STRATEGY: Unearth strengths among staff members and leverage them across the school system.
No school leader has the time or the expertise to handle all their school’s challenges alone. Schools that thrive tap into the many talents that their staff members possess in tackling those challenges. In doing so, a variety of auxiliary benefits are gained. Teachers who contribute to their schools beyond classroom instruction have higher reports of job satisfaction and retention.
Teacher leadership also improves sustainability for school efforts, since program support is distributed across several individuals. In the instance that an administrator does leave a school, teacher leadership provides a pipeline of personnel for formal school leadership. These lessons apply equally well to districts in considering how best to take advantage of the wide variety of skills possessed by teacher leaders, administrators, and support staff members such as curriculum specialists, assessment writers, and instructional coaches.
Two significant actions are necessary for this strategy to be successful: (1) identify individual strengths of teachers and other staff members, and (2) make available opportunities to utilize those strengths. Starting with either action has advantages and disadvantages. Identifying strengths before providing opportunities allows school leaders to tailor opportunities to the skills of personnel. On the other hand, creating opportunities first is a good way to identify strengths of staff based on who volunteers to participate. In successful situations, these two actions occur in a constant back-and-forth where each informs and supports the other.
Common structures through which staff members can utilize talents (at school or district levels):
- School-based committees ranging from parent engagement to instructional pedagogy
- Teacher-led professional learning communities
- Peer mentorship programs
- Curriculum and/or assessment development
- Hiring and outreach to potential new staff members
Identifying staff members to take on these leadership roles may occur informally through surveys or conversations with teachers, or they may be more formal. For example, schools may create an application process for specific positions when opportunities arise, or the task of identifying leadership opportunities may be built into staff members’ annual evaluation process.
In instances where staff members do not possess specific strengths that a school needs, those skills can be added during the hiring process for new staff members through professional development (e.g., conferences or trainings) or mentoring programs within the school or across the district.
First Steps to Consider
- Create a survey for school staff members to self-identify skills or strengths they are interested in sharing with the school and/or district community.
- Create structures that allow staff members to utilize their strengths (e.g., committees or teams that meet regularly to address concerns such as logistics, data management, or parent involvement).
- Reach out to staff members who demonstrate specific skills (e.g., writing instruction) and ask them to take a leadership role in that area (e.g., lead a workshop or mentor another teacher).
Complexities & Pitfalls
Utilizing staff talents and leveraging their strengths is not as complex as other school modernization practices, but is does come with its fair share of pitfalls and considerations.
- Teacher burnout. When teachers take on additional roles outside their classrooms, it may result in significant overtime, which can lead to burnout. This challenge is exacerbated by the same teachers volunteering to take on many additional roles.
- Lack of oversight. Even staff members who possess specific talents need some level of supervision. As with any program or staff member, informal leaders and their programs should be evaluated to ensure they are running effectively and supported so they can improve.
- Competition. Popular opportunities, especially if they come with additional pay, can be competitive among staff members. School leaders should be mindful of who is chosen for these opportunities to prevent favoritism (or the appearance of it) and bias in the selection process.
- What needs does the school or district have?
- What structures are best suited to address those needs?
- Are there staff members who possess skills and strengths to meet needs?
- What training opportunities are available to give interested teachers skills to address school needs?
- Do opportunities for leadership come with extra pay or other perks?
- Are there individuals beyond the school staff (e.g., community members) who can serve as informal leaders for the school?