Developing Self-Directed Teacher Leaders Using Habits of Mind


By Thomas R. Feller, Jr., Seth Brown, Ph.D., and Lauren Bowers


Sometimes the best solutions to a wicked problem come from a well formed question. One wicked problem our district has been facing is the loss of some of our best teachers. Upon some internal investigation we discovered that many teachers who left were looking to expand their influence and their compensation. So we asked the question, “How might we keep our most effective teachers in the classroom working with students while expanding their influence and compensation?”

One answer we created and implemented was a program we call the Teacher Leadership Institute (TLI). TLI is a four-year program focused on developing self-directed teacher leaders capable of empowering others.  It offers significant training in leadership, an opportunity to lead peers, financial support for certification by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, and an internal supplement designed to increase a teacher’s pay. It is one way in which we are expanding teachers’ influence and compensation in an effort to retain them in our schools. TLI is part of the larger Pitt County Schools’ (PCS) R3 Framework: Recruit, Retain, Reward. 


The Teacher Leadership Institute

Based on our experience, we realized that simply giving someone a leadership title or placing him or her in a leadership role does not automatically make that person a leader; leadership is something larger, something deeper. We decided leadership had to be more than what one did and needed to encompass who one is. While many of our teachers expressed a desire for expanded influence (a term we view as largely synonymous with leadership), they did not want to become administrators – the traditional option for leadership in schools. Our task, then, was to design a program which expanded a teacher’s influence (leadership) and did not lead to administration. Through TLI, teachers develop both the identity and capacity to influence (lead) their peers while remaining in the classroom.

Every year a new cohort of 25 teachers is accepted into TLI. In the first two years teachers participate in professional learning experiences focused on developing their identity and capacities as leaders; three of the core training components are Habits of Mind for Leaders, Cognitive CoachingSM Foundations, and Adaptive Schools Foundations. During the second year of the program, participants complete a leadership project designed to put into practice the dispositions and behaviors they have been learning. Both the training and leadership project are aligned with the Teacher Leadership Competencies rubric developed by the Center for Teaching Quality, National Board of Professional Teaching Standards, & National Education Association. In total, teachers participate in over 20 full days of training during the first two years of the program, in addition to multiple 1:1 coaching conferences.

In years three and four, teachers are eligible to receive financial assistance and program support for the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards certification, as well as a two-year, internal financial supplement. In our state, teachers who receive NBPTS certification receive a salary supplement equal to 12% of the salary, so the internal supplement provided by TLI in years 3-4 is a type of financial bridge with the goal that teachers eventually receive a larger supplement once they complete NBPTS certification. As of May 2018, nearly 50 teachers have successfully completed the initial two-year training program and are receiving this supplement and another 50 teachers are in either their first or second year of training.


Applying Habits of Mind in TLI

With our first three cohorts we have focused on both the training and use of the 16 Habits of Mind, specifically through the lens of teacher leadership. Our bias is that until someone can put the habits into practice him/herself that person will struggle to develop the habits in others. The very first training component TLI teachers engage in, after receiving a general program overview, is two days of face-to-face HOM training, with a lens on how the habits help support leaders. Some specific examples include:

  • Creating, Imagining, and Innovating – One activity participants engage in on the first day of TLI is to create a leadership analogy/metaphor, which is then re-examined over the two years and refined/edited as their understanding changes. Examples of previous metaphors include shepherds, keystones, and even bus drivers.
  • Finding Humor – This may be perhaps one of the easiest habits to observe during a training and yet the hardest to describe in writing because so much of it is “in the moment”. One of the working agreements we enter into is a commitment to “have fun,” and humor is a huge portion of that. One person, when asked about how the habits connect with TLI responded simply that humor is “part of everything we do!” TLI cohorts often identify their own inside jokes, one of those marks of healthy, vibrant community. Ideas and terms like sailing on pirate ships, farting sheep, Mind Ninja, WHOR-U, playing drums, or even being “Tom Fellered”, may not mean much to the readers of this blog post, but they define aspects of what and who TLI is, and they are all examples where the habit of Finding Humor led to epic myths created and shared by the members of a community.
  • Managing Impulsivity – We often use the phrase with our leaders in training, “Go slow to go fast”.  Participants are excited when they leave trainings to implement what they’re learning in an effort to change the world, so we work with them to start small and grow as they experience success. Participants are challenged to start making changes first in the area they have the most influence – their classrooms – and then gradually expand into other areas (like PLCs, grade levels, and faculty meetings) as they develop competence and confidence. Another example of this habit is turning off the internal voice when others people speak so that we listen to understand rather than respond, an impulse we all share. So on a very practical level, the intention behind Listening and Understanding and Empathy actually provides the motivation for Managing Impulsivity.
  • Thinking Interdependently – From the very beginning of training participants are organized into lab groups where they develop a common name and identity. Teachers participate in a summer retreat where one evening involves playing in a drum circle – an activity where they experience the power of music and collaboration by participating by playing songs from African and Caribbean cultures in traditional ways.
  • Thinking about Your Thinking (Metacognition) – In addition to multiple, scheduled 1:1 coachings where teachers reflect deeply upon their thinking about leadership and what it means to be a leader, they also engage in regular journaling, a reflection paper where they describe changes in their thinking about leadership, and even a letter to their future self.
  • Responding with Wonderment and Awe – While all participants engage in regular reflections, looking back at all that has been accomplished, we also end TLI with an elaborate graduation banquet. Teachers are treated to an evening with live music (in the past we’ve had a string quartet or a harpist) and a formal dinner in a restored, antique banquet hall in the heart of our small city.  Participants bring a guest of their choosing plus their school principal, and they are joined by board members, district leaders, and program directors to celebrate and and honor them and their work.  It’s an evening to step back and respond to all that has been accomplished and learned.


Being explicit in connecting the practices of TLI with the habits of mind has been important for our teacher’s learning. While above we identified some specific examples of singular habits, we also recognize the habits are not used in isolation. So one example of how the habits come together to support our teacher leaders in training is the capstone project, an opportunity where teachers are both expected to and supported in Taking Responsible Risks. During the summer between their first and second year, teachers identify a project focus and develop a project plan, then during the year they implement the project idea, measure progress, and at the end of the year they report the impact and results.  Specifically, in developing the plan they begin by Questioning and Posing Problems in an effort to come to clarity (Striving for Accuracy); their recommended “solution” requires them to Think Flexibly while they Create, Imagine, and Innovate. Implementation of the project involves teachers stepping into a leadership role by working with other teachers (Thinking Interdependently and Listening with Understanding and Empathy). As they implement the project they demonstrate (and develop) Persistence as well as Apply Past Knowledge to New Situations. Finally, in reporting out project impact and results they develop a formal presentation and compose a written reflection, requiring them to Think and Communicate with Clarity & Precision. The entire process is one in which participates must be Open to Continuous Learning.


Developing TLI with the Habits of Mind in Mind

The development of TLI itself is evidence of the use of the habits. Returning to how we started this post, when we developed the program we were not facing a problem any other district had not faced, though we did go about considering it differently than many. In investigating and identifying why teachers were leaving we were Striving for Accuracy and Thinking with Clarity and Precision; we wanted to get to some of the root issues so we could design a deep solution rather than simply treat symptoms. Our desire for accuracy led us to Question and Pose Problems, including exploring what others outside education were doing to address similar issues. We had to Think Flexibly about solutions, and, perhaps most importantly, we had to Listen with Understanding and Empathy to the teachers who were leaving.

The development of the program was not a solo effort. On the contrary, it involved multiple people in addition to the program developers. Once we had imagined a creative, innovative idea, we thought interdependently as we collaborated with business sponsors and non-profit foundations to fund the program while working with district leaders to implement it. That interdependence empowered us to take the responsible risk of launching the Institute.



Now, after three years of implementation and refinement, we are able to step back in wonderment and awe at what the teachers themselves have accomplished as a result of the program. A formal program evaluation was conducted to examine impacts on the first class of participants. In an effort to get a comprehensive perspective, the evaluator used surveys and interviews of three key groups: program participants, their respective principals, and the teachers they led. We can confidently report that teachers overwhelming feel TLI was instrumental and transformational in expanding their professional identity, influence, and capacity. Specifically:

  • 80% of TLI teachers, 100% of principals, and 100% of peers identified specific areas participants grew on the Teacher Leadership Competencies rubric as a result of their experience in TLI. The most common areas identified were (1) working with adults, (2) communication, and (3) facilitating and leading group processes. While these categories do not have a direct correlation to the Habits, we would connect them most closely to Listening with Understanding and Empathy, Thinking and Communicating with Clarity and Precision, Thinking Flexibly, Taking Responsible Risks, Thinking Interdependently, and Remaining Open to Continuous Learning.
  • A common term used by those who were interviewed and surveyed was “transformational.”  Participants (and those who worked with them) generally felt the teachers were different people as a result of their time in TLI. Not only did they interact differently with colleagues at work, but also with family members, friends, and others in their life. As one teacher said, “Whenever we learn certain skills or strategies in the program I exercise those skills and strategies outside of my workplace.”  Again, while this idea of transformational learning does not have a direct correlation to the Habits, we would connect it most closely with Remaining Open to Continuous Learning and Responding with Wonderment and Awe.


Concluding Thoughts

We believe our successes are a result of our commitment to developing self-directed individuals. TLI is designed to develop a teacher’s identity as a self-directed, collaborative leader and learner. As individual teachers develop the capacity to become self-directed learners, learning itself transcends that one teacher and expands to include others. We have learned teacher leadership is not a role to be filled but an identity to be held, and leadership identity is influenced by thinking, and thinking drives behavior. Everything about TLI – the face-to-face trainings, the project, the 1:1 coachings, the competency rubric – everything supports the development of teachers as leaders.

Returning to how we started this post, one of our initial goals in creating TLI was to keep our best teachers by expanding their influence and compensation. The very question we asked (“How might we keep our most effective teachers in the classroom working with students while expanding their influence and compensation?”) shifted our thinking so that we focused less on retention and more on development and growth; that shift helped us realize turnover was more a symptom of a deeper problem rather than the actual problem itself. Now, several years later, based on both experience and research, we are more convinced than ever we chose the right path. According to a recent Gallup report, 84% of teachers who leave their jobs do so voluntarily, and 60% of those who left voluntarily said the “primary reason for leaving their last job was career advancement or development.” *  TLI offers teachers both career advancement and development (we view the terms as nearly synonymous with our terms “influence and compensation”). An external program evaluation conducted on the program concluded, “One of the strongest themes derived from the fall data was that [TLI was] well aligned with teachers’ professional goals…Indeed, teachers had a vested interest in remaining in the classrooms and saw [TLI] as a way of balancing their leadership and teaching goals.” **

We need teacher leaders across our district, and, based on our interactions with others around the country, our need is not unique. TLI is starting to help us meet that need. Instead of adapting a single program which can be quickly replaced, we have focused on helping our teacher leaders clarify and solidify their identities as leaders while empowering them with specific behaviors and strategies. TLI provides aspiring teacher leaders a supportive community where they have the opportunity to both learn to lead and learn by leading when they put those lessons into practice.



** January 2018 R3 Framework Evaluation Brief, Page 3.


Read more from these authors. 


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