Leveraging Your Teacher Leaders as Peer Mentors

Collaboration Montage

Teacher leaders can help your coaching efforts in tons of different ways. Ramona Towner, elementary instructional coach in Illinois, relays her process for encouraging influential teachers to share their work and skills with peers.


ow does a coach make an impact on student growth with limited time and resources? They leverage teacher leaders to spread their influence more efficiently. Simply put, a teacher leader is a teacher who's listened to, respected, and an influencer within the building.

Where to Find Them

I work in a district that's considered high-poverty, low-pay, and consequently, high-turnover. Fortunately, we've been making positive changes within the district through the use of instructional coaching since we went 1:1 (one laptop per student) in August 2012. During our iCoach team meetings, for instance, we consider "who would take our place if we didn't show up for work tomorrow" and later ask principals, assistant principals, and support staff to get a sense of who the teacher leaders are in each school. Because of the turnover rate in the district, the names do change from year-to-year. Ironically, this makes it even more of an exciting challenge!

The Process

Express Vulnerability to Level the Playing Field

Our coaches work with teachers through both deep and surface-level coaching. Deep coaching, often referred to as cycles, is where the coach meets with a candidate to discuss what change is going to be implemented. They then work together to implement that change, followed by a final meeting to reflect on the process. Surface-level coaching, on the other hand, is where a coach goes in to support a teacher with a particular lesson or project and is often a one-and-done process.

While working through coaching cycles, I try to meet face-to-face whenever possible. However, sometimes this isn't always possible and we are forced to work together via email. During the process, I'll tell the teacher that I've heard there are noteworthy things happening in their classroom and that I want to work and learn together.

One thing to keep in mind is that it's important to remain vulnerable and show that you're not the expert in everything. I believe this helps level the playing field so that teachers aren't intimidated to work with a coach. If reluctance does occur, I let them know that I'm not there to evaluate them and that their struggles remain between us throughout the process!

Identify Strengths

Once a teacher agrees to the coaching cycle, I then observe the culture of the classroom once or twice. Afterward, the teacher and I meet to discuss the teacher's professional goals, student achievement, student growth, student behaviors, and the plan for change. What you'll notice is that some teachers know exactly what they want to implement, while others need to talk it through.

Team Planning: Opportunities for Collaboration

Our teachers have at least one 70-minute team planning session per week. This was implemented by our administration at the beginning of our 1:1 journey as a way for teachers to not only plan together but to learn new skills from each other. Teams consist of 2-4 teachers from the same grade-level depending on the size of the school. During this time, they share what's going on in their classroom with their peers.

The teams look at district pacing guides to plan units that meet the standards. Then, they review available resources, discuss how they will best support instruction moving forward, and review assessments to ensure they match lesson objectives. Finally, team members support each other by sharing new effective instructional practices. As a coach, I encourage teachers who I'm working with to share what we're doing with their team as they're usually very eager to find out what is going on with the coach!

Personal Triumph: Ego-Envy Effect

The first time I saw evidence of my influence being spread was a very special moment for me. It happened a few years ago when I was working with a first-grade teacher who wanted to improve her reading centers. We decided on using QR codes so that some of the centers were self-checking.

To start, I showed the teacher how to create QR codes and how students can use an app to scan the code. Then, she created her own reading centers that led to a high success rate with students who engaged in the QR codes. During the next grade-level meeting, she shared the strategy with her team out of sheer excitement. Fast forward to one day when I was walking to her classroom and noticed that every teacher in the first- and second-grade hallway had QR code activities hanging on the bulletin boards outside their classrooms! Additionally, the second-grade teachers wanted to know what it was all about and how to do it in their classrooms too. In our district, we call this the ego-envy effect. The first-grade teacher shared a skill because her ego was in check and, shortly after, other teachers wanted to acquire the skill too.

Final Note

Growing teacher leaders is rewarding for coaches. When a coach sees their influence spread—across a grade level or even an entire school—there's a real sense of satisfaction for a job well done. The coachee/mentee, in turn, becomes the coach or mentor in future situations.

In becoming a mentor, they have to constantly re-evaluate their skills in order to demonstrate them to others and perfect their craft. Through vulnerability, they push themselves outside their comfort zone to demonstrate growth through more listening and less talking.

About our Guest Blogger

Ramona "Mona" Towner is an elementary instructional coach in suburban Chicago with 28 years of educational experience, 6 of which as a coach. As an instructional coach, she travels between 8 buildings working with teachers to help meet the standards put in place by the district and to integrate technology. She is also the district G Suite administrator, social media manager, VPP manager for the iPad program, and serves on the district's Professional Development Team. Mona is a Google Certified Educator (Level 2), an Apple Teacher, and a Touchcast Ambassador.

Outside of a school setting, Mona enjoys learning from others by attending and presenting at local, state, national, and international conferences. She recently published a book for Book Creator, Supporting Language Learners.

Be sure to check out her blog and to follow her on Twitter @rmbtowner_tech!

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