Building Leadership Capacity One Teacher at a Time: Unleashing the Teacher Leadership Bench

“The giant resource of teacher leadership must be unleashed in support of school change.” (Katzenmeyer & Moyer, 2001, p. 16).

As district leaders, one of the most important functions of our roles is building leadership capacity across our school districts.  When we begin each school year, set goals, and therein set in motion the work of the year, it is important to consider how we will feed and fortify the culture while we ask the organization to implement new initiatives.  Each of us hopes that the work we do, the initiatives we implement and the culture we cultivate lives beyond our tenure or beyond the goal cycle on which we are currently working.  In order to do so, we must deliberately consider how to build leadership capacity in our organizations. To that end, we share some thoughts on the topic.  We plan to explore how to identify and select potential leaders, distributive leadership, creating a leadership ladder, modeling and mentoring, and women in educational leadership.


Selecting your Bench

Leadership capacity building begins with selecting the right people to take on formal leadership and support roles.  

As Jim Collins described in his book Good to Great, it is essential to get the right people on the bus, if you want to steer your organization in the right direction.  In considering future teacher leaders to be on your bench, have you considered what you value in a teacher leader?  Which of the qualities below are your own non-negotiables?  Are there currently people who are in those positions, who do not meet your criteria?  

The following are a list of typical qualities of effective teacher leaders:

  • Ability to collaborate with others
  • Consensus builders
  • Respected by peers for instructional skills
  • Open-minded
  • Has positive relationships with others in school
  • Optimistic
  • Enthusiastic
  • Confident
  • Display initiative
  • Expertise in specialized areas such as curriculum, assessment, instruction, content, data analysis, etc.
  • Understanding of adult learners

Superintendents often lament that it is difficult to find quality candidates for building leadership openings.  This is partially due to the fact that we want our leaders to have all of the qualities and strengths that we see across the best leaders, which is unrealistic.  It is also a function of the nearly impossible expectations we can have for our leaders.  Building a “bench” of potential building leaders is important work for a district so that the vision, mission, and strategic plan can move forward without the disruptive stops and starts changes in leadership can sometimes cause.

Identifying, selecting, and supporting future leaders can be a tricky business.  Effective teaching practice requires a skill set from educators that can be different than what is necessary for successful leadership of a department, school, or district.  Leading educators and providing actionable feedback to adults can be very different than teaching and leading students.  For example, Milford Public Schools runs a seminar series that allows aspiring educational and instructional leaders to explore the roles, responsibilities, and realities of building and district leadership positions.  The honest conversations with their building and district leaders provide a window into the principalship and assistant principalship.  These programs led some teachers to pursue an administrative license program and others to reflect that either this was not the right time or the right path for them.  Both are equally valuable.  They also support aspiring school leaders in one district (and in some cases other districts) by allowing shadowing and practicum experiences.  These experiences, seminars, and conversations can also provide a glimpse for both the aspiring leader and the district in terms of fit at the school, district, and leadership team levels.

Leadership development can require you to self assess or assess the team.  When selecting your bench it is also important to hire people that complement your weaknesses. It is only natural to want to hire people like you, who may not threaten or challenge the way you think and lead. However, it is critically important to change this mindset and do the opposite. Eric Bloom writes:

Regarding hiring to your strengths, it’s of course, extremely important to always hire great people. However, if you only hire people that are just like you, namely with your strengths, weaknesses, experience, and perspective then you open up yourself and your department to:  

  • Quality issues caused by overall skill set deficiencies  
  • Reduced possibility of innovation due to a lack of team diversity  
  • Experience and knowledge gaps in potentially important functional areas  
  • Reduced team flexibility caused by all of the above

As Lolly Daskel writes, “There is a great difference between knowing yourself and understanding yourself. Take the time to reflect on what your deficiencies are and what you need in a particular position on your team and go out and hire the best people to fill that role.”  This type of introspection can be challenging and requires vulnerability and honesty.


Distributing Leadership

Those on the bench and those who might have potential to sit on the bench in the future need to be given agency and opportunity to participate in leadership work even if they do not hold the “formal” role.  


In order to be an effective leader and grow an organization, you must build your bench and empower others. It takes a strong leader to get others to join your team and help you accomplish your mission and implement your vision. The above graphic helps to illustrate many attributes a leader must possess in order to create that capacity in a school to have others want to participate in the vision. What do each of these 10 traits mean do you? How do you personify them in your school day?

Outlining Your District’s Career Ladder

Screen Shot 2017-08-14 at 11.38.20 AM

All staff, from day one of their time in your organization, should know the leadership steps and ladders available to develop themselves in your district.  Is this discussion part of your hiring process?

Part of your new staff orientation?

Part of your on-boarding/induction programs?

If not, it should be!

Defining options for all types of leaders and learners in your district ensures that more people share the leadership vision for the district and see themselves as having a place and a future place within the organization.  

Defining options for growth and development mean that district leadership can be owned across more sectors and generations of the district.  When Collins talked about seats on the bus….people need to know what seats exist so they can understand where to sit!

Guiding Questions

In helping to build your district’s leadership ladder, it is important to provide guidance to your potential teacher leaders as they consider new opportunities.  Shelley Burgess and Beth Houf, in their book Lead Like a Pirate, talk about knowing when to take the leadership leap. Not only must you know the steps to take, but you need to know if you are ready for the leap; both go hand in hand. The following questions by Burgess and Houf are helpful guiding questions to consider before taking a leap:

  1. What is the purpose for wanting to make the leap?
  2. Are you moving into a situation that matches your passion and workstyle
  3. Who will this position change the quality of your life?
  4. Do you have supports in place to make this leap?
  5. Are you making the leap to have a greater impact of students or for personal gains
  6. What does your intuition tell you?
  7. How does your district systematically provide support for those making the leaps?

It is critical for teachers to answer these questions before moving up the ladder. Doing it for the wrong reasons can be disastrous to kids and to themselves personally.

Modeling and Mentoring

In the leadership realm, in corporate, creative and educational settings, the research literature on the power of modeling, mentoring and being “tapped” by a model leader for mentoring and leadership capacity building within an organization is deep.  

Modeling and mentoring are a deliberate process. It’s not enough to just have a newer leader observe and follow a more seasoned leader around.  There have to be conversations asking the leader to break down the layered and often internally-conducted processes of leading.  Demystifying the leadership process, having leaders break down their frameworks for thinking, ethics, sharing or decision-making help newer leaders use leadership templates from mentors to help shape their own emerging leadership repertoires.


Developing future educational and instructional leaders is important and essential work for current leaders both at the building and district level.  Schools require leadership focused on student growth and learning in positive and supportive school cultures. Identifying and providing opportunities for potential leaders within your district not only supports the career growth for these aspiring leaders, but it also can provide the continuity that supports success for your schools and district.  Allowing these leaders opportunities to engage in authentic tasks and make mistakes to reflect upon, further builds a culture of continuous learning, failing forward, and reflective practice.  

A Word from A Women’s Perspective on Capacity Building, Modeling, and Mentoring

      By Anna Nolin and Maureen Cohen

Research and popular media portrayals of women in leadership indicate that women are not tapped for leadership positions.  This is also true for women in educational leadership positions.

In fact, evidence indicates that at the superintendent level women participation is also significantly less than male counterparts. In a 2015 study of superintendencies by AASA, they found that only a quarter of superintendents were female.  Additionally, the study analyzed whether superintendents were hired from within the district or from a different district and determined that males were hired from inside their district at higher percentages than female counterparts.

Some reasons cited for this gap of women in leadership roles include:

  • Longer time spent by women in the roles as teachers than men, and a more diverse route taken to leadership positions than men
  • Many women choose to pass up opportunities to take on leadership roles due to a growing family
  • Underlying bias about what leadership should look like

Keeping all of this in mind, what can we do in our capacity building to ensure that we are encouraging and mentoring women to take on leadership roles?  

“Here is our story.” 

First, we had many mentors along the way who tapped us for leadership positions.  They literally tapped us on the shoulder and said, “You’d be great at this role, why don’t you try it?”  Maureen stills remember the moment one department chair handed her an application in the hallway and said, “You need to apply to be part of this leadership cohort.” Anna similarly remembers her director of human resources insisting she be included in principal training, leadership meetings and strategic planning conversations because he knew the district would benefit, even when her principal said he felt she should have children first and then consider leadership roles.

Second, women leaders need to build a network of support for younger women who might aspire to leadership positions.  

Maureen:  One of my greatest mentor is a colleague on this blog, Dr. Anna Nolin.  It was in my leadership cohort that she stood before me and shared her own research on how women can have a family and be a leader and be great at both.  It was because of her, that I learned that I did not have to put my career on hold just because I was having a family.  Men didn’t do that, why would I have to?

Anna:  Dr. Maureen Cohen and I have worked to capitalize on the network idea and have created a small women’s superintendent support network in our region.  This group is important to us and in our meetings, we are able to explore topics and needs we may not be able to explore within other state and district leadership meetings.

Third, women need to be offered a seat that the table.

Anna:  This is critical….like Maureen, I have been the beneficiary of many mentors who tapped me on the shoulder (men and women) and men who made a space for me at the right meetings, on the golf course and in training to lead in all aspects of the district.  Often times women suffer a confidence issue because there are not other women or few other women at the meetings to provide support or encouragement.  So being offered the seat and invited to participate, the confidence boost is there.  My current boss is masterful at this–he consistently puts me (and others he mentors) first to speak or points out the strengths we might have relative to the conversation or ideas at hand and generally makes it easier to be confident.

Maureen:  Not only do they need to be offered a seat that the table, but they also should be given a voice.  Sometimes a little bit of encouragement can go a long way in giving new women leaders the confidence they need to lean in and share their knowledge and opinions.  I have benefitted from people who have encouraged me after meetings by saying, “You should contribute more often to the conversation, as you have a lot to share.”  

We hope that you consider these personal reflections as a window into our personal experiences in leadership as you grow your own leadership ladders in your school districts, keeping in mind the importance of fostering women leaders in your process of unleashing your leadership bench.


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