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5 qualities for teacher leaders and those who hire them

House Bill 235 outlines credentials that mentor teachers should possess so that they can provide support for new teachers. Those credentials include being an “excellent, experienced, and qualified” teacher who has at least an “accomplished” rating on their NC Teacher Evaluation.

If the criteria seem a little vague, it’s because they are. We know it takes more than a rating on an evaluation to be ready to lead and coach teachers. While the bill calls for the State Board to “develop and distribute guidelines which address optimum teaching load, extracurricular duties, student assignment, and other working condition considerations,” there will also need to be a set of guidelines in place for the teacher mentors who are hired to help fill the gaps — gaps that directly correlate to decreased student achievement.

During my 13 years in education, I have served as a sports coach, a team leader, a facilitator, and a coordinator, but my current role is what I consider to be a “true” teacher-leader, where nearly 100 percent of my work time is dedicated to making the work of teachers more effective so that the achievement of their students can soar higher. Public Impact’s Opportunity Culture provides opportunities like these so that teachers can keep one foot in the classroom and take a step out to help teachers who are overworked, underappreciated, and too often than not sent into the workforce with little direction, little organization, and little support.

If you are a principal, administrator, or decision maker of any kind who is looking to put some teacher leaders or mentors in place, this list is for you. These are the top five qualities you should be looking for when filling your vacancies.

1. Lead with passion

While it may be cliche, it has to be true if you want a person to step into a role that involves giving advice, modeling, and providing feedback to teachers. Passion for the work results in a positive attitude, an optimistic spirit, and a persevering nature.

Are they excited about trying new things? Are they pumped about tackling the challenges in front of them? Even in the interview, you can tell if a person’s passion is in the wrong place. Do they mention supporting teachers and students, or is their focus on personal success?

Pay careful attention for those who may be more focused on getting their families settled, making money, securing employment, starting fresh, or climbing the professional ladder. While your candidates will have lives and aspirations of their own, their passion for their work in education must shine through.

2. Ability to self-reflect

Teacher leaders are not immune to the frustrations and obstacles of life. They will not do everything perfectly, and mistakes will happen. While they may have hundreds of students and several teachers under their care, they will still have to maneuver the workplace carefully and learn as they go.

One of the most important qualities that all educators — not just mentors and coaches — need is the ability to self-reflect. At the end of my busy day, I sit at my desk or in my car in silence and think about what happened that day. I review every decision I made. When could I have been more gentle? More firm? What words of encouragement did I fail to say? Which students didn’t get my attention? What teacher did not I not help that I could have?

In interviews, my assistant principal often asks candidates, “Tell me about a time you received feedback, and what did you do in response?” But teacher leaders do not always get feedback. We do not always have someone to tell us what we should have done or said differently. You will want to hire someone who can do that thinking for themselves, and always show up ready to do things better than they did the day before.

3. Knowledge that this too shall pass

In the field of education, there are so many things that can bog you down — apathetic students, complacent teachers, standardized tests, ridiculous demands, mounds of paperwork, next-to-nothing pay.

But does the teacher leader you want to hire know that trouble will not last always? Have you hired someone who understands that there are brighter days on the other side of any obstacle? The phrase “this too shall pass” brought me through many trying circumstances.

When the school year seems to be in a rut — too many days until spring break or too few students hitting their goals — teachers will depend on their mentor or coach even more, and that person must be able speak with genuine encouragement to help others persevere. How can you tell if a person has this quality in an interview? Try asking them this question: In the midst of an obstacle that you didn’t foresee coming, how do you react, what do you think, and what do you say? Hope they answer you correctly, but the right candidate will know that trouble is fleeting.

4. Equipped with armor

At some point, every coach, mentor, and teacher leader faces what could be seen as a personal attack that happens within the workplace. A couple of years ago, I asked an administrator to meet with my team to help us clear up some miscommunication that was getting in the way of our progress. The administrator had us all sit in a circle, and she asked the team members to tell me what problems they had with me.

During that hour-long meeting, I sat quietly, taking notes in my notebook and pushing back tears, while each teacher hurled all of their frustrations directly at me. I was shocked by some of the things I heard as I was being named as the origin of issues I did not create. While it was not the way a true restorative workplace meeting should go, it did teach me one thing: Each day, I need to come to work cloaked in armor.

Find out what your candidates’ armor may be. Mine is prayer. I pray in the mornings for peace and discernment. I pray for my colleagues and my students, and I pray for strength. Your teacher leaders may stay centered in other ways — meditation, mantras, or motivational videos. Whatever their preference, they need to carry their armor with them every day so that they will show up the next day ready to face what may come.

5. Appreciate the possibilities

Leaders cannot lead without learning. But just because one learns new ways to solve a problem, it does not mean that the solutions will always belong to the leader. Those being led will sometimes develop their own ways to solve problems because they too are professionals who can think for themselves.

While you will be inclined to hire someone that others run to, you will really want a leader who can build teachers’ capacities to direct their own path and make good choices for how to deliver instruction to their students. Your prime candidate should embrace others’ opinions and appreciate all of the possibilities that are set before them.

Marquitta Mitchell

Marquitta Mitchell is a Magnet Programs Specialist for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and a Hope Street Group fellow. She has two bachelor degrees from North Carolina State University and a Master of Arts in English from National University. She has been an educator in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools district for 11 years.