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As we enter the new millennium, teachers are closer than ever before to realizing their critically important and rightful position as leaders in PreK-12 education. Educational practice today requires more and increasingly varied participation by teachers in the leadership work of continual school improvement and renewal. The advances in teaching and learning that are increasingly required to maximize the growth and contributions of this next generation of children will not be realized without teachers, supported by administrators and enabled in a culture of collaborative learning, who lead among their peers.
An evolution in the thinking about teacher leadership has been described by Silva, Gimbert, and Nolan (2000) as three “waves.” The essence of teacher leadership in the first wave was teachers assuming formal positions, such as department chair, site committee member, or union representative, positions largely focused on increasing the efficiency of school management. Activities included scheduling, assigning classes, coordinating special events, and serving as a communication link between administrators and teachers. In this wave, conceptions of teacher-leaders focused on keeping things running smoothly.
A second wave of teacher leadership “. . . acknowledged the importance of teachers as instructional leaders and created positions that capitalized on teacher instructional knowledge” (Silva et al., 2000, p. 780). In this wave, teachers assumed formally identified leadership positions such as staff developer or curriculum specialist. Some of these instructional leadership functions were add-ons to regular classroom teaching responsibilities. Curricular and instructional leadership in the second wave was viewed as important, yet still as an extra, not central, role of teachers.
In the unfolding third wave of teacher leadership, teachers are leaders in creating and sustaining a collaborative culture of learning in the school focused on improving instructional practice (Silva et al., 2000). All teachers are viewed as potential leaders who can share the responsibility of continual professional and school development, regardless of whether they hold a formal designation of leader (Barth, 2001; Frost & Harris, 2003). An expectation for leadership is embedded within the work scope of teachers instead of being an add-on. Teachers share leadership responsibilities with the principal to shape and enact the school’s vision of advancing teaching, rather than just being communicators or coordinators. Not to be construed as revisiting the quasi-administrative functions of the first wave, nor having the prepackaged curriculum feel of the second wave, teacher leadership now explicitly holds developing learning capacity as its core function—learning for the grown-ups and students in schools.
These three waves of teacher leadership reflect an evolution in thinking about how teachers participate in school leadership and learning. This evolution has not happened in a vacuum. Increasing educational accountability, progressive conceptions of leadership as collective, and the movement to transform schools into professional learning communities are significant contextual influences.
The educational climate in the United States has become one in which not only districts and schools, but also administrators and teachers, are held accountable for the progress of students in meeting state and district standards. One indicator of teacher accountability is the prevalence of proposals for performance- or merit-based compensation structures that tie increases in teacher pay to increases in student performance (Odden & Kelley, 1997). Federal mandates within the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) also create pressure for changes at the level of classroom practice, as demonstrations of adequate yearly student progress must be documented. With changes in classroom practice being the target of improvement, teachers must be centrally involved.
More inclusive conceptions of leadership have also increased attention on how teachers can and do lead. Leadership is increasingly understood as a phenomenon shared by many individuals within organizations (Lambert, 2003). A traditional view that upholds the principal as the sole source of leadership in a school is being replaced with a view that calls for administrators and teachers to share leadership. Extending the earlier work of Ogawa and Bossert (1995), who asserted that leadership was an organizational quality, Spillane, Halverson, and Diamond (2001) have introduced the concept of “distributed leadership.” A distributed model of leadership suggests that leadership is influence (Yukl, 1994) and that the pathways for achieving influence in organizations are the relationships among its members (Louis, 2006; Yukl, 1994). Based on this argument, teachers are key school leaders because they are positioned to influence peers through collegial relationships.
The movement toward re-creating schools as learning communities for educators as well as students is another influence on the evolving leadership roles of teachers (Hord, 2004; Louis, 2006). Derived from the early work of Forrester (1961) and the more recent works of Senge and his colleagues (Senge et al., 2000), organizations in which learning is the cornerstone are considered more adaptable and, therefore, more viable. According to Senge and colleagues, every organization is a product of how its members think and interact. Organizations, like people, that continue to learn are better situated not only to adapt but also to thrive in the context of an ever-changing external environment. Additionally, Louis (2006) explains that understanding the learning organization involves “the creation of socially constructed interpretations of facts and knowledge that enter the organization from the environment, or are generated from within” (p. 81). Given that teachers are potentially the greatest collective force in schools, learning, adaptivity, and leadership from within the community of teachers are paramount to continual adaptation and viability.
Together, then, accountability demands, understandings about leadership as shared practice, and the transformation of schools as learning communities constitute a powerful set of forces shaping the nature of teaching and teachers. The time is right for taking a bolder and more encompassing stride toward firmly planting teacher leadership in the landscape of continual school renewal. As a field, we have grown in our understanding about what it means and what it takes to nurture teacher leadership. We have witnessed the powerful influence of teachers as they lead from the middle of the organizational hierarchy in schools and side-by-side with their colleagues.
In a comprehensive review of teacher leadership research, York-Barr and Duke (2004) offer the following definition of teacher leadership:
Teacher leadership is the process by which teachers, individually or collectively, influence their colleagues, principals, and other members of school communities to improve teaching and learning practices with the aim of increased student learning and achievement, (pp. 287-288)
This definition is broad enough to encompass many domains of teacher leadership practice. In this research-paper, however, we focus specifically on the role of teacher-leader in the domains of teacher learning and instructional practice, along with school development to support learning and practice. We identify and describe significant cultural influences on the enactment of teacher leadership, principles and practices that ground the work of teacher-leaders, and resources that encourage and support teacher-leaders in their work. Our purpose is to articulate what is known about how to most effectively and efficiently engage the talent, energy, and influence of teachers as a central resource for advancing teaching and learning in schools.
Lessons Learned About Teacher Leadership
In this third wave of teacher leadership, leadership is not restricted to a few select individuals, but is to be shared by many teachers. Numerous leading researchers advance the idea of building leadership capacity such that many people are involved in leading the learning work in schools and are supported in their own learning and growth to do so (Crowther, Kaagan, Ferguson & Hann, 2002; Fullan, 2007; Lambert, 2003; Louis, 2006). In this next section we offer 12 lessons intended to support the many or the few teachers who either step in or are invited to lead, along with those who support them in their leadership work.
Lessons About the Culture Within Which Teachers Lead
School cultures are complex webs of traditions and rituals that have been built over time as teachers, students, parents, and administrators work together and deal with various challenges and accomplishments. “Cultural patterns are highly enduring, have a powerful impact on performance, and shape the ways people think, act, and feel” (Deal & Peterson, 1998, p. 4). Existing cultures, depending on their specific nature, can either help or hinder ongoing leadership efforts for school improvement. Edward Demming, an icon of quality management, has been attributed with saying, “put a good person in a bad system and the system will win every time.” This emphasizes the powerful effect of existing norms, explicit or implicit, on human behavior. It also helps explain why teachers may enter a system with one set of ideals and values but over time succumb to the prevailing ones, sometimes without awareness of the gradual shift.
Schein (2004) explains, “neither culture nor leadership, when one examines each closely, can really be understood by itself” (p. 5). Leadership and culture, he asserts, are two sides of the same coin. Fullan (2001) introduced the term “re-culturing” to capture the essence of what it means to introduce and sustain change in existing school cultures. Without a doubt, teacher leadership introduces a counter-cultural presence in many schools. It should be no surprise then that principals, teachers, and teacher-leaders themselves are not exactly sure what to think and do as the idea of teacher leadership attempts translation into practice. Wilson (1993) shares that many teacher-leaders feel that current school cultures do not reward risk taking or collaboration and may perhaps even obstruct these behaviors. Described below are several lessons about cultural and professional norms that continue to plague many schools and teacher leadership.
Beware the Effects of Isolation
One of the most enduring and counterproductive cultural norms in schools is isolation (Rosenholtz, 1991). Isolation is structured into schools architecturally and temporally (Fullan & Hargreaves, 1996). Sometimes referred to as “egg carton architecture,” classrooms largely are the private practice realm of teachers and teaching. Although surrounded by students for many hours a day, teachers are separate from their colleagues. Typical school schedules leave little time during which teaching colleagues can meaningfully connect with one another about their practices. Not only does isolation diminish professional growth, but prolonged isolation reinforces a solitary orientation to one’s work and often breeds defensiveness and finger pointing. This orientation further diminishes the opportunity to establish a collaborative or collective norm for the work of teaching.
Although there are a growing number of schools in which regular opportunities and expectations for collaborative learning exist, most schools continue to struggle both for structural and psychological reasons to establish such cultures. Teachers are not used to exposing their practices; to do so is a vulnerable act requiring high levels of trust. Collaborative learning and interdependent work require a different way of thinking and behaving than isolated work. Initial efforts to chip away at the culture of isolation require intentionally designed and facilitated interactions such that participants feel safe and supported as they share with colleagues.
Stepping Up Can Be Viewed as Stepping Out of Line
Many well-intended teacher leadership initiatives are thwarted by the stronghold of egalitarian norms in schools (Lieberman & Miller, 1994; Little & McLaughlin, 1993). Egalitarian norms exert invisible pressure on teachers to retain equal status and not strive to be above their teaching colleagues. Especially when teachers assume formal positions of leadership, the “all teachers are equal” culture is threatened (Smylie, 1992). Stepping up to engage in leadership work frequently has been considered stepping out of line. Teachers who do so are regarded with suspicion and distrust. The “crab-bucket” metaphor described by Duke (1994) presents a compelling image of how relationships in the schoolhouse can be challenged by teacher leadership. When crabbing, there is no need to put a lid on a bucket of crabs because in the event that a crab tries to climb out, fellow crabs will grab hold and drag it back down. This is a disturbing, yet uncomfortably familiar, portrayal of life in some traditional school cultures.
Left unacknowledged and unaddressed, egalitarian norms impede teacher leadership efforts. This is especially true amid the current wave of school development and teacher leadership, one that aims to create school cultures that are collaborative and open to learning and improvement. In school cultures that are less conducive to collaboration and learning, commitments must be made to break down resistance by creating safe places for teachers to engage in collegial conversations about teaching and learning. When relationships between teacher-leaders and their colleagues are strong, and when teacher-leaders focus on improving their own instructional knowledge and practice as well as that of their colleagues, leaders are more likely to emerge and be encouraged and valued within their schools.
The Learning Void Reinforces Cycles of Cynicism
Historically, meaningful learning in schools has not been experienced by teachers. Irrelevant, episodic, and incoherent are terms that too often have described the staff development experiences of teachers. The adage, “I hope to die in staff development because the transition would be so seamless,” is not without a grounded base in teachers’ reality. Although there are indications of progress, high-quality learning and sustained improvement efforts have not been standard practice in schools. Many teachers have not experienced staff development that is useful for their professional practice. Further, because specific development efforts rarely have been sustained over time, full implementation of new initiatives has rarely occurred. A lot of energy and resources have been expended but nothing much has changed. And so, the cycle of cynicism continues, reflected in comments such as: “We’ve tried that before and it doesn’t work.” . . . “Wait this one out, it will go away like all the others.” . . . “It’s all theory, it will never work here.”
Until teachers experience the energy boost that comes from high-quality professional learning and see its positive impact on their teaching practices, and subsequently on student learning, cynicism and halfhearted engagement are well considered adaptive responses. But professional learning that is relevant to instructional practice, sustained over time, and socially supported through collaborative interactions with colleagues can begin to interrupt the cycles of cynicism that derail even valid initiatives. As cycles of cynicism decline, teachers feel more empowered in their work. The “if only” stories (that is, stories about how things could be different, if only . . . ) that permeate school culture will also lose their grip.
Reframe Resistance as Cultural, Not Personal
Cultures and the people living or working therein resist being tampered with. Knowing that cultures rule much of what happens in schools, what might be some productive responses on the part of leaders seeking to advance improvements in practice? First, expect resistance or push-back to attempts to introduce new practices. Isolation, egalitarianism, irrelevant and episodic staff development, and disempowerment continue as norms in many schools. No matter how unproductive they may be, they are not easily replaced with the more productive norms of collaboration, differentiation, quality learning, and teacher empowerment. Second, reframe resistance as a cultural force, not a personal rejection. Although leadership work has relational and personal dimensions, the ways in which educators either individually or as a group respond to improvement initiatives rarely hold personal malice toward the initiators.
Finally, there is good reason to believe that change and improvement are possible. Consider this thought: “People create cultures after that, cultures shape them” (Deal & Peterson, 1998, p. 85). If people create culture, then people can re-create it. Also know that teachers, like other human beings, are wired to learn and to contribute. Most teachers enter the field because they want to make a difference in the lives of children.
Lessons About the Work of Teachers Who Lead
In this section, we offer five lessons about positioning the work of teacher-leaders and engaging the colleagues of those leaders to improve teaching and learning in schools. The effectiveness of teachers in their leadership work depends on who they are as people, as teachers, and as colleagues. The relatively robust research on the characteristics of teachers who lead yields highly consistent results (see full summary in York-Barr & Duke, 2004). Such teachers are respected and viewed as credible by teaching peers when they demonstrate in-depth curricular knowledge along with significant experience and expertise as class-room instructors. Teachers who lead well tend to be learning-oriented people who take initiative and responsibility for their own learning, are effective communicators with strong interpersonal skills, and have a collaborative orientation toward working with others.
A less visible but very powerful influence on the effectiveness of teacher-leaders is a belief in the positive learning and growth potential of people, even grown-ups. Teacher resistance or reluctance to engage in new proposals about their practice can be understood as a psychological artifact of traditional school norms, as described earlier. Teacher-leaders who hold positive beliefs about the inner desire of people to learn, to feel competent, and to be socially connected are well situated to persist in making connections. Such persistence with grown-ups sometimes results in engagement and transformation, just as it does with children. Louis (2006) describes how to cultivate teacher engagement, stating that when teachers enter the profession they are engaged on various levels. Over time, demands from the profession may be stressful but can also serve to energize. She states that engagement of teachers (like students) requires “consistent positive reinforcers that are meaningful, relevant, rewarding and enjoyable” (emphasis in original, p. 115).
The work of teacher leadership cannot be separated from the ways in which individual teacher-leaders do their work. Therefore not all teachers are well suited for all types of leadership work. The many and varied leadership functions invite many and varied teachers to participate. There are, however, some lessons about the work, as well as general approaches to the work, that hold true across many areas of leadership practice.
Leading From the Middle Is a Powerful Point of Leverage
Schools and school districts, like most formal organizations, are hierarchal places. Teacher-leaders, even though most continue to be classified as teachers, are not quite positioned horizontally with teaching colleagues or with administrators. They are, organizationally speaking, “in the middle.” Leading from the middle, teachers function as
boundary spanners and networkers . . . work within and across school boundaries and structures to establish social linkages and networks among their peers and within the community . . . the influence of teachers in the system is a combination of how well they know how to work the system, their perceived expertise, [and] the influence afforded them . . . (Acker-Hocevar & Touchton, 1999, p. 26)
The great potential of leading from the middle comes from remaining connected with teachers and to ground-level practices, while at the same time developing more substantial connections with school administration and district leaders. Connected up and down, teachers have the opportunity to learn from and directly influence both other teachers and administrators. Understanding teacher culture, classroom realities, and instructional practices is necessary to inform decision making about policies, personnel, practices, and resources made at higher levels. Likewise, understanding organizational cultures, management realities, and the broad scope of development work in many schools and districts informs teachers regarding the intentional and strategic efforts to continue building organizational and professional capacities that support the work of teachers.
Some of the liabilities for teachers leading from the middle include the ambiguity of the work, a lack of transparency in some of the work, and the challenge of keeping sacred time to be present and engaged at the instructional level of practice with other teachers. First, the ambiguity of middle-level work stems from a need to grasp the complexity of instructional and organizational realities; it can be difficult to feel sure about how to progress. There are numerous variables that influence the advancement of teaching and learning. Second, a lack of full transparency occurs because there is an extraordinary amount of behind-the-scenes preparatory and follow-up work for most public leadership activities. Whether it is facilitating a workshop, presenting to the school board, or coaching a teacher after an observation, no one else sees this work. Often, work unseen is work devalued. Finally, teacher-leaders struggle to hold sacred blocks of time to be present and engaged with teachers in classrooms. Because leading from the middle involves a certain amount of flexibility in job design, such teachers are at risk for having an increasing number of responsibilities assigned to them. This results in less time for side-by-side work with other teachers, which raises questions about the notion that teacher leadership is first and foremost about the learning work for instructional improvement.
Leading from the middle of an organization can sometimes feel really big, really complex, and really lonely. Without such leadership, however, the gap between the daily life of teachers in their instructional practice and the daily life of administrators in their organizational practice is not adequately or productively bridged. Leading from the middle—serving as bridges and connectors, leveraging personnel and knowledge resources, and understanding how to advance policies and practices throughout a system—is a powerful and critically important point of leverage for continual renewal in schools.
Keep the Focus on Teaching and Learning
For teachers to be successful in the work of leadership, their core work must be significant and viewed as valid and valuable by other teachers (Little, 1988). Work that is typically valued by teachers is directly relevant to teaching and student learning. Childs-Bowen, Moller, and Scrivner (2000) explain, ” . . . teachers are leaders when they function in professional learning communities to affect student learning, contribute to school improvement, inspire excellence in practice, and empower stakeholders to participate in educational improvement” (p. 28).
In collaboration with other teachers, valued teacher leadership work might include any of the following activities:
- mapping a coherent vertical curriculum
- examining student data to identify instructional goals
- designing differentiated instruction
- developing assessments to monitor student learning and guide instructional decision making
- creating a tiered set of interventions aimed at fostering constructive affective behavior
- presenting materials for teaching high student engagement strategies
- bringing attention to culturally responsive teaching principles and practices
- modeling instructional practices
- coaching teachers as they implement new teaching strategies
- mentoring new teachers during their first three years of teaching
- facilitating formal and informal professional development gatherings in which teachers reflect and learn together.
In short, the central work of teachers who lead is the ongoing work of creating instructional improvement for students and the organizational conditions that foster such improvement.
Relationships Are the Pathways for Influence
Relationships, as a defining element of school culture, significantly affect the enactment of teacher leadership. Relationships are at the core of collaborative cultures in which continuous learning is an embedded norm. They are the pathways for influencing others, especially when one does not hold a position of formal administrative authority. Teachers who influence others have the capability to establish high trust relationships with and among their teaching peers and principals (Barth, 2001; Bryk & Schneider, 2002; Tschannen-Moran, 2004).
Teacher-leaders earn the trust of their colleagues by behaving in trustworthy ways in the context of daily interactions (Bryk & Schneider, 2002). Leaders from the middle gain and maintain the trust of colleagues by being discrete in the ways they secure, interpret, use, and transmit information. Teacher-leaders often feel the tug of unstated queries, such as, “Are you one of them or one of us?” The answer is not either-or, but both-and. The challenge lies in how to negotiate the middle leadership role by building relationships with integrity and staying grounded in purpose.
Learning inherently involves a degree of humility, meaning that one does not always know what to do. Few professionals maneuver in a more complex work environment than do teachers. It is not possible to know everything there is to know about effectively teaching many and varied students or adults in a myriad of circumstances. Tapping into the experience and expertise of teaching colleagues is an invaluable resource. And yet, many teachers are not predisposed to do so. A psychologically safe place to learn requires high levels of relational trust (Bryk & Schneider, 2002; Tschannen-Moran, 2004). When trust is present, questions can be asked and challenges shared without the risk of being viewed as inadequate. Relationships can make or break the success of initiatives aimed at improvements in teaching and learning.
Get the Learning Going!
There are at least three reasons why this lesson is a cornerstone of effective leadership practice. First, learning is the catalyst for continual improvement of instructional practice. If there is no learning, expect no improvement. Second, learning by experimenting with new practices and then observing positive results is the means by which beliefs are changed. Third, introducing learning into a frozen or stuck culture is one way for these cultures to get unstuck. Learning creates momentum. Collective learning accelerates the momentum for change.
School change expert Michael Fullan (2007) asserts that educators engaged in the work of school improvement should move to implementation sooner rather than later. He notes that too much time spent planning uses huge amounts of personal and organizational energy but results in little or no skill development or change in practice. Further, he argues, until initial use of practices begin, there is no experience base from which to make well-informed decisions about what is needed to advance the work. Thomas Guskey (1985) conducted a study that showed beliefs about practice change through personal experience with the practice. To change beliefs, engage teachers in new experiences.
An implication of this lesson is for teacher-leaders to direct a large share of their focus and energy on introducing and supporting changes in practice through the provision of high-quality professional development experiences. Expending energy to convince and cajole is energy largely wasted. The validity of new practices will be discerned through experience.
Learning Side-by-Side Models Collaborative Engagement
When teacher-leaders position themselves side-by-side with other teachers, they are positioned to be colearners, to facilitate productive collegial learning experiences, and to reinforce the assertion that teaching and learning about teaching is a career-long endeavor. Further, working in authentic instructional situations allows teachers who lead to continue developing their own instructional skills and, by doing so, to remain credible as teachers.
Learning collaboratively advances the notion that leadership is vested not only in people who have formal, titled positions but also in people at every level and in every dimension of organizational life. Opportunities to influence the development of others are not restricted to scheduled events but can and do occur through interactions in the daily work of schools. Teacher-leaders who maintain close contact with their colleagues can remain firmly grounded in their positions as teachers and in their network of collegial relationships. In their capacity as supportive colleagues, teacher-leaders embed leadership through both formal and informal points of influence (Darling-Hammond, Bullmaster, & Cobb, 1995; Heller & Firestone, 1995). Learning side-by-side, teacher-leaders inspire high levels of professional engagement among colleagues.
Lessons About Support for Teachers Who Lead
The counterculture nature of teacher leadership in schools means that much attention and intention is required to realize its potential. An overarching credo for teachers who lead is “Go-eth not alone!” Leadership work is not for the faint of heart. It requires courage and support. Although many leaders have or develop a strong internal capacity for sustaining their own learning and grounding, there is much intellectual and spiritual support to be realized through connections with others. The complex and sometimes conflicted work of leadership is well supported by an inner circle of trusted and engaged colleagues with whom leaders can openly share, learn, and re-energize. We describe three areas that offer personal and professional support for growth and renewal of teachers who lead.
Create and Insist on Opportunities to Learn and Grow
The work of leadership requires an expanded set of capacities and skills, beyond those required for excellence in classroom instruction. Some of the content areas identified as supporting teacher-leaders in their work include: advanced curricular, instructional, and assessment practices; school culture and its implications for professional and organizational improvement; adult development; and facilitation, presentation, and coaching skills required to facilitate learning and collaboration for individuals as well as with small or large groups (Lambert, 2003; York-Barr & Duke, 2004). Unfortunately, teacher-leaders sometimes are not provided with a thoughtful introduction to their leadership work, nor are they offered sufficient formal and ongoing leadership development opportunities. Below we describe three types of support to be addressed as teachers begin and continue their leadership work.
First, a formal introduction to the expected work scope of the teacher-leader and to the specific contexts within which the work will take place is an appropriate and respectful place to begin. Here are some questions to frame initial conversations between teacher-leaders and those who support their work:
- What is the work that the teacher-leader is intended to support, including the desired outcomes, products, or accomplishments?
- Who, specifically, will be involved? What is their background or expectation, and how is it anticipated that they will be involved?
- What resources are available to support the work (e.g., time, materials, development opportunities)?
- What role or roles is the teacher-leader expected to assume (e.g., facilitator, consultant, presenter, coach)?
- To whom is the teacher-leader accountable and by what means will checking in be most productive?
Further supporting an introduction to the work is an opportunity to spend time in the development context (e.g., school, classrooms, meetings) to meet key people and to listen to their understandings, interests, and concerns about the work. Interactions with these people, along with observing and listening while walking through the hallways, help discern the present culture and an array of current practice.
Second, formal leadership development opportunities should be an initial and ongoing means of supporting teacher-leaders. Are there courses, institutes, graduate programs, or workshops that provide more in-depth background knowledge about the learning work or about the teacher leadership understandings and skills for advancing the work? Are there other schools, leaders, or teachers who have been engaged in such work and who could share with the teacher-leader or leaders, or even an entire faculty?
Third, ongoing learning support in the form of opportunities to reflect and learn with teachers or other education leaders doing similar work is helpful. As Judith Arin-Krupp has been quoted saying, “Adults do not learn from experience, they learn from processing experience” (cited in Garmston & Wellman, 1997, p. 1). Time to reflect and learn must be both an espoused and realized value in the work of teacher-leaders. Leaders, like teachers, continue to improve as they reflect on, make sense of, and commit to improved future action.
Administrative Support Is Essential
About two decades ago, Judith Warren Little (1988) argued that the boundaries or expectations for teacher-leaders should be clarified, the incentives and rewards articulated, and the local policy support put in place. The principal and other administrators are, in large part, responsible for enacting this set of mandates. Principals ” . . . must know how to create conditions that foster empowerment and release their control over teachers, alter their roles, and engender commitment, trust, and respect” (Acker-Hocevar & Touchton, 1999, p. 26).
Strong relationships between teacher-leaders and their principals are widely acknowledged as a key determinant of the effectiveness of teacher leadership, with principals being the primary influence on how the teacher-leader-principal relationship evolves (Barth, 2001; Hart, 1994; Kahrs, 1996; Mangin, 2007; Smylie & Hart, 2000; Terry, 1999). Anderson (2004) describes three different ways in which relationships unfold among principals, teacher-leaders, and teachers. The most productive of the three is interactive, in which principals engage with teacher-leaders and other teachers about leadership work. Moller and Pankake (2006) emphasize that principals must intentionally develop trusting relationships with teacher-leaders, claiming that the building of such relationships is critical to the health and vibrancy of school culture as well as an enactment of providing support to them.
Mangin (2007) found that principals who had high levels of knowledge about teacher leadership and who demonstrated high levels of interaction with teacher-leaders were more intentionally supportive of those leaders. Such principals communicated with all teachers in their schools about expectations of instructional improvement, the roles of teacher-leaders as a resource for improvement, and expectations of teachers interacting in positive ways with the teacher-leaders. Teacher-leaders in this study acknowledged and appreciated this support from the principal as useful, although they expressed a desire for even greater support to meet challenges in their roles, including gaining acceptance by their peers.
As discussed previously, leading among peers can be risky business for teachers. Principals must not only be aware of this risk but also do what they can to minimize its impact. With this expectation set, principals can support the leadership work emotionally, financially through material means, or symbolically. They can protect the relationship between teacher-leaders and their peers, jointly and regularly check in about action plans, and support the development and understanding of skills for leading adults for themselves, as well as their teacher-leaders (Moller & Pankake, 2006).
The influence and support of teacher-leaders on their principals is equally as important to note as the influence and support of principals on teacher-leaders. Teacher-leaders support the instructional leadership work of principals in at least the following ways: (1) maintaining a proactive focus on teacher learning, (2) serving as a partner for reflecting on and refining the course of development work, (3) reinforcing and translating into practice expectations for improvement, (4) modeling targeted instructional practices, (5) embedding learning and inquiry among teachers (formally and informally), and (6) keeping principals up-to-date with new advances in teaching and learning. Acknowledging the reciprocal nature of influence and support between principals and teacher-leaders reinforces the power realized when principals and teacher-leaders lead side-by-side.
Pay Attention to Space and Stuff
This is a lesson that does not require much explanation. One way to unsettle a teacher is to mess with his or her space and stuff (too much messing around with schedules is also trying). In a work environment that is usually quite full—physically, psychologically, and emotionally—with 20 to 30 moving, living little beings, it is not possible to maintain high levels of order and control. Teachers and other in-action professionals have to be flexible and adapt, but there are limits and there are ways to help teachers thrive amid the chaotic life in schools. Being allocated a space that is one’s own and that allows for reasonable order of one’s stuff provides a nominal amount of steadiness that is more important than others can sometimes imagine. Attention to space and stuff is no less important for teachers who lead. Often they become the keepers of a dizzying array of resources that support the work of classroom teachers, and often they collect a large quantity of professional learning resources. In most organizations, schools among them, there is an overall press for space and usually not enough in the end. Teacher-leaders need a place to call their own with space for their stuff.
After reading this research-paper, one could reasonably ask, why would teachers choose to lead? Teachers lead because it has the potential to matter in big and small ways. Teachers who lead well are compelled, morally and intellectually, to make a difference in the lives of students (Fullan, 1993). By positively engaging their peers, such teachers enact a larger circle of support for achieving the moral purpose of advancing the learning and development of children in their journey to adulthood. Teachers who lead also have many opportunities for learning embedded in their work. Leading and learning are inextricably linked. They learn more about instructional, collegial, and organizational practices and how to influence those practices for the benefit of students. Teachers who lead learn more about themselves. Learning and contributing are strong attractors for many teachers.
Leveraging influence from the middle of the organization and learning side-by-side with colleagues, teachers who lead can shape the future of schools such that continual learning and professional renewal are defining features of what it means to be a teacher. Experienced as teachers, knowledgeable about instruction, effective in relationships, committed to personal growth, savvy about school culture, passionate about education, and caring about children—teachers who step up to lead contribute by advancing learning for grown-ups and children in schools.
The idea of teacher leadership is not new. “What is new, [however], are increased recognition of teacher leadership, visions of expanded teacher leadership roles, and new hope for the contributions these expanded roles might make in improving schools” (Smylie & Denny, 1990, p. 237). What also is new is our field’s heightened understanding about what it means and what it takes to advance teacher leadership. The time is now to apply what we know.
- Acker-Hocevar, M., & Touchton, D. (1999). A model of power as social relationships: Teacher leaders describe the phenomena of effective agency in practice. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Montreal, Canada.
- Anderson, K. (2004). Teacher leadership as reciprocal influence between teacher leaders and principals. School Effectiveness and School Improvement, 15(1), 97-113.
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