4 Key Insights About Teacher Leaders: Best Practices From High-Growth Districts

Two teachers chat in school library.

By Catherine Jacques

August 18, 2020

Although teacher leader roles have been around for a long time, the past decade has seen increased national attention on the power of teacher leadership and an expansion of both formal and informal teacher leader roles in many schools and districts. By offering job-embedded professional learning, just-in-time instructional supports, and insights into broader policies and decisions, teacher leaders can have a significant influence on teaching and learning outcomes. In 2014, the state of Iowa made a major investment in teacher leadership through the Teacher Leadership and Compensation (TLC) grant, through which districts receive substantial funding to create formal teacher leader positions such as instructional coaches, mentors, or model teachers.

Now entering its seventh year of implementation, TLC offers a unique opportunity to learn more about teacher leadership at the school, district, and regional levels. The Region 9 Comprehensive Center is working with the Iowa Department of Education to explore the impact of teacher leadership on student learning and catalog best practices for the work of teacher leaders. During spring 2020, Region 9 staff spoke with nearly 100 teacher leaders and administrators in districts across Iowa with high year-over-year growth rates on state assessments to learn more about how the teacher leaders contributed to their success. The Iowa Department of Education is sharing the findings from these high-growth districts with a variety of stakeholders across the state—including teacher leaders themselves—so that educators can learn about and capitalize on each other’s successes.

Some of Region 9 and the Iowa Department of Education’s findings confirm best practices relating to teacher leadership that are already well known such as the importance of supportive school leaders and the importance of professional learning for teacher leaders in new skills like adult learning. Other findings, however, offer new insights into how teacher leaders can influence meaningful and measurable improvements in teaching and learning. The following are four selected findings from the work of Region 9 and the Iowa Department of Education to date.

1. Build Trusting Relationships

Building trusting relationships is both important and possible in all school settings. The importance of trust between teachers and teacher leaders has been long established because mentoring and coaching often include difficult conversations about areas for growth. Teacher leaders in Iowa confirmed that many teachers automatically have a higher level of trust and engagement with teacher leaders (compared with administrators) because teacher leaders’ support is nonevaluative and comes from a nonsupervisory perspective.

Teacher leaders in Iowa also offered new insights into specific strategies for building trusting relationships, especially for teachers in schools with low levels of trust or rapport across staff. Teacher leaders suggested the following strategies:

  • Approaching teachers as collaborators with their own voice, autonomy, and decision-making power in the improvement process
  • Modeling vulnerability and being forthright about their own shortcomings or lack of knowledge in certain areas
  • Creating opportunities to learn together about new strategies and best practices rather than simply passing down previously held expertise
  • Focusing on conversation when first meeting with teachers, waiting to take notes or document needs or progress until a relationship has been established

2. Focus on Curriculum Implementation

Curriculum implementation offers one useful focal point for teacher leader support. Across the country, teacher leaders are often assigned to help new or struggling teachers improve their instruction. Teacher leaders in Iowa often described having the same types of foci: Those working with new teachers often focus on foundational skills such as classroom management, while those working with a mix of new and experienced teachers often focus on skills like data-driven instruction or multi-tiered systems of support. In Iowa, however, a surprising number of teacher leaders described focusing on curriculum implementation fidelity, often working in some capacity with most teachers across a grade level or grade span. Many teacher leaders felt that focusing on curriculum implementation fidelity helped create consistency and specificity in teacher leaders’ supports, which in turn helped the supports provided feel less arbitrary to teachers. Likewise, teacher leaders saw that focusing on curriculum implementation fidelity led to teachers reinforcing best practices with each other because they were all working toward similar or aligned instructional goals.

Teacher leaders described the following curriculum implementation fidelity supports:

  • Using fidelity checklists during walkthroughs to assess consistency of implementation
  • Clarifying how the curriculum reviews or reinforces content across grade levels
  • Preparing sample lesson plans for teachers to use and adapt
  • Conducting model lessons to demonstrate high-fidelity implementation

3. Use Data to Guide the Work

The way in which teacher leaders access and review data matters. We know that data-driven instruction is important for student growth; like many other teacher leaders nationwide, teacher leaders in Iowa often described using data in collaborative meetings like professional learning communities (PLCs) or grade-level team meetings. Teacher leaders in in Iowa also discussed conducting a few “data dives” per year to identify continued standards, skills, or content areas in need of improvement. These teacher leaders shed light on how the design of teacher leader roles can impact their ability to use data to guide their work: The teacher leaders who led PLCs described using formative and progress monitoring data over time, but the teacher leaders in coaching roles were not always able to attend PLC meetings and therefore had less access to data to inform the impact of their work.

To ensure that teacher leaders have access to formative and progress monitoring data, schools and districts can consider the following:

  • Designing teacher leader roles to ensure that they have access to data to promote continuous improvement for both themselves and the teachers they support
  • Offering professional learning for teacher leaders on data-driven instruction to ensure that they feel comfortable using and talking about data in their work

4. Collaborate During Instructional Time

Finding opportunities for collaboration during instructional time can be powerful. Like many other educators across the country, teacher leaders in Iowa described often collaborating through PLCs but praised other less common types of collaboration structures too. Specifically, teacher leaders shared that coteaching collaboration structures allowed coaches to provide real-time modeling of instructional strategies and offer gradual release of responsibilities, which in turn helped teachers feel more comfortable trying new things or figuring out how to adapt.

Other successful strategies that teacher leaders shared for collaborating included the following:

  • Providing intervention support inside the classroom to expand the reach to more students
  • Meeting as grade-level teams to share strategies and techniques directly aligned to the curriculum
  • Using common formative assessments to make it easier to share and coanalyze classroom data

Learn More About Teacher Leadership

Region 9 and the Iowa Department of Education are continuing to explore teacher leadership across the state, focusing on best practices and the impact of TLC on teaching and learning. During the next year, Region 9 will continue to share key findings and success stories from this work.

Interested in learning more about teacher leadership? Check out the following resources:

Catherine Jacques leads the Region 9 Comprehensive Center’s teacher leadership project with the Iowa Department of Education and is a researcher at the American Institutes for Research. Jacques has more than a decade of experience studying educator development at the local, state, and national levels, with a special emphasis on teacher leadership.

Photo courtesy of Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action.