Dear Cooki

How do I get teachers to buy into the principle of teacher leaders instead of seeing leadership tasks as merely an added burden?

Sometimes, we send subtle messages that belie our words. Giving others responsibility for things that we believe are really our job or that we think others cannot accomplish as well as we can is tough. So, first, make sure your teachers know you really mean that you want to empower them. Asking others to be leaders means that you are giving over control, even if it is just temporary or for a clearly defined area. You have to be willing to let go; you have to agree not to micromanage or second-guess; your teachers have to know that you trust them to complete well the task you have given them.

As the head of school, you must prepare the way for teacher leaders to emerge. Ask yourself if yours is a community that encourages risk-taking. Will a teacher feel safe to volunteer to take on something new? Do teachers support each other’s efforts, or is yours an environment where teachers hide their accomplishments? Developing teacher leaders requires that you create a school culture in which staff members can learn, collaborate, applaud each other’s successes and unashamedly share failures both in and out of the classroom.

Provide opportunities for learning how to lead. Invite teachers to outside workshops; invite them to work with you or another administrator on a specific project; ask them to chair a small committee or to head up a project for which a template already exists. Build their confidence and whet their appetites for leadership.

Establishing personal relationships with your staff members is an important step in developing them as leaders. Get to know them as individuals; have conversations (not meetings or evaluation reports) about their work and their interests. Learn about what they value, and let them know what is important to you as an educator. Maintaining a positive relationship will make it easier for you to approach a teacher about a new project, idea or event, and knowing what they are passionate about will steer you to the right person for the job.

One very effective way of encouraging teachers to take on a leadership role is to give them the gift of time. If you can, substitute some planning time for some teaching time, at the same rate of pay. Nothing will demonstrate the importance of the task or how much you value their participation in a project more than this, even if the time you give is only a fraction of the total number of hours they will invest. Of course, some schools cannot do this because it is not financially feasible or because every hour in the classroom is needed. Give the gift of time another way: offer to take their class on occasion or provide an assistant or team teacher if possible. Even a token number of hours makes a loud statement.

As with every new initiative, start small. Don’t expect all your teachers to step forward at once. (You don’t even want that!) Concentrate on one or two staff members who demonstrate real potential; other teachers will watch and be ready to volunteer at a later date.

And here is the hardest part for some of us: be prepared to accept (even love!) the work that these teacher leaders do, even if it is not exactly how you would have done it. As long as you agree on the goals, and that they are being met in a timely and cost-effective manner, stand back.

Finally, give your teacher leaders public accolades and celebrate their successes. Acknowledge them in your school newsletter and at your staff meetings. And remember that their success, ultimately, is among your greatest wins.♦

Cooki Levy is the director of RAVSAK’s Head of School Professional Excellence Project (PEP). Previously, she served as the longtime head of the Akiva School in Westmount, Quebec. Dear Cooki accepts questions from all school stakeholders. To submit a question, write to, with “Dear Cooki” in the subject line.

Cooki Levy
Day School Teachers