What Is Teacher Leadership?

Change is hard. All sorts of change. Not just the pumpkin spice flavored everything showing up in bakeries and coffee shops each fall – though that is also difficult – but change in general.

A new route to school. A child graduated and off to college. A new evaluation system.

All of these changes make life subtly different. However, even when the changes make life incrementally better, the changes themselves can be hard.

Perhaps you have read The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg, or The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey, or one of dozens of other recent best-selling books about making significant changes in your life. These books focus on the impressive power of habit to make or break your efforts to excel in what you do. While the power of habit is a sort of current in the ocean of your life, these books insist that you can make changes that seem to force the tide your way.

However, there may still be an undercurrent which is not always flowing in the intended direction.

In the summer of 2015, I had the good fortune to take a class taught by Robert Kegan, co-author of Immunity to Change: How to Overcome it and Unlock the Potential in Yourself and Your Organization. The premise behind this course and his life-changing book is that people have a natural defense against making changes. It is not just that people do not like or even want to make change, it is that their mind conspires against that change in important ways.

How powerful is this immunity to change? Perhaps as powerful as the body’s own immune system. A survey of heart patients directed to make life-saving changes in their diet and exercise revealed that only one in seven successfully did so.

One in seven. 14%. Life-saving change.

So this year in your classroom likely started off with some big promises for yourself. More timely return of graded work? More comments, fewer final scores? Fewer discipline referrals? A ratio of positive to corrective comments of 4:1?

In Cincinnati Public School we are already headed into our fourth week of instruction as this Labor Day weekend winds down. Now is the time when that habit can either take hold or it can die a neglected, lonely death.

Let’s give it a boost.

Teachers and principals must accept the responsibility for changing themselves, and must be open to that change. After all, your self is the part most directly in your own control. No matter how much one complains, organizations and societies do not simply reform themselves to meet the needs of those who raise concerns.

Everyone exhibits what Robert Kegan and his co-author Lisa Laskow Lahey named an “immunity to change”, where they unconsciously try to preserve the status quo, even if they are outwardly unhappy with it.

Kegan asserts that “[c]ollectivities – work teams, leadership groups, departmental units, whole organizations – also unknowingly protect themselves from making the very changes they most desire.”[1] It is precisely this tendency in groups, and in individuals, that leaders must learn to defend against. If even the most sought-after change a person wants to make, such as losing weight to avoid dying of heart disease, is subject to a fierce defense from internal self-sabotage, then something as superficial as your new grading policy does not stand a chance.

But this is not a hopeless situation.

The most important step here is to make internal adaptations to defeat the immunity. Teachers who wish to change their classroom, their school, or even to affect a specific change in the habits and practices of an individual student, must determine their place in the current set of habits, and make intentional change.

Then we must identify what it is we are doing that stands in the way of the thing we want to do. That is, you must identify your hidden competing commitments.

Perhaps you have made one of the commitments above, but you find yourself taking on several new challenges as the year starts. Suddenly your ability to make comments on every paper the way you planned is encroached upon by the time you are spending on your new projects.

Why do you do this? Why do you take on so many projects? Maybe you want to be seen as helpful, and a leader in the school. This is a noble goal, and a common one.

So, maybe your hidden commitment to be helpful to everyone is now in competition with your commitment to better serve your students’ progress with commentary on their papers.

What can you do about this?

Well, you have already taken a difficult step, you have identified the hidden competing commitment. Now decipher why that commitment is in competition. What are the big assumptions that lie beneath your willingness to overcommit? Perhaps you believe that if you stop being valuable to others, you will lose your role in the school, or lose your peers’ respect? Or perhaps by not getting things done, and telling people no, you will appear to be superficial and worried only about yourself.

Teachers tell their students every day to be ready, willing, and able to change themselves. This act of self-reinvention is scary, and the teacher must be willing to lead and model this change. If you have identified your commitment, what you are doing instead, the hidden competing commitment, and the big assumptions, you have all the information you need to make the significant change.

And now you must enlist those around you to help you make that change. This interdependence is important because in order to make substantive change, we must empower each other to help us get better at what we do. We cannot do it all by ourselves.

Teachers understand the unique needs, challenges, and fears of the profession in a way that no one else can. Who better to offer advice and support to a teacher, than a teacher? Who better to offer correction and redirection? A peer can offer advice without it being evaluative. A peer can offer advice from the perspective of having the same demands on their own time and energy. A trusted peer can listen to fears and flaws without judgement, and help balance the stresses of personal and professional life. There are many formal and informal ways for teachers to step up and provide for each other the leadership that is needed in any situation.

Seek informal mentors

One teacher, wary of placing additional stress on others, and not wanting to be seen as bothersome for asking too many questions, “adopted” a set of informal mentors. If she saw someone who had a strength in organization, she observed them closely, sometimes asking specific questions about their rationale for doing things a certain way, other times merely co-opting a certain structure or behavior that seemed effective.

Another teacher, struggling with the weight of the many roles he had taken on in the school, purposely went to the principal to ask for advice on being organized. This particular tactic, seeking out mentorship from other leaders including administration, can serve multiple purposes. First, it alerts administration to the teacher’s desire for self-improvement. Second, the leader likely has some good advice on managing the tasks and the work, which can be incorporated to lighten the burden. Third, it allows for informal conversations to reveal which work is most valued and to build the relationships that help form any successful community.


Intentionally mentor others

Draw one person under your wing by letting them know you are available for questions, asking direct questions about specific aspects of the work, and getting involved in their teaching. Show them around the building. Advocate for them to get preferable lunch times or a more favorable schedule.

Perhaps more importantly, offer to help with a specific task. Are they grading an assignment? Offer to do half. Share a rubric or a procedure for how this work gets handled efficiently in another classroom.

The reality is that mentorship creates teamwork, and teamwork has an indescribably powerful effect on one’s work efficacy and overall feeling of satisfaction. Working with them side by side – to hang curtains, or sort out schoolbooks, or to move a heavy desk when the custodian is difficult to locate – helps make everyone’s load lighter.


Join or create a formal mentoring program

One teacher leader strongly advocated to create a mentoring process that would do three things: provide guidance on the basic pieces of working in the building, assist with understanding the processes used for handling a variety of situations, and include a deep sharing of the school culture. 

After weeks of discussing potential approaches to this work and looking for viable models for how to do it, school representatives met with Brian Cundiff, Executive Vice President of Operations at LaRosa’s, a prominent local pizza chain to discuss their “Onboarding” process.

LaRosa’s makes pizza. Gamble Montessori educates children. What could possibly be learned?

As it turns out, quite a lot. LaRosa’s had developed a thoughtful process for ensuring that every employee understood what the company was about. A number of statements stood out during that meeting. Mr. Cundiff emphasized that the employer has a responsibility to grow team members, and you need to train every person in your system in order to ensure maintenance of the culture you are trying to establish. Additionally, the best teachers are your peers. The person taking orders at the table next to you is able to provide support, modeling, and even polite correction in a way that a manager cannot.  Finally, in order to articulate what needs to be communicated about your culture, look back at your vision statement and be a storyteller.

At Gamble, we made sure to include scheduled 1:1 check-ins between the mentor and mentee allow for the pair to problem-solve concerns and for the veteran to provide encouragement and support. Intentionally setting aside time for this work means that a new teacher does not have to feel as if they are imposing when they ask a question that is complicated to answer.  It removes the stigma of being the one who asks too many questions, or the feeling of responsibility for having “wasted” someone else’s time. This is time well spent.


Work with your team to create PLCs

At every school, there are additional ways for teachers to take on leadership with or without the support of administration. School teams regularly form professional learning communities, or PLCs, as described over dozens of years by Richard DuFour. The work of this PLC can be called many things, such as a 90 day plan or a turnaround plan, and can be incorporated in personal or professional growth plans, school One Plans, or nationally required improvement plans associated with Title I grants.

Whatever it is called, the true goal of a PLC is to identify a common problem directly related to student learning and solve it as a team. The process to work toward change, and hold one another publicly accountable for it, is exhaustively described in other resources, but it merits a quick summary here.

The team identifies an area related to student learning outcomes where the results are poor, inconsistent with other scores across the building or some larger area, or simply could be better. This could relate to test scores, embodiment of the school’s core values, or visible indicators of academic success such as grades.

Then the team drills down to find the details. What exactly is the measure of these suboptimal results?

Research is the crucial next step. This is where PLCs differ from typical team solutions. Often teams of teachers get together to solve a problem and the depth of their knowledge comes from their own experience. It may sound like, “At my old school we …” This is an attractive song, like sirens on the rocky shores. Do not be lured in.

Past practice does not mean best practice. Even the most veteran teacher finds their knowledge limited by their own narrow scope of professional experience. Seeking outside sources for ideas, including books, scholarly articles in professional publications, and even reading teaching blogs by teachers in the same subject or age band, allows the team to discuss and evaluate a wide array of possible solutions.

Armed with new knowledge, the team reviews possibilities and decides on a way forward. Then they collectively implement it for the indicated period of time. This typically provides for a midyear check-in to evaluate progress, and an end-of-year final review.

If the intervention worked, the team keeps it and adds it to their repertoire. They may even seek to apply this approach to other subjects, classes, or situations if it is readily transferrable.

Or maybe the team does not solve anything. Maybe the data reveals that they did not impact the problem. This is information too. Sometimes the strategy the team believed was most likely to impact the problem has no effect at all. This too is data, and “no effect” is not failure. The only failure is not to try something different in order to impact the outcome.

Teams that use the PLC approach do not solve all of their problems all at once. They do, however, solve their most pressing problem. More importantly, perhaps, they solve the problem together, and build capacity and resources for solving future problems together. This provides a rich and satisfying work experience and improves outcomes.


Individual or paired skill building

Another way teachers can gain the competencies they need to feel successful is through individual or paired skill building and self-study. Recently, I saw a presentation by Craig Weber, author of Conversational Capacity: The Secret to Building Successful Teams That Perform When the Pressure is On. I found the presentation eye-opening. Knowing that Krista was intentionally seeking out ways to develop herself professionally, I suggested that we read the book together. We carved out time to read the book, discuss it, and to implement the ideas.

Craig’s premise is that a critical factor for teams is the development of “conversational capacity” – or as he describes it, “the ability to have open, balanced, nondefensive dialogue about tough subjects and in challenging circumstances.”

He describes this as being in the conversational “sweet spot” – that place in a conversation or meeting where candor and curiosity are in balance. But he also cautions that, “[w]hile it’s easy to remain balanced when talking about routine and comfortable issues, when a difficult subject hits the table, our tendency is to move out of the sweet spot toward the extreme ends of the behavioral spectrum. Some people shut down. Others heat up.”[2]

Perhaps your school has seen recent examples of this?

Krista and I worked on these ideas together over the course of the year, applying the ideas to specific situations in our own leadership and in the building and thinking about how to improve our own practices to match the advice in the book. Along the way, we reached out to Craig, the author, and engaged him in our discussion, even providing him some material he said was useful for his follow-up book.

There were mixed results, as happens in the implementation of new practices and the development of new skills. The important part was that they were engaged in a professional practice of intentional improvement.


Today, teacher burnout is an existential threat to public schools. In Kansas they are having trouble hiring enough teachers because of the triple-whammy of retirement, working age teachers leaving the profession, and low salaries failing to attract new teachers. It is tempting to think that tucking into a fetal position in your classroom is the answer. Or to believe that what the new teacher down the hall really needs is a good laugh and a distraction from his work so he won’t appear so bothered.

This type of thinking suggests that if you can just spend enough time distracted from your work, then somehow work will be better. That is demonstrably untrue.

What this really does is leave the work undone, to be completed in less time, likely in a rush, and with less attention to quality. This means that lesson plans, feedback on grading, and ultimately student academic growth is set aside in the service of buoying a teacher’s mood.

That is an upside down view of the role of schools.

What really makes people feel better at work is a sense that they are accomplishing the work with a high level of skill, and that they are achieving results. Even if it is very hard work, and time consuming, positive outcomes for students are a powerful mood booster.

The solution to better job satisfaction for all, then, is to take a leadership role in the school and help pick up one of the important pieces of the larger work. Share the load with someone. Work at their side. Gain the capacity to do more, and to do the existing work more effectively.

Become a leader.


[1] Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey, Immunity to Change: How to Overcome it and Unlock the Potential in Yourself and Your Organization (Boston, MA: Harvard Business Press, 2009), 87.

[2] Craig Weber, Conversational Capacity: The Secret to Building Successful Teams That Perform When the Pressure Is on (New York: McGraw-Hill Education, 2013), 15.


Leave a Comment