The Teacher Leadership Cadre Model: Collaboration, Trust, and Empowerment

In a recent post, we presented the perspective of ICLE Senior Advisor Jim Warford on his work with Farrington High School. Here, we bring the story full circle with an inside view from Farrington teacher and Teacher Leadership Cadre Coordinator Jessica Kato.

How do you get teachers to buy into school changes? What can you do to shift a school culture from one of passive compliance to one in which teachers are engaged in shared learning and professional growth?

These are the questions the administrators at Honolulu, Hawaii’s Farrington High School were asking themselves three years ago. As the Teacher Leadership Cadre coordinator, I was part of a team that worked together to drive the transformation in our school culture. We grounded our approach in three key tenants: collaboration, trust, and empowerment. Through the leadership of Principal Al Carganilla and the faith he placed in teachers—which enabled their powers as leaders to emerge—the entire school community has undergone a pivotal transformation. We are stronger, more vital, more engaged, and more understanding and supportive of one another today as a result. (Hear from Principal Carganilla about Farrington High School’s journey in this 2017 blog post.)

The Teacher Leadership Cadre: Bringing Our Vision to Reality

It’s not always easy to bring a vision into a clear, concrete, and sustainable reality. Aligning ideals to a structure, putting the structure in place, and keeping people involved with and committed to it are big challenges. Teachers at Farrington have been able to access their power as leaders and to harness that energy to guide their own professional development through the Teacher Leadership Cadre, a framework that Principal Carganilla developed and implemented. This gave teachers a way to apply themselves to a sustained system of practice.

As the Teacher Leadership Cadre coordinator, I knew it was crucial that we open up the Cadre to all teachers and operate from a place of transparency. At the end of the 2014–2015 school year, I spoke to the faculty about this belief that we, as a faculty, have the capability to guide our own professional development. The power of grassroots movements was not lost on our teachers, and 19 teachers applied to be part of our inaugural Teacher Leadership Cadre (TLC). Since then, we’ve consistently gotten 12–15 applicants per year for the TLC. Members are paid for their work, and the application process is somewhat rigorous, requiring essay submissions. We also wanted to ensure that the TLC was a diverse group of teachers from all content areas and with varied levels of experience. We ended up with a team of 10 teacher leaders to begin this important work the following school year, 2015–2016.

Putting a Clear Framework in Place

Because our goal was essentially to shift our school culture from one of compliance to a place of engagement, we felt consistency was crucial to this endeavor. We wanted to make sure teachers knew this was an initiative that our administration valued and that was not going away.

We’ve evolved to have 12 TLC members each year. These teachers are divided up based on prep period so they are free to present during that time. All of the members participate in brainstorming plans, and each works with a TLC team to plan out the details of one workshop per month. These strategic program design choices have ensured that teachers know the structure and understand that it’s valued by our administration:

  • TLC workshops are held weekly during teachers’ non-teaching period.
  • TLC workshops include teachers from different content areas who share a common non-teaching period.
  • TLC members are paid to meet one Saturday a month to plan these weekly sessions.
  • Our objective for each session is to inspire teachers to experiment with and explore the strategies being shared. There is no mandate or requirement that teachers use the strategies.

Supporting Teacher Leaders

It’s easy to assume that strong teachers are able to simply transform into teacher leaders on their own, but in reality teacher leaders need support. The role of a teacher leader is relatively new to education, and what that role is exactly can be confusing to many because the identity of a teacher changes when she becomes a teacher leader. Colleagues may start to view and experience a teacher leader in a different way than they viewed her as a teacher. Also, a teacher leader herself may be unclear on how she fits into the school as she evolves into her new role.

With this awareness in mind, we identified these ways to help support our teacher leaders as we developed the Teacher Leadership Cadre:

  • Clearly define the roles and responsibilities of TLC membersIn order to clearly hone each member’s sense of his or her role in the group, we created three distinct roles for TLC members. (We based our definitions of these roles off of an Adaptive Schools framework, customizing them to our school community and culture.)
    • Engaged participant: Everyone in the group occupies this role.
    • Coordinator: One person each year takes on this role.
    • Facilitator: One person takes on this role in each meeting on a rotational basis.
  • Create a clear consensus-based, decision-making protocol (also based on the Adaptive Schools framework) and establish clear ground rules for each meeting. These structures allow us to speak openly and maximize our individual skill sets every time we gather.
  • Provide opportunities for teacher leaders to practice their skills in a safe place. Since TLC members practice their leadership, organizational, and communication skills when they are the monthly facilitator for the team meeting, we support their preparation and success by requiring a meeting with me (TLC coordinator) prior to the group gathering to build an agenda, practice, troubleshoot, and collaborate.
  • Conduct simple check-in conferences with each TLC member. I make it a point to regularly talk with members one-on-one to get a sense of how they are feeling about the work, as well as how they are feeling in general. These talks have given me some of the most useful insights into how to best support TLC members and teachers in general.
  • Read a book together over the summer as a way to share a common experience. I had underestimated the power of a good book to bring people together until we read Ann Lieberman and Linda D. Friedrich’s How Teachers Become Leaders in the summer of 2015 and had a book talk at our first meeting. The summer of 2016, we skipped summer reading and tried to jump right into the work when we came back. It was clear right away what a huge mistake that was; because we didn’t take the time to build the relationships within the TLC that year, the trust among team members wasn’t developed, resulting in less productive (as well as less inspiring and fun) meetings. In the summer of 2017 we read Brene Brown’s Daring Greatly which became the perfect backdrop for our work: it helped us develop a common language and immediately connect on a human level outside of school, making the year’s work enjoyable and productive.
  • Organize a summer retreat for TLC members. This two-day retreat gives us space and time away from school together to take part in team-building activities, share stories about our lives, and analyze our working styles and consider how we would best work together. Getting to know each other on a personal and professional basis provided a great foundation for our working relationships back at school.

Giving Educators a Prominent Voice

“Teachers empowering teachers” is our central mission. To support our active engagement with that mission, it’s crucial that we check in with faculty regularly and use their input and feedback as we plan forward. We do this most often through Google surveys, but we also talk to teachers in person individually and in small groups as well. 

The most obvious way we apply the feedback we get from teachers is by giving the faculty the ultimate say in determining the professional development focus for each year. When the school year begins, we as a whole group come up with five topics for teachers to choose from and everyone votes. Based on faculty votes, the professional development topics of the first three years included: increasing rigor, project-based learning, and differentiation (with growth mindset as a close second).

We’ve also refined our feedback system, which is centered by what we call Learning Visits. Through the evaluation survey filled out by our teachers, we learned that we needed to:

  • Change the form of the rubric to a checklist to make it less evaluative
  • Change the name of our centerpiece method of observing teachers from Walkthroughs to Learning Visits
  • Create a system for teachers to choose whom they visit, as opposed to designing the schedule for them
  • Remove the rubric component and provide teachers with a graphic organizer to instead take focused notes
  • Allow teachers to choose whether or not they want to receive the feedback from their visitors
  • Allow visitors to decide if they want to give their feedback to the teacher
  • Host a lunch to thank all teachers who opened their classrooms
  • Provide teachers with a choice in terms of who visits their classroom, using a conference-style link

Each time we have conducted school-wide Learning Visits with our 135-person faculty, we have learned more about how to leverage the most impact from this activity. As a result, Learning Visits have become something the faculty looks forward to and no longer dreads.

Finally, this year we also drew on teacher feedback to differentiate our professional development on the basis of individual request. We adjusted the structure of the TLC workshops to include Learning Groups, which give teachers the opportunity to work in a small group (instead of participating in the workshop TLC designed that week) to discuss specific assessments or lessons they would like to differentiate.

Join the team from Farrington High School along with ICLE thought leaders and 5,000 of your peers at the 26th Annual Model Schools Conference, June 24-27 in Orlando. You’ll take away innovative strategies for strengthening your teaching and leadership practices and develop an action plan for positive change. Come be inspired by our success story and many others!