By Tom Many, EdD

“We have done lots of work at the school level, and lots of work at the individual level, but very little has been done at the team level.” – Ian Stone, Principal, Jefferson County Schools (2016)

Stone highlights one of the reasons why the concept of layered leadership—also referred to as distributed leadership—makes so much sense. Since 2001, improvement efforts have largely focused on schools and individual teachers as the units of change. During the same period of time, efforts to improve the effectiveness of collaborative teams have been virtually ignored. This is changing as more principals adopt a layered approach to school leadership and place greater emphasis on collaborative teams as the primary unit of change and improvement.

“Distributed [layered] leadership invites collaboration, shared responsibility and a sense that we are all in this together on behalf of our students.” – Chris Bierly, Betsy Doyle & Abigail Smith, Bain & Company (2016) pg. 49

Layered or distributed leadership refers to a conscious and/or intentional effort by principals to create meaningful opportunities for teacher leadership throughout the school. A layered approach to leadership seeks to build the capacity of teacher leaders at the team level thereby enabling the principal to share responsibility for achieving school goals with, “an empowered group of talented individuals specifically tasked with coaching and developing others.” (2016) Pg. 8 The three most common approaches schools use to expand teacher leadership include 1) creating more formal and informal leadership roles; 2) promoting the development of professional learning communities; and 3) deploying cadres of instructional coaches.

Many schools are employing teachers in more formalized leadership roles. Teachers serving in quasi-administrative positions such as a TOSA (teacher on special assignment) or an A2P (assistant to the principal) typically assume some supervisory responsibilities and gain valuable administrative experience. This is certainly a positive bi-product of layered leadership but far more encouraging is the trend towards giving teachers more responsibility for the leadership of collaborative teams. These less formal leadership roles can be called many things but regardless of whether the title is team leader, team facilitator, department head or lead teacher, what’s clear is teachers respond to effective leadership delivered by a member of the team itself.

Other schools have embraced the professional learning communities model as the best way to increase opportunities for meaningful teacher leadership. The overwhelming consensus is teachers are more effective when working on collaborative teams but building the capacity of individual teachers to function effectively as team members should not be left to chance; it is best approached in very purposeful ways. Bierly, Doyle and Smith argue that, “an effective distributed [layered] leadership model breaks down barriers by creating opportunities for teachers to work together—and an expectation that they will. (2016) Pg. 41

The role of an instructional coach is growing in popularity and represents another way principals can promote a layered approach to leadership. Instructional coaches are seen as a viable alternative to traditional professional development and offer opportunities for teachers to assume greater responsibility for the improvement of their instructional practice. According to the Bain study, models of distributed leadership in professional learning communities provide the structure for teacher leaders to emerge and “provide the hands-on, day-to-day coaching and support that helps teachers make a real difference in their students’ lives.” (2016) Pg. 28

When principals create opportunities for teacher leadership at the team level they are practicing a powerful form of layered leadership and while any one of these three approaches would generate additional leadership opportunities, it is the combination of them all—formalized leadership roles, professional learning communities and instructional coaching—that offers the most promising path for developing teacher leadership.

“This layered leadership structure ensured that PLC concepts and practices would be deeply embedded in every school, team, and classroom within the district.” – Bob Eaker & Janel Keating. (2012)

The path to improving schools and promoting meaningful teacher leadership begins when principals establish collaborative teams as the school’s primary structure, identify a team leader for each team, and prioritize teams (and team leaders) as a highest priority for coaches.

The primary role of a team leader is to ensure the team is efficient and effective; their focus is on how the team functions. In addition to communicating with the building principal, team leaders are responsible for the day-to-day operation of their team. They keep the team focused on teaching and learning, utilize structures like agendas, norms, and protocols to be productive, clarify the different roles and responsibilities of team members, maintain professional relationships amongst colleagues, and avoid the use of unproductive processes during team meetings.

On the other hand, a coach’s primary responsible is to provide feedback and offer support to teams and team leaders around improving their PLC practices. Coaches do not lead the team meetings but instead, support a team’s efforts to identify essential outcomes, design common assessments, engage in data conversations, and create opportunities for intervention and extension.

Principals can increase the probability of coaches being successful by recognizing the responsibilities of a team leader and a coach are different and engaging the faculty and staff in conversations to create job descriptions that articulate the different responsibilities of these different roles.

“The good news is that a number of the systems we have studied are breaking new ground in their efforts to build more effective school leadership models and their results so far are encouraging.” (2016) – Chris Bierly, Betsy Doyle, & Abigail Smith, Bain & Company (2016) pg. 6

Up to now, our best efforts to improve schools by focusing school improvement initiatives at the school and individual teacher levels have failed, but there is hope. The most effective principals are shifting their attention to the team level by adopting a layered approach to leadership and seeking specific structures that support the coaching of collaborative teams and team leaders within the context of professional learning communities.

Bierly, C., Doyle, B & Smith, A. (2016). Transforming Schools: How Distributed Leadership can Create More High Performing Schools. Bain & Company: Boston, MA.
Eaker, R. & Keating, J. (2012). Every School, Every Team, Every Classroom: District Leadership for Growing Professional Learning Communities at Work. Solution Tree Press: Bloomington, IN.

Dr. Tom Many is an author and consultant. His career in education spans more than 30 years.

TEPSA News, September/October 2017, Vol 74, No 5

Copyright © 2017 by the Texas Elementary Principals and Supervisors Association. No part of articles in TEPSA publications or on the website may be reproduced in any medium without the permission of the Texas Elementary Principals and Supervisors Association.

The Texas Elementary Principals and Supervisors Association (TEPSA), whose hallmark is educational leaders learning with and from each other, has served Texas PK-8 school leaders since 1917. Member owned and member governed, TEPSA has more than 6000 members who direct the activities of 3 million PK-8 school children. TEPSA is an affiliate of the National Association of Elementary School Principals.

© Texas Elementary Principals and Supervisors Association

Sign up to receive the latest news on Texas PK-8 school leadership.