Advice from the field on how to navigate the shift from teaching to coaching.
Teachers have always done much more than teach. They play a variety of roles, both in and outside of the classroom, and address needs or existing gaps in their school community. These roles may include mentoring other teachers, leading departments and grade levels, spearheading projects and initiatives, turnkeying professional learning, and serving as a dean or an assessment or technology coordinator.
It may seem like a natural move for strong teachers who are leaders in their own classrooms to step into a role as a leader in the larger context of their own schools; however, as with any transition, this shift comes with challenges. As teachers take on additional roles, the added work can create complications for both school administrators and teachers, especially in places where roles, responsibilities, and expectations are unclear.
Advice from teacher leaders
In my work with teachers, schools, and districts, I find it helpful to begin by asking questions that address common concerns surrounding this process: What are some challenges that arise as you step into a leadership role? What skills or tools do teachers need to possess in order to smoothly transition to the role of teacher leader? How can administrators best support their teachers as they shift their roles and responsibilities?
To find answers to these questions, I turned to two wonderful educators with whom I work at a high school in the South Bronx — Leah Clark, an English teacher who has taken on the role of department lead and literacy coordinator, and is planning to move into school leadership; and Chris Mastrocola, who has moved from English teacher to teacher leader to Assistant Principal. They offered words of wisdom for teachers planning or hoping to move into a leadership role, and advice to administrators who are looking for ways to support teacher leaders in their community.
Becoming a role model
When I asked Leah about her recent experience of moving into her role as a high school department lead and literacy coordinator, she cautioned teachers to be mindful about which of their practices are successful in their classroom, but may not be recommended as a standard practice for the community. She notes, “When you take on a leadership role, you become more of a role model, and as a role model, certain practices that worked for you as a teacher may not be appropriate to share as a model to other teachers. What works for you may not work as well for everyone.”
As an honest example, Leah notes that while her strategy of occasionally calling home during class — in front of other students — when a student didn’t show up for class or was late, may have had results, it could be seen as a questionable practice, and one that could even breach school or district rules. In hindsight, she wouldn’t recommend this to other teachers.
In summary, Leah reflects: “The switch from being a classroom teacher to being a role model means that you have to think about what you recommend to other teachers and maybe even adjust your practices. As a teacher leader, other teachers look to you as a representation of the school’s policies and administration in a new way.” Chris Mastrocola, who moved from high school teacher to department leader, also echoes Leah’s reflection that teacher leaders need to recognize that everything they do or say is a model for others.
Leah admits that as she has moved into her new leadership role, she has had to become more conscious of how she talks about other people. She advises aspiring teacher leaders to “choose your words a little bit more carefully and be aware that your words and actions represent what you would like the staff environment to be. Sometimes you can’t say the things that you actually might want to say!”
Chris also emphasizes that “everything you do or say as a teacher leader or school administrator can serve to help draw teachers and staff in to support the community, or alienate them — push them away from feeling like a productive member of the school community.”
The importance of clear and thoughtful communication also extends to what teacher leaders need to receive from administrators, in order to feel supported and successful in their role. At their school, Leah and Chris both attest to the importance of the support of their administrators, noting that their principal, Santiago Taveras, consistently offers constructive feedback and opportunities for them to talk through challenges, finding both regular and impromptu times to meet to check in about how their work is going.
Shifting from teaching to coaching
In his assistant principalship role, Chris has taken on the role of instructional lead. While this is a natural evolution for anyone like Chris, who is an outstanding classroom teacher and curriculum planner, he quickly realized that working with adults — teachers — is different from working with students, and this shift demands new skills and perspectives.
According to Chris, “As a teacher, with your students, you often feel it is your job to intervene in everything, but as a leader, you need to be thoughtful about not undermining teachers’ autonomy. Teacher leaders, like school administrators, need to strive to be patient and take the long view of change and development. You can fix and change systems, but not teachers. Development and growth takes time.”
To me, Chris’s advice is crucial. We would love for all our teachers to be expert practitioners, able to step into the classroom and seamlessly juggle all the complications of teaching. However, like our students, and like any professionals, teachers are each learning and developing their practice at their own pace. It takes time.
Chris highlights the importance of having a growth mindset and cultivating teachers’ strengths, as opposed to working from an evaluative, deficit perspective. He notes that when working with teachers, leaders can “help them identify their strengths and how to leverage them inside and outside the classroom — find out where you can support them to shine. Work alongside teachers to help them articulate their areas for growth — helping teachers to articulate in one sentence about just one specific area for growth is helpful to leverage change.”
Establishing trust and agency
Leah appreciates that at her school, teachers are recognized for the qualities and skills that they add to the school community, and are trusted with the opportunity for leadership. “Being a leader in your own classroom is the best place to start. Even if you don’t have a title, by leading well in your own classroom, you can spread positive classroom practices and classroom culture to your community.”
Based on his experience, Chris suggests that as teachers move from classroom leaders to school community leaders, they can continue to contribute to a positive environment by adjusting their expectations — not only for themselves, but for their colleagues. He shares that when making the shift into leadership, it’s important not to come down too hard on yourself nor expect too much, and instead meet teachers where they are.
Leah notes that trust is also a part of the equation, at all levels: “Be trusting of your colleagues and your community. You don’t need to micromanage departments or each teacher at your school to get the kind of impact and transformation of your school that you want. Trust goes a long way toward building agency and confidence for teachers and teacher leaders.”
Chris’s final words about stepping into any kind of school leadership role feel important to hold onto: “You need to be kind to yourself in order to be patient and kind to the teachers in your community.”
Are you taking on the role of teacher leader, and wondering how you can bridge the gap between coaching and teaching? Check out Coaching for Change, which will support you in cultivating the strengths of teachers in your community, increasing your effectiveness as a team leader, and establishing confident, compassionate coaching practices.