Voices of Teacher Leaders: Building Relationships With Teachers

July 19, 2023

Voices of Teacher Leaders: Building Relationships With Teachers

"Voices of Teacher Leaders" is NIET's three-part blog series that features teacher leaders from NIET partner schools sharing their experiences in this role during the 2022-23 school year. Each blog discusses the rewards of holding teacher leadership positions as well as tips for overcoming a specific challenge. Here we feature teacher leaders in Indiana sharing how they are building relationships with teachers they support. 

Trained teacher leaders can play a powerful role in improving classroom practice across a school building. When school leaders expand their leadership teams to include teacher leaders, it enables them to increase instructional leadership capacity. This increased instructional leadership capacity helps school leaders to implement two improvement strategies research demonstrates can be effective: collaborative professional learning teams and classroom coaching. How these potentially effective strategies are implemented is the key to their success, and building strong coaching relationships are essential to their impact.  

The NIET TAP System offers the kind of support teacher leaders need in order to build trust in their coaching relationships and impact teacher practice. First, this approach identifies teacher leaders with the skills and knowledge to provide high-quality support for instruction. Training in how to support adult learners enables teacher leaders to build a strong coaching relationship, and release time provides them with the ability to visit classrooms and offer feedback based on teacher and student needs. 

One of the most rewarding aspects of holding a teacher leadership position is the opportunity to collaborate with other teachers, teacher leaders said. As Laura Denman, a master teacher from Goshen Community School noted, “The rewards for being a teacher leader come from being able to work with fellow teachers, brainstorming how to present and teach curriculum, and then seeing the success and growth of the students.” The teacher leadership position enables teacher leaders to feel more connected to their peers, which in turn, encourages them to stay in the profession. 

Holding the position of teacher leader requires the ability to build strong relationships and provide feedback that is valued by teachers as actionable, relevant and timely. Teacher leaders recommend a variety of strategies  for developing a successful partnership with teachers.

Build trust by “going first” and sharing your own experiences 

Focusing on the human element of coaching is an essential first step for teacher leaders. “I have found that being genuine and sharing my own struggles within my classroom builds the open relationships I need to have with my colleagues,” shared Erika East, a mentor teacher from Brown County Schools in Indiana, “Because then we can begin to truly work together to identify each of our weaknesses, make the tweaks necessary to improve, and then grow our capacities together.” By being vulnerable and real with teachers rather than striving to be perfect, Erika East has been able to establish a trusting relationship with the teachers she works with. 

Always share the “why” behind an ask from administration or a shift in instructional practice introduced to teachers

Another essential strategy behind effective coaching is to share the “why” that drives a recommendation or strategy – explaining the reasoning behind the recommendation and how the new practice or materials will support teachers and their students.  Change isn't easy, and sometimes it's difficult to change others' mindsets. It's challenging to get everyone on board,” said Natasha Cummings, a mentor teacher from Perry Township Schools. “One way that I overcome this challenge is by being positive and sharing the “why” from the leadership team. I think that when all perspectives are thought about, it makes it a little easier to guide or give a direction for what is being asked of us from the administration.” Providing the rationale for a change in instructional practice can help teachers see its value and understand how it advances student learning.

Use student work to connect feedback to their classroom

Feedback is highly valued when it is focused on the needs individual teachers face in their own classroom. Using student work as the basis for recommendations or adjustments makes feedback immediately relevant to student needs. Student work can reveal a lot about what students are struggling with, and by guiding teachers in student work analysis, teacher leaders can help identify student needs and areas for instructional adjustments or improvements. 

Becoming a teacher leader provides teachers with an opportunity to make an impact beyond their classroom while remaining connected to the instructional work in classrooms. For the role of teacher leader to be successful, teacher leaders need to establish a trusting relationship with teachers they support, share the “why” behind decisions on instructional materials and practices, and use student work to guide the feedback and coaching they provide to each teacher. 

In March 2023, the National Bureau of Economic Research released a multiyear study finding that schools using the TAP System to create a system of support for classroom observation and feedback that engages teacher leaders in partnership with principals led to increased student academic achievement, while also providing substantial longer term social and economic benefits for students. The study concluded that the TAP System provides a 14 to 1 return on investment. Find the study here. Indiana has invested in teacher leaders, who have made positive impacts in schools across the state and gained traction since the approach was endorsed by Governor’s Next Level Teacher Compensation Commission in 2020.