Being a teacher leader is a demanding and rewarding role for the professional educator. Michael Iannini, the author of Hidden in Plain Sight: Realizing the Full Potential of Middle Leaders, provides guidelines for teachers already in these leadership positions and those looking to progress into teacher leadership roles. Michael provides an interesting perspective of the teacher leader being on the team and also being able to observe the team.
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Steve [Intro]: 00:00 Hello, and welcome to the teacher edition of the Steve Barkley Ponders Out loud podcast. The complexity of teaching is both challenging and rewarding. And my curiosity is peaked whenever I explore with teachers the multiple pathways for facilitating student engagement in the exciting world of learning. This podcast looks to serve teachers as they motivate coach and support their learners.
Steve: 00:31 Strategies for teacher leaders. Joining us today is Michael Iannini, from The Association of China and Mongolia International Schools. I had the opportunity to work with Michael, providing some instructional coaching training for international schools in China. And I found out Michael has written a a new book, Hidden in Plain Sight: Realizing the Full Potential of Middle Leaders. I’ve got my own personal belief about the importance of teacher leaders in school so I was excited to invite invite Michael to join us on the podcast and he agreed. So welcome, Michael,
Michael: 01:16 Thank you, Steve. Always a pleasure to be working with you.
Michael: 01:20 Michael, I know that you come from a teaching background and that’s important for teachers – usually helps the listening. So tell us a little bit about your teaching background and how that then led into your focus with middle level leaders.
Michael: 01:36 So interestingly enough, when I entered the teaching profession, I was bright eyed and full of energy and just wanting to shape young minds. And the first teaching gig I had internationally completely burnt me out and I quit. So to let all you teacher leaders out there know that I went into teaching, into an independent school where I landed, it wasn’t the job that I was told I was gonna have and then on top of that, I was basically being told how to teach. I didn’t have much agency over how I felt I should be attending to my students’ needs. And I just wasn’t led well, and there wasn’t much support for me within the school. And so I left education and I went out into the the private sector, if you will, for and specifically, IT, and over a long period of time, working with some really great mentors and coaches doing my MBA. Somehow I found my way back into education, but not directly as a teacher at that point, it was working with school leadership and kind of bringing to them everything I’d learned outside of education. But because I had that education background, I was able to translate things in terms of how schools worked. And that got me passionate about education again.
Steve: 03:04 Interesting. I hadn’t connected before that you and I both had backgrounds with early childhood. I was teaching first grade for five years which followed having worked with middle schools, but having taught first grade for five years before I began to to work in teacher training and teacher consulting. So in the work that you do, how do you describe the importance of teacher leadership within a school being critical for the, for the effectiveness of a school?
Michael: 03:40 For a teacher leader to be effective, they, number one, really need to be passionate about wanting to develop others. And in fact, we can call a teacher leader, even the head of school, the principal, anybody that is really overseeing the responsibilities of others and trying to lead collaboration, they need to respect and understand the fact that they have a job to develop the capacities of others. And that’s probably one of the most important thing any leader brings, including your year-level leaders, your pastoral leaders, because by developing others, we create an environment that not only that we are growing in, but that our students ultimately benefit from because of that growth that’s happening at the teacher’s level, that basic unit of organization within a school.
Steve: 04:35 Interesting, because I’ve always had in my mind that as a teacher, you are supported by having a faculty of strong teachers. So if the degree to which I invest in other staff members, I am in effect investing in myself.
Michael: 04:59 Yeah. And I mean, that’s that level of interdependency because obviously the more we share of ourselves, the more we hope to get back as well. And so when we go out and share our practices with others, and not just our practices in terms of successes, but also the challenges, we welcome feedback that broadens our perspective and in such a way, makes us a better teacher. Now, the thing when it comes to teacher leadership and an area that I’ve been quite critical of, I’ll be quite honest, like the adaptive schools movement, in the sense that, when I look at Garson’s research and all that, and even his book, he talks about how, in many ways, everybody is a leader on the team and everybody needs to hold each other accountable to the norms. And you know, everything they talk about in that book is great in an ideal situation, but how do you get to there?
Michael: 05:48 And that’s where I say you need teacher leadership. You need somebody that gets everybody bought in to the purpose that they
should be working towards independently. You need somebody there to not only demonstrate the norms such as those seven norms of collaboration, but somebody that can help others be able to assess their own sort of capabilities towards demonstrating those norms and understanding how they’re perceived by others in terms of their or communication. So we basically need somebody in and sort of outside of the team, making us more aware of how we work as a team to expect everybody on a team to do that I don’t think is realistic. And so that’s why the teacher leader is so important. And somebody that I facilitated with a long time ago, and still continue to work with Chris Jansen and he’s in New Zealand, he had this wonderful sort of analogy that a leader is in many ways, he uses this analogy of being on a dance floor, for instance.
Michael: 06:39 The music’s playing, we’re all dancing, but we can’t really see how everybody else is dancing in comparison to us, in relation to us because we’re all there on the dance floor. So you need somebody to get above up onto a balcony looking over that dance floor so you can kinda really see how things are being coordinated, how people are moving. And that’s probably the most critical role that any teacher leader can play is somebody that really has that oversight, that view from above that can really bring that perspective to the rest of the members of the team.
Steve: 07:27 It’s really interesting, as I was listening to you there, a little while back, I wrote a blog about middle level leaders and the fact that we actually use the term of of being in the middle which, if you look it up in the dictionary, it’s not a place that you actually wanna be, but you described it well as, you’re on the team and you’re off the team. It’s kinda like you’re switching your your view back and forth. And that really describes to me, both the difficulty, but also the the importance of the role. So I’m wondering, when a person’s asked to to step into a teacher leadership role, it’s a role that can be challenging and in most cases, the financial incentive for it isn’t sufficient. What are the kind of rewards that that a teacher finds stepping into that role?
Michael: 08:34 So if we can get somebody to accept the responsibilities of leading their peers, and again, we’re also in the trenches, and that can also sometimes be very daunting to have to supervise peers and tell them what they’re doing right or what they’re doing wrong. And oftentimes, people will accept the title, but not engage in the behaviors that we expect of a leader, which is like I said, developing the skills and dispositions and capabilities of those that are on their team. Because when we can do that, we can get them to contribute, we ourselves also benefit from what we learn not only in terms of the journey that we’re encouraging and provoking, but in terms of what’s being produced. So immediate benefit right there is if you can get off the dance floor, you get this perspective of what’s happening at a much greater vantage point, not just your students, but other students, which should broaden your perspective in terms of teaching and learning in your subject or your grade level.
Michael: 09:43 And that that’s one immediate benefit. Another great benefit though, is if you can communicate that perspective to your team members and they are bought into collaborating as a team, then, in that particular case, what the team can produce is gonna be far greater than what you can do as an individual, because here they’re coming with perspective and ideas that you might not have considered, or if you did consider, that may work for some students, but by bringing in their perspective, has the potential to work for a great many more students. And that that in itself is magical because now we really can start looking at differentiation.
Steve: 10:30 My students can benefit from me stepping into that role.
Michael: 10:36 Yes. Because automatically, teacher leaders are asked to do observations. They’re asked to really have an understanding of what’s happening in their peers classrooms. So if we organize ourselves effectively and we have people that are bought into the role that we’re playing, and they’re open to hearing our perspective from what we’re gaining, by having this greater vantage point, we immediately benefit because of everything we’re learning of what’s going on in these other classrooms.
Steve: 11:12 As I was listening to you, this thought popped in my head and I wanna float it by you. I’ve almost got the sense that if I build my leadership skills and capabilities, I’m probably building my teaching skills and capabilities at the same time. Does that fly or make sense?
Michael: 11:34 Yes. Without question. Because when we think about what the purpose of a team is, the purpose of a team and a team leader by way of this definition of a team, is to get a group of individuals working independently towards some sort of shared purpose.
Steve: 11:48 That’s a classroom.
Michael: 11:50 Yeah. And if we have this shared purpose in some area of pedagogical inquiry that we are personally interested in, and now we have all these other people bought into it as well, by leading that collaboration, by motivating the interdependency of the team members working towards this purpose, we get the benefit of everything that they’re also producing. So it’s twofold. Not only do we have this greater vantage point of what’s happening across the year level or the subject, and potentially across even more subjects, because as a leader, we’re networked with other leaders, but now we’re also driving this transformational collaboration to where we have people on our team producing products that directly benefit our students.
Steve: 12:44 Michael I’m wondering, if I’ve got some people listening to this podcast who are early on in their teaching careers and thinking that they wanna move towards teacher leadership, I’m wondering what advice or insights you might share with with those entering the field today.
Michael: 13:05 Well, firstly, you don’t need to have a title to lead. That’s probably the most important thing. If there is something you
are passionate about and it is firstly, if it’s an initiative that your school is also passionate about, something that they’ve identified and an area that you would like to work more in, then invest yourself in it and make it known that that is something that you wanna do and you wanna contribute to. Just by raising your hand, you’re already demonstrating a very important leader skill and that’s by taking on challenges. And because you’re passionate about it, the school’s gonna get the best of you in terms of supporting it. And you’re gonna raise your profile because you’re giving them the best of you towards an initiative. That’s an important for them. Now that said, there could be other initiatives as well that maybe your school doesn’t have its eye on, but that doesn’t mean you can’t make a case for it. And in which case, if you can find some other educators within your realm of influence to wanna work with you, this becomes in essence, an ad hoc team that you’re leading. And again, you don’t have a formal title, but you’ve organize people with common interest working towards some common purpose and just by being able to collaborate in that way, you’re developing your leadership muscle of getting people to work independently.
Steve: 14:29 So as I was listening to you there, a word that I frequently use when I’m talking people about leadership popped into my head and that’s vulnerability. And I’m kind of hearing that putting myself into a – when you said raising my hand, that that can be vulnerable, approaching other people, but that’s part of how I step into that leadership role is taking the risk that comes with vulnerability.
Michael: 15:01 Exactly. And to be honest with you, as good leaders, we’re constantly vulnerable because we’re constantly putting ourselves out there. Our door is open. We wanna engage in meaningful dialogue, which means to really get others to meaningfully interact with us, we have to meaningfully interact with them and give of ourselves to them. And to be quite frank, one thing that comes up in a lot of the work that I do with middle leaders, they constantly are craving an understanding of how those that lead them have gotten to that position, the challenges that they had to overcome. They want to feel some type of connection to them just through having common experience. They wanna know that the struggle they’re having in their team, that those that are leading them had also had to overcome and were frustrated by. So yes, by being able to share those challenges and even those challenges that we’re currently undergoing actually goes a long way to developing trust and genuineness in terms of the relationship.
Steve: 16:15 So as a new teacher, I’m hearing I can learn from those middle-level teacher leaders currently in my school kind of watching them. And as I’m thinking about that, I’m also hearing a role for current middle level leaders to be building the leadership skillsets of their colleagues.
Michael: 16:40 Yeah, exactly. And by doing so, as a form of mentorship, what you’re talking about right there, and mentor programs are something that I’m heavily invested in right now with quite a few schools, because I truly believe the workshops I do, I like to think are great, but they’re only really a small part of any leader’s development. I’m a huge believer in the 70/20/10 model where 10% really is the formal learning, the workshops, the book, the conferences. 20% of our development as leaders is who we network with, who we interact with, how we learn from them. The types of opportunities that are created when we put ourselves out there and let others know what we’re passionate about or how we’d like to develop. 70% is actually doing it then. 70% saying, hey, that’s something I’d like to work on. Can I be on that team? Or, can I participate in this in some way? That’s where the that’s where the real growth comes from.
Steve: 17:44 And reflection on what happened when I stepped into that spot.
Michael: 17:49 Yeah, exactly. And that’s where having that mentor is incredibly important because they’re the ones that help us kind of
Steve: 17:58 It’s interesting, when I’ve worked with mentor training, I tell people we’ve all heard that phrase that experience is the best teacher. And I suggest it’s actually not true. It’s experience with a mentor is the best teacher. And the reason being that when I put myself in that mentor role or I put myself the role of working with a mentor, I have the opportunity to learn from more from my experience. So I jump ahead faster from my experience, because the mentor takes me into that reflective process on it.
Michael: 18:35 Yeah.
Steve: 18:36 Well, Michael, I appreciate everything you shared with us here today. I’m wondering if you’d tell folks the best way to touch base with you and and find out about your book and and some of the other writing that you do in your blogs.
Michael: 18:52 Yeah. I highly encourage people to go to middleleader.com. That’s my website where you can learn more about me, you can access my book. And I actually have an online book study that includes interviews with other educational influencers and leaders that actually supplements each chapter of the book. Also from that website, I have a number of articles that I publish and interviews that include interviews with yours truly, Steve here, that I’m really proud of. So anything related to middle leadership that you’re interested in, middle leader.com, I assure you I have something on a topic that would interest you.
Steve: 19:31 Well, thanks again, Michael. I’ve enjoyed each of these conversations that we’ve had going the other way, where you were hosting me, so it was a real pleasure to to host you back. And I’ll be sure to put your website there into the lead-in to the podcast in case some people are out listening while they’re walking. It’ll be easy for them to go back and find.
Michael: 20:00 Well, great. Thank you so much for the opportunity, Steve and\ I look forward to more opportunities to come.
Steve: 20:05 Thanks. Have a great day.
Steve [Outro]: 20:09 Thanks for listening in folks. I’d love to hear what you’re pondering. You can find me on Twitter @stevebarkley, or send me your questions and find my videos and blogs at barkleypd.com.