Growing Your Own: How Formal Teacher Leadership Roles Build a Pipeline of Effective School Leaders

February 2, 2023

Growing Your Own: How Formal Teacher Leadership Roles Build a Pipeline of Effective School Leaders

In our current education landscape, many districts face challenges in recruiting and retaining teachers and school leaders. To address this challenge, some districts have prioritized building a pipeline of teacher and school leaders as a primary strategy for ensuring great instruction, every day, in every classroom. Four Indiana school districts, serving more than 26,000 students, 1,800 teachers, and 120 school leaders, partnered with the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching (NIET) to do just that. Brown County Schools, GEO Academies, Goshen Community Schools, and Perry Township Schools received a federal grant to develop teachers as instructional leaders by establishing distinct teacher leadership roles through the implementation of the TAP System for Teacher and Student Advancement. Teacher leaders plan and implement weekly professional learning, support teachers in individual growth plan management, participate in the instructional leadership team, and work with the principal to develop and implement an academic achievement plan for the building. By equipping them with the experience and skills to build educator effectiveness, these roles prepared teachers for the demands of the school leader role should they choose to pursue it. 

Teacher Leaders Develop Skills for School Leadership

One of the key mechanisms through which the TAP System supports teachers in their development as instructional leaders is through establishing multiple career pathways. Districts established two formal teacher leadership roles of master and mentor teacher to simultaneously support teacher development and improve student academic success. Both teacher leader roles are given opportunities to grow their leadership capacity while continuing to heavily support classroom instruction. Master teachers may continue to teach a class but  typically focus  their time to develop and deliver professional learning and support peer teachers through classroom based coaching. Mentor teachers maintain their classroom teacher roles but are released several hours each week to help lead collaborative professional learning and provide individualized coaching and feedback in classrooms. Both of these teacher leadership positions are included as a part of the schools’ instructional leadership team. Growing into these roles provide exceptional opportunities to coach other teachers and develop their skills as instructional experts. Some teacher leaders also make a decision to move into school leadership positions, and they make this transition even more prepared due to their experience in: 1) developing other teachers to be strong instructional leaders, 2) equipping other teachers to coach and support other teachers in their instructional growth, and 3) understanding the tough decisions and administrative responsibilities school leaders must balance. 

1. How to be an instructional leader

One of the key responsibilities mentor and master teachers take on is participating in the school’s instructional leadership team. This experience helps them develop the skill sets necessary to lead a school toward instructional improvement. “As both a mentor and master teacher, I had the opportunity to serve alongside strong instructional leaders,” said Julea Ciesielski, the principal at Parkside Elementary School in Goshen Community Schools, “As a member of the school’s leadership team, I was able to witness firsthand the intricacies and balance a strong instructional leader must possess: compassion, support, vision, and an unwavering commitment to both the students, staff members, and community one serves.” By working closely with the principal to develop and implement an academic achievement plan for the building, mentor and master teachers are prepared to be strong instructional leaders. 

2. How to coach and support other teachers in their instructional growth

Mentor and master teachers also take on new responsibilities supporting the instructional growth of other teachers. This includes planning and implementing weekly teacher professional development, called cluster groups, assessing teacher progress toward goals, and providing support to other teachers through observations and feedback, model teaching, team teaching, coaching, and lesson co-planning. Through these roles, teacher leaders develop a deep understanding of the teaching and learning standards, ensuring they know what high-quality instruction looks like and can easily identify it in the classroom. They also transition to thinking about instructional growth beyond the walls of their own classroom by field testing new instructional strategies in multiple classrooms and learning how to analyze schoolwide data. “Serving as a master teacher provided me the opportunity to develop my skills in collaborating with teachers, analyzing school data, and developing a long-range plan to better support the teachers who support our students,” said Christopher Finkhouse, an assistant principal at Southport High School in Perry Township Schools, “Serving as a master teacher pushed me to think past my content and really focus on the holistic needs of all of our students and community. My time as a master teacher really challenged my thinking and provided a perspective that helped me to develop into an assistant principal. I could not imagine stepping into the role of an assistant principal without having that intermediate step.” As assistant principal, he credits his role as a master teacher as the experience that best prepared him to effectively lead in his current role. 

3. How to make tough decisions and balance administrative responsibilities 

Teacher leaders are also exposed to school leaders’ administrative responsibilities and the tough decisions they must make, giving them the opportunity to test the waters of administration without leaving their classroom and before committing to the administrator path. By working closely with their principal, mentor and master teachers can observe how the principal responds to parents, works with custodians and lunch employees, prioritizes their day, and has hard conversations based on what is best for students, such as those involved with discussing classroom observation scores or introducing a new curriculum that will require agility from teachers to implement. “Being a master teacher gave me the confidence to coach adults in multiple different contexts, taught me to multi-task under strict deadlines, and gave me the technical knowledge to look at multiple types of instruction in various disciplines with an unbiased lens. These experiences allowed me to transition to my administrative role with ease.” said Josef Horvath, an assistant principal at Southport High School in Perry Township Schools. Teacher leaders who advanced into school administration positions are well-prepared to be building managers, as well as instructional leaders. 

An Experience-based Transition to School Leadership

By introducing these intermediary roles, district and school leaders give teachers the chance to explore their leadership interests without leaving their classroom, while growing their instructional leadership capacity, and can help them smoothly transition into school leadership roles if they so choose. Unlike typical routes to a principalship where teachers must move directly from being a full-time teacher into an assistant principal position, or must leave their school to transition to school leadership, teacher leaders get authentic school leadership experience in-house. These intermediary roles ensure teachers are fully equipped to lead in ways that lead to maximum impact on student outcomes if and when they do become school leaders. Angie Kendall, an NIET senior specialist and former master teacher who is now supporting one of the grant districts states, “When I think of all the APs I work with now as a specialist who were master teachers…they bring so much to the table when we talk about instruction, students, and goals. They’re key players. They’re not just sitting and listening and watching the principal, but they’re in it. They are a contributor, and that goes back to their experience as a master teacher.” The teacher leader experience is the stepping stone many need to feel ready for a formal school leader position. 

Teacher Leadership Roles As a Strategy to Recruit and Retain Educators

The growth and leadership opportunities that the mentor and master teacher roles provide within the walls of a teacher’s own school building are attractive to teachers and can lead to greater retention. For some, the opportunity to work closely with their principal and school leadership team helps them realize that school administration is not the path they wish to take, and it can solidify their desire to remain in the classroom as a teacher or grow other teachers as a teacher leader. For others, serving as a mentor or master teacher gives them the confidence and experience they need to make the transition to school leadership. Among the teacher leaders who were retained by their districts during the period of the grant, 90% stayed in their position or advanced to serve as a school administrator. Many of these former teacher leaders credit their teacher leader experience with their success as a school leader. “Without the experience as a teacher leader or master teacher, I don’t think I would be able to do what I am doing as a first-year principal,” said Sonya Imus, the principal at Prairie View Elementary School in Goshen Community Schools, “I am using many successes from my time as a master teacher to begin my journey as a principal. What a great accomplishment and investment in professional growth and leadership!” Teacher leader positions provide teachers who want to remain in the classroom with an avenue for developing leadership, while also helping build a pipeline of effective school leaders, ensuring that every student has access to high quality instruction every day.