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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 first have strong interpersonal skills to do this work such that they will be invited into classrooms to work alongside teachers wo are willing and want to learn with them. Many aspects of the KO FACE come to mind here. The following is a list of KO characteristic ‘must haves’:

  • strong Interpersonal skills – respected and respectful

  • energy and enthusiasm; high expectations for students

  • knowledge – an evidence-proven track record

  • strong communications skills – especially with peers

  • commitment to use data and take action: omission is commission; ‘the standard you accept is the standard you accept’

  • skills to build on the ideas of others – to hear every voice through Accountable Talk strategies

  • co-constructed structures such as Operating Norms and non-evaluative Protocols – and follow them

  • time to work with peers during the school day – willingness to try new ideas

  • an open-to-learning, inquiry stance

  • the ability to model how to examine their own practice reflectively; Set Learning Intentions, Co-construct Success Criteria; give Peer - and self – Feedback to set own goals for learning

  • ongoing opportunities to share challenges and successes

What Conditions are Necessary for KOs to Be Successful?

For generations, school hallways and staff rooms have been places where teachers have shared experiences and good ideas—before, between, and after classes. It is common practice for teachers to informally share ideas about resources, to share unit plans, to discuss how to solve student management issues, and how to better communicate with parents. Informal contacts build relationships and can help to solve problems. However, in order to create the conditions where they can be successful day after day—moving from informal, collegial peer interaction to planned, measured work within Collaborative Learning structures, we need to ensure that there are structured, collaboratively planned times for collaborative work in schools as well as across and beyond a single school system. When the right conditions are in place, teacher leadership emerges. Those conditions include:

  • focusing on the FACES of individual students (Sharratt & Fullan, 2012)

  • building a culture of trust

  • being open to dialogue

  • supporting professional relationships

  • putting structures in place to allow teachers the time, during the school day, to work together

When we move from competitive mind set of working in isolation to a collaborative one of sharing, coaching and mentoring, the result is the building of relational trust and empowering teachers’ Collective Efficacy, to which Hattie gives a powerful 1.57 effect size. One of our research participants (2016) summed it up, stating: Collaborative meetings with peers are, in my opinion, the missing piece in educational reform efforts. Schools with strong collaboration processes to support KOs in place tend to be the most successful and have high teacher efficacy rates.

What structures and processes do successful Knowledgeable Others use?

Teachers become thought-leaders through the collective interpretation of data, such as, classroom observations and student work samples by inquiring into practice as peers; sharing knowledge as reflective colleagues; and, mentoring or coaching each other. Purposeful structured approaches used by Teacher-Leaders include:

  • Case Management Approach: Data Walls and Case Management Meetings

  • 4 C’s Model: Co-Planning, Co-Teaching, Co-Debriefing, Co-Reflecting

  • Lesson Study

  • Collaborative Inquiry (CI) Cycle: use pre-determined Data to know and measure impact that they are making a difference. See Appendix A for a protocol. Important to use a structured planned approach on CI to keep the work purposeful and focused.

  • Collaborative Assessment of Students’ Work

  • Learning Walks and Talks: looking for evidence of teachers’ capacity-building and students’ learning.

For further detail refer to CLARITY, 2019, Chapter 8.

Stuart Farmer, Scotland, believes that in his own subject area, Physics, there is often a role for someone to help disseminate innovative and best practice in such areas as practical work or modeling approaches that work, using the GRR model. Farmer says KOs support improvement in both the teachers’ subject matter knowledge and pedagogical content knowledge. In Physics, for example, Farmer says it is critical that KOs work alongside classroom teachers to explore and explain topics relatively new to the curriculum, like relativity, cosmology, and particle physics, which many teachers will not have experienced during their own education or initial teacher education (CLARITY, pages 272-273).

It would be remiss of me not to mention that with everything in place for the KO to thrive, we must also guard against the challenges that can creep into sidelining this role. Consideration of the challenges include:

  • No time for the KO to do the work alongside teachers during the school day

  • Lack of facilitation skills

  • Leader is absent or not supportive

  • Fear of failure (Fail Fast)

  • Honour imperfection

  • Evaluative/judgemental: Challenging ideas not people

  • No Focus on student learning and teacher capacity-building

  • No Move from Engagement to empowerment and students ownership of their learning

One thing that Farmer and I are sure of (page 273) is that all KOs must be both passionate about their role and sympathetic and realistic about how they might interact with the members of the staff and the PLC as KOs are absolutely key to maximizing impact.

Please find attached the YouTube clip of our webinar recording: Dr. Alma Harris and Dr. Lyn Sharratt chatting with Andrea Stringer, May 2020, about ‘Teachers-Leaders: A Must-Have!’


Harris, A. (2013). Distributed leadership matters: Perspectives, practicalities, and potential. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin

Harris, A. (2020). Leading a School during Lockdown.

Sharratt, L. (2019). CLARITY: What Matters MOST in Learning, Teaching and Leading.

Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Sharratt, L. & Planche, B. (2016). Leading Collaborative Learning: Empowering excellence.

Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Sharratt, L. & Fullan, M. (2012). Putting FACES on the Data: What Great Leaders Do!

Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Appendix A. Assessment Within Inquiry Processes

As students discuss, research, organize, interpret, analyze, summarize, and synthesize their findings in order to share their learning—

Student and teacher assessment opportunities include gathering data (on group work and individual work) through observations, conversations, anecdotal notes, and checklists that reflect on all students, developing:

learning skills

collaborative work skills

listening, speaking, reading, and writing skills

research skills

organizational skills

social and emotional skill development

self-regulatory skills


Through observation, conversation, and application of skills, assessment opportunities include:

comprehension of key curricular concepts

ability to think critically and creatively

ability to communicate and share ideas

ability to interpret and analyze

ability to build on the ideas of others

application of co-constructed Success Criteria built on curricular goals

Different forms of gathering assessment data for inquiry learning products and processes may include the use of the following: (These forms are most impactful when Success Criteria for their use are co-constructed with students)

Success Criteria—co-constructed and visible in the classroom


graphic organizers




learning circle discussions

video and photographs

note taking





assessment surveys

interest inventories

written summaries and reports

building models or prototypes

Assessment information is feedback information for teachers as well as students. We use it to “feed forward” next steps for learning and instruction.

© 2016 by Corwin. All rights reserved. Reprinted from Leading Collaborative Learning: Empowering Excellence by Lyn Sharratt and Beate Planche. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin,

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