Part 5: TEACHER-LEADERS: A “Must-Have” Everywhere!

Author’s Note: Teacher-Leaders come with many titles: Lead Teachers, Faculty Head, Head of Curriculum, Master Teacher, Instructional Coach just to name a few. In order to be clear that I am speaking to teachers who have the luxury of working alongside colleagues, during the school day, I have used the generic term ‘Knowledgeable Other’ (KO) to refer to this critical collective. The term KO is synonymous with the term ‘Teacher-Leader’ in this paper.

If the ultimate goal is improving student outcomes, if the work of classroom teachers has the greatest impact on student outcomes, if it is when teachers fully commit to their own learning that capacity is truly increased, then investing in highly skilled “others” whose teaching and interpersonal skills command the respect of their fellow teachers and draws out the willingness to learnis the most effective way to build capacity to improve student outcomes. Leaders know that they can build capacity on a deep and sustainable level with this investment – if they do it right. It starts with school leaders making the structural commitment to afford each teacher the opportunity to find and grow her or his learning passion, working alongside Knowledgeable Others (KOs) (CLARITY, Chapter 8).

Who are our Knowledgeable Others?

Dr. Alma Harris defines leadership as influence closest to classroom practice. KOs, who have influence and knowledge of impactful practice, work closely with principals, school leadership teams, and classroom teachers. The KO is an expert teacher who is embedded as a coach, mentor, or master teacher. The role is closely connected to the fourth dimension of Parameter #1: Educators must be able to clearly articulate why they do what they do every day. In CLARITY, 2019, and in Leading Collaborative Learning (LCL), 2016, we are clear that the work of KOs is about Co-Laboring and Co-Learning. As one research participant put it, “We are better together in order to meet our students’ needs” (LCL Chapter 5).

As in the Gradual Release of Responsibility (GRR) model where independent learning is the goal for students (CLARITY, Chapter 8), being “consciously skilled” is the most impactful quadrant in Burch’s adapted model as shown in Figure 8.2. following. In my view, the ideal KO candidate must be in the fourth and most desirable quadrant.

I make the connection here between being consciously skilled and being a KO. According to the fourth dimension of Parameter #1, teachers and leaders must all be able to clearly articulate what they are teaching, why they are teaching it, and how they are teaching it. This only happens when they learn alongside others who have proven track records in teaching and learning. Those KOs who can articulate how they made specific differences in the learning for each student and teacher are consciously skilled and consciously competent. KOs must be consciously skilled to work alongside others in classrooms as master teachers with evidence-proven knowledge of teaching and learning and strong interpersonal skills. CLARITY. As Winston Churchill said: ‘However beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the results.” System and school leaders must know how KOs are making a difference!

Shared ownership of the outcomes (a culture of ‘shared beliefs and understandings – Parameter # 1 in CLARITY, 2019) and the infusion of skilled collaborators (“home grown” via intentional learning structures) are factors that develop strong teamwork and energy to do the work. One of our research participants noted that teachers change their practice when they are supported to take risks to try more effective teaching strategies. They become better teachers and step-up as grounded leaders with their peers. A double win.

What skills do Knowledgeable Others need to grow other leaders?

Unless every discussion, staff meeting, and Professional Learning Community (PLC) forum has a KO, regardless of title or position, to guide the learning conversations, without participants fearing retribution, nothing of substance will be decided to improve students’ achievement. Putting FACES on the data and taking action on the careful interpretation of the data demand that we include KOs in all conversations and at leadership decision-making tables. Individual KOs must be a consciously skilled, highly competent teachers who can clearly articulate and model how to use assessment data to inform instruction and how to work alongside every teacher in every classroom.

Their knowledge, skills and dispositions include:

  • having a ‘Growth Mindset’ and a humble disposition;

  • possessing genuine skill domains in complexity of classroom teaching;

  • taking training to become a skilled facilitator;

  • knowing what the leadership research says about distributed leadership (A. Harris, 2013);

  • pursuing Collaborative Inquiry (CI): observations, assessment, analysis and interpretations are purposeful and guided;

  • working alongside and constructing meaning together, not being the ‘expert’; and,

  • having a clear focus on students’ learning – through scrutinizing student work samples as data.

KOs progress learning and measure impact. Who these KOs may be, and what knowledge they may have, will depend on the nature and needs of the staff members and/or the PLC, including the people involved in Professional Learning (PL) and collegial work taking place. However, in almost all school-based PL sessions, there is a need for a KO to assist in bridging the gap between school-based teachers, busy with day-to-day teaching, and educational research, which is often relatively difficult for teachers to access in relevant forms. This KO can help feed in information as requested by the members of the staff or PLC and also use her knowledge to support and challenge the thinking of the teachers present. In addition to bringing knowledge and challenge, there may well be a role for the KO to help facilitate the smooth working of staff meetings or PL sessions (Farmer, CLARITY, p. 272).

How are KOs identified?

In my experience this is the most important aspect of finding the right KOs to work alongside leaders and teachers. One cannot afford to replicate the mistakes some of us made early in our practice as we selected these key teachers who have the influence and practical experience to improve student outcomes. I used to believe that skill in teaching and learning came first, but having realised very early on that was an incorrect assumption, I believe that the KO must f