Team Leaders in a Professional Learning Community

Collaborative teams are the engines that drive professional learning communities. It is simply impossible to ensure high levels of learning for all students if teachers are working in isolation. The quality of work performed by teams depends on team leaders who join with their principal to direct the team’s work ensuring that the team is focusing on the right things and continually improving, laboring together to improve student learning. Just as district success depends on the leadership capability of superintendents and school success depends to a great degree on the leadership of principals, the success of collaborative teams depends on the leadership capacity of team leaders.

Ironically, the role of team leader is one of the least examined aspects of school structure and culture. How are team leaders selected in traditional schools? The answers include asking for volunteers and saying, "We’re willing to let you if you are willing to do it?", automatically rotating leaders each year, voting, and using the role of team leader to provide leadership opportunities for all teachers. One team shared that they used the "huddle up" strategy. It went like this: "You have 10 minutes to huddle up with your department and pick your team leader!" In short, in many districts, the role of team leader what they are to do and how they are selected goes largely unexamined.

Compare how team leaders are selected with other aspects of schooling. For example, think about how the head football coach at the high school selects his coaching staff. He would give considerable thought to who should fill each role. He wouldn’t just rotate his offensive coordinators each year or simply search for volunteers! He would select the best person to fill the position, and the position of offensive coordinator would be well defined and the role expectations clearly communicated.

The first step in addressing the role of team leader is to collaboratively develop a position description. It is unreasonable to have expectations of team leaders without clarity regarding what the role entails. While each school culture is different, a few things would be consistent in schools seeking to function as professional learning communities. For example, team leaders are expected to lead the development and adherence to team norms, clarify and add meaning to essential learning outcomes for each subject or course, develop and utilize formative common assessments, analyze student learning student by student, skill by skill, direct students to specific additional time and support or enrichment, seek out and share best practice, and lead the team in a process of developing and monitoring the attainment of SMART goals. In short, the team leader fulfills the role of serving as the leader of the team!

Additionally, considerable thought should be given to the relationship between the principal and team leaders. Just as principals should be part of a high-performing administrative team at the district level, team leaders should play an integral role as members of the principal’s leadership team at the school level. Leaders of professional learning communities, whether at the district level, school level, or team level, are constantly and consistently modeling the work of high-performing collaborative teams; focusing on improving student learning; practicing, rehearsing, and modeling the work that ultimately will be expected of others; and developing a culture of continuous improvement.

Not only should thought be given to position descriptions and the team leader’s role as part of the school leadership team; considerable thought must also be given to the kind of training and support team leaders need in order to be successful. If we expect team leaders to perform their duties at a high level, they deserve the support, resources, and training necessary to successfully do the job they are asked to do.


Simply organizing a school into collaborative teams, in and of itself, will do little to improve learning levels of students. The fundamental question is, "What do collaborative teams do, and how well do they do it?" And the answer to this question depends, to a great degree, on the role of team leader. How they are selected and what they are expected to do.

In the White River School District, in Buckley, Washington, considerable thought has been given to the role of the team leader. Below you’ll find the position description for a team leader that was collaboratively developed and is currently utilized across the district.

Position Description: Team Leader

A high-performing collaborative team of teachers is the heart and soul of a school that functions as a professional learning community, and a highly effective team is invariably led by an effective team leader. The success of the White River School District to achieve its mission of ensuring high levels of learning for all students depends to a great degree on the leadership capacity of the team leaders in each school. Thus, the selection of team leaders in White River is a thoughtful, informed, and deliberate decision of critical importance.

The educators who serve in this very important role are expected to coordinate and lead the work of their team. They will work closely with the Learning Improvement Coordinator within their building and report directly to the building principal. Additionally, team leaders serve as contributing members of the principal’s administrative team. Team leaders are expected to articulate and communicate to the administration faculty questions, needs, and concerns, while at the same time communicating and explaining the rationale and specifics of the administration’s plans and initiatives to the faculty. In short, the team leader serves as the key communication link between the administration and the faculty.

Team leaders are expected to enhance the capacity of their team to work interdependently to achieve common goals for which team members hold themselves mutually accountable. In fulfilling the role of leading their team, team leaders are responsible for such functions as leading the team in preparing and utilizing team norms, planning agendas, chairing meetings, serving as a direct communications link between the administration and the faculty, leading the work of teams in analyzing and improving student learning data, seeking out and experimenting with best practices, leading the collaborative development and attainment of learning improvement goals, and identifying and communicating professional development needs. Team leaders must work continually to enhance the effectiveness of their team by ensuring that the team focuses on the critical questions and practices associated with improving student learning in a manner that is reflective of the highest quality.

Educators who serve as team leaders must have a demonstrated record of effectiveness in their own teaching, and they must have earned the recognition and respect of their peers. Team leaders must have excellent planning and organizational skills as well as the ability to work well with others. In order to enhance the leadership capacity and effectiveness of others, team leaders must model a desire and willingness to continually learn, constantly seeking ways to first improve themselves so that they can more effectively lead their team.

In short, the White River School District is seeking outstanding individuals to lead building-level collaborative teams of teachers in order to more effectively impact student leaning levels, student by student, skill by skill, relentlessly and continually!


Brian Covell

We are a small faculty of just thirty and we have just implemented PLC. I am very hopeful that we will be able to come together as a community and ensure high levels of learning for all of our students. By having a strong PLC, I feel like we will be able to provide leadership opportunities for all teachers.

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Bill Hall

Bob and Janel have hit the leadership nail on the head! Team leader identification, selection and training must be a formal and purposeful part of PLC development. These critical components cannot be left to chance. Whether we are talking about leading a PLC or sitting as a member of the school's leadership team/guiding coalition, training, coaching and mentoring must be in place for these essential positions to take root and flourish. The position description is a great idea.

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We had very good luck allowing everyone to take turns being the leader of their team. Each year, every team chooses a leader and a Jr. leader. The Jr. does all the grunt work for the team and is my (the principal) contact for business items to and from the team. The idea is that they are the backup in case the leader is absent and to help practice guiding the team for a year before they are the one in charge. We support our leaders with monthly support and professional development meetings. Some people who were reluctant to step forward finally took a turn our third year in. Some of them absolutely floored me...lots of amazing leadership from unexpected people. We had a staff of 30, with six teams. We also had four others who managed our vertical curriculum teams, and lots of chances for others to participate in task forces like our School Plan or RtI groups. Overall, I think this rotating leadership structure has resulted in everyone feeling much more connected and capable. I am very proud to say that our school climate and much improved results are an indication of the success of this distributed leadership!

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My concern is that my Teacher Leadership Team has six members and we do not have all content groups represented on the Leadership Team. We are a small faculty of 33. We use to have 8 members (two were guidance counselors) and have been on the leadership team for 5-7 years. Several have asked to step down due to burn out and other obligations...we have had several young and enthusiastic teachers get on the team, yet every content team will not be represented, matter of fact I will have two social studies teachers on the Leadership Team. I am excited about getting some new blood on the team and am hoping the outgoing members will be assets outside the Leadership Team.

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