Here are our recommendations for how schools might launch a similar program.
Select the leader roles that meet the greatest need. Because the role requires teachers to spend time out of the classroom, schools must consider carefully the number of leaders they can comfortably support. The experience at Seeds University Elementary School suggests that devoting limited resources to fully support fewer leaders—one full day each week—works better than attempting to maintain several half-day leaders. At UES, three of the 30 teachers on staff take on leadership roles at one time. When asked how a school can best help a leader function well, teachers and leaders at UES all recommended allowing enough time to get the job done.
Leadership roles need not become institutionalized. Although teacher-leaders need time to mature in their roles, to develop leadership skills, and to become effective agents of change, the school can create leader roles to meet its needs and terminate them as a need diminishes or as other needs take on higher priorities.
Choose teachers who have credible expertise and leadership skills. Teacher-leaders need an extensive repertoire of skills to be effective. Above all, they must be experts and be perceived by their colleagues to have a depth of knowledge in their subject area. Successful teacher-leaders at Seeds University Elementary School have had a strong track record as teachers and an ability to work with the entire age range of students in the school.
Teachers who felt that they had not benefited from a leader's role said that leaders needed "more breadth of knowledge" and more "understanding of pedagogy" to be effective. One teacher stated that a particular leader had little impact on her instruction because "she teaches older children and is not as aware of the curriculum at the [kindergarten and 1st grade] level."
If a school does not have a teacher who is an expert in a content area, nurturing a teacher to gain the expertise is more effective than implementing the role with a less-accomplished teacher. Teacher-leaders also need to increase their knowledge on a continual basis so that they can grow professionally and provide the most up-to-date information to teachers. UES teacher-leaders have attended conferences, read articles and books on their area of expertise, and sought assistance from experts outside the school.
In addition to professional knowledge, teacher-leaders must develop the ability to press their colleagues to change, to acquire new skills, and to experiment with new teaching strategies, while building their confidence and willingness to take chances. Teachers at UES reported that they sometimes felt threatened or challenged by the school's change efforts. Encouraging risk taking and building self-confidence require a combination of persistence and patience—persistence in challenging teachers to develop new understanding and skills and patience with what is often a slow process.
Clarify the leader role early on. Some classroom teachers initially did not make full use of each teacher-leader's potential because they did not understand all the functions of the leader role. For example, one teacher said that she didn't ask the mathematics leader for assistance because she didn't understand that the leader worked with individual teachers in the classroom. This teacher thought that the main purpose of the mathematics leader was to provide curriculum materials.
When the literacy leader began her work, she outlined the ways in which she believed that she could best assist teachers with their instructions. She presented her list at a faculty meeting where she could address teachers' questions. Even as the role of literacy leader continues to evolve, this outline has provided valuable structure for teachers.
Bear in mind, however, that teacher-leaders need time to grow into their role. Even though our teacher-leaders began their work with many skills, they needed to develop others, such as observational skills, which are important to teacher-leaders' work but are seldom well developed in classroom teachers. Their colleagues also needed time to become comfortable with the teacher-leaders and to see the potential for using them as a resource. The leaders at Seeds University Elementary School needed an entire school year to become truly effective in promoting instructional improvement. For all these reasons, we recommend keeping the same teachers in the role of leader for more than one school year.
Have teacher-leaders spend a majority of their time in classrooms or working directly with other teachers. To understand what needs to be accomplished and to be effective in achieving schoolwide goals, teachers assuming a leadership role have to develop a firsthand, schoolwide view of their curriculum area. They also must understand the teaching approach and skill level of each of their colleagues. The levels of success of our teacher-leaders' efforts have been, in large part, related to the amount of time they spend in classrooms either observing or working with other teachers and their students.
Teachers directly benefit from having the leader work with them or assist in their classrooms. Leaders benefit as well because they come to understand the needs of teachers and students across the school. Teacher-leaders cannot be successful unless they know the strengths and needs of their client teachers.
Focus on student learning. Our effort is designed to improve student learning, but we have found that it is easy for teacher-leaders and the rest of the school community to become distracted by the many small issues that come up daily. For example, discussions about field trips, recess schedules, and limited resources were typical off-topic issues observed during meetings that were intended to focus on curriculum.
To preserve precious time for working on curriculum and instruction, leaders give teachers written agendas to steer the conversation and keep attention focused on the goals. When we must address administrative issues, establishing a time limit for determining action can prevent entire meetings from being eaten away by matters that should be resolved quickly or tabled for later discussion.
Ensure that the principal supports the leader. The principal plays a key role in how effectively the teacher-leader functions. First, although the leader can assume responsibility for promoting the school's goals within a particular area of expertise, the principal is responsible for maintaining the overall vision for the school and coordinating the resources and work of the school's faculty to accomplish goals in many areas.
When asked what role the principal played in relation to the teacher-leader, one teacher at Seeds University Elementary School mentioned presenting a "strong philosophy and ideas about where the school is going." However, this teacher also said that "it's good to have the principal support change, but only if you have agreement between the administration and faculty." Leaders may assist the principal in creating consensus among teachers by providing information and expertise on important issues.
In addition to maintaining the school's overall vision, the principal must develop a method for holding teacher-leaders accountable. Leaders at UES reported occasionally using their release time for parent conferences, lesson planning, and conferring with students. To balance these legitimate time constraints with the responsibilities of the leader role, the principal can use weekly meetings with the leaders to review progress toward goals and to establish new goals for the coming weeks. This check-in, accompanied by the opportunity for the leader to receive feedback and discuss concerns, can help keep the work of leaders on target.
Along with accountability, however, the principal must provide the necessary support for the teacher-leader to function effectively. A potential drain on a teacher-leader's effectiveness is having too many administrative duties. Although in some situations the leader is the most appropriate person for the task—particularly choosing materials to order or coordinating teachers to attend relevant conferences or lectures—the principal can provide administrative assistance to minimize the impact of such tasks on the leader's time.
Even if leaders are not burdened with administrative duties, they may be hampered if, as Seeds University Elementary School teacher-leaders reported, some teachers see them as the eyes and ears of the principal. Teachers may choose not to share their concerns with a leader or may not want the leader to visit their classrooms for fear that negative information about them would reach the principal. Other teachers may deliberately share concerns with the leader, expecting the leader to serve as an advocate or a mediator between them and the principal. To avoid these problems, the whole faculty must clearly understand the purpose of the teacher-leader role, and the principal must effectively communicate and reinforce its function.
Finally, the principal has primary responsibility for developing the leadership skills of the teacher-leaders. Although leaders' expertise in their curricular area may exceed that of the principal, most classroom teachers will require the principal's assistance to develop leadership skills. The leaders we interviewed were somewhat disappointed by what they saw as a lack of opportunity to gain new leadership skills. In part, this perception may have arisen because the principal purposefully embedded leadership skill development within her regular meetings with leaders.
For example, as they prepared for a meeting, the principal offered several suggestions to the bilingual leader for ways to maintain group focus on the agenda and to gain consensus. The bilingual leader may not have perceived this as an opportunity to hone leadership skills, although he clearly improved the efficiency of the meeting by employing the principal's suggestions. Professional development for the leader is a key component of the role. It allows excellent teachers to continue to grow.

Only a First Step

Creating the role of teacher-leader is only the first step in using teachers to develop internal capacity for improving student learning. Making this an effective strategy for ongoing instructional improvement requires careful planning, leadership development, and a continuing support system. Although involving teachers in leadership roles can amplify change efforts, these efforts will be effective only if the principal is involved on a continuing basis.
Our initial experience with the role of teacher-leaders at UES has furnished important information on the essential elements of the teacher-leader role and the context needed to ensure that leaders are successful. Although the leaders' work was probably facilitated to some degree by the university context of Seeds University Elementary School, the issues are relevant for any school trying this approach. Perhaps the most important lesson we learned is that developing teacher-leaders, like any reform strategy, requires a continual process of experimentation and fine-tuning.
Even as the leader role continues to develop at UES, we have seen how the school has benefited from the leaders' work. Teachers appreciate the support of their colleagues, and those who need assistance know that resources are immediately available. Exit expectations in mathematics, technology, and language development clarify teaching goals, and teaching methods have been refined to meet these goals. Students benefit from the more effective teaching strategies that the faculty has implemented. Ultimately, student learning has improved. We believe that the implementation of the teacher-leader role is an affordable, sustainable measure that can greatly benefit all schools.

Ronald Gallimore has contributed to educational leadership.

Learn More

ASCD is a community dedicated to educators' professional growth and well-being.

Let us help you put your vision into action.
From our issue
Product cover image 100030.jpg
Sustaining Change
Go To Publication