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February 2009 | Volume 66 | Number 5
How Teachers Learn
When teachers lead instructional change, these seven strategies help them engage their colleagues and get everyone on board.
There is growing agreement among education researchers and practitioners that teacher leadership can be a powerful engine of school reform (see Katzenmeyer & Moller, 2001; National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, 2007). We know less, though, about the subtle dynamics through which teachers can successfully lead the learning of other teachers. How can teacher leaders work most effectively with their fellow teachers to encourage change? Which leadership approaches work, and which ones lead to collegial disengagement?
Some colleagues and I addressed these questions as we studied a grant-funded professional development effort in the Pacific Northwest, which was designed to promote content-area reading strategies at the secondary level (Margolis & Foster, in press; Margolis, 2008). Participants in the project received a total of 80 hours of professional development focused on strategies and approaches to help middle and high school students become more expert readers and thinkers within specific disciplines (such as math, science, and social studies) The participants then shared what they had learned with colleagues at their home schools by leading four hours of professional development sessions during the year. By observing these follow-up sessions in 15 of the 18 schools involved in the grant and then debriefing the presenters afterwards, I gained insight into effective strategies for teachers leading teacher learning.
The observations and discussions focused on the relative success of different techniques the emerging teacher leaders used as they sought to change instructional practices within their schools. Teachers are often resistant to outsiders telling them to change what and how they teach (Cuban, 1993; Evans, 1996). I was curious to see whether teachers would be less resistant to calls for change that came from their own colleagues.
We defined effective strategies as those that produced observable teacher engagement, including active participation, attentiveness, and demonstrated or verbalized willingness to consider new approaches. Seven leadership strategies stood out as particularly effective:
As successful as many of the emerging teacher leaders were in engaging their colleagues, some approaches didn't work as well in inspiring collegial engagement. Four ineffective approaches were
The successful leadership strategies identified in this study suggest that teachers learn best in the same ways that most students learn best: actively, drawing from prior knowledge, and in a comfortable environment. Beyond that, teachers appear to learn best from another teacher when that teacher leader considers the emotional state of the teacher-audience (including feelings of being overworked, overwhelmed, and underappreciated) and grounds theoretical presentations in concrete examples of classroom practice and student work. Teachers learned less effectively when the teacher leaders centered their presentations on themselves, drowning their colleagues in information instead of inspiring them.
If teacher leaders work intentionally to help their colleagues build bridges from existing approaches to new ones, they may be uniquely positioned to get local buy-in for reforms in ways that education officials, even principals, cannot. In this study, we observed a growing willingness of teachers to be led by their colleagues. Following the teacher-led sessions, we received frequent reports of whole staffs collaborating around the issue of literacy development. In the subsequent year, several participating schools continued the literacy improvement efforts through book study groups and collaborative action research.
Looking at teacher leadership within this grant, a shift appears to be underway. Whether because the complexity of today's schools requires teacher collaboration and leadership or because teacher professionalism is overtaking teacher individualism, educators today seem to value teacher knowledge, innovation, and leadership.
Cuban, L. (1993). How teachers taught: Constancy and change in American classrooms 1890–1990 (2nd ed.). New York: Teachers College Press.
Evans, R. (1996). The human side of school change. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Katzenmeyer, M., & Moller, G. (2001). Awakening the sleeping giant: Helping teachers develop as leaders (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Margolis, J. (2008). When teachers face teachers: Listening to the resource "right down the hall."
Teaching Education, 19(4), 293–310.
Margolis, J., & Foster, A. (in press). Teacher leaders in action—motivation, morality, and money.
Leadership and Policy in Schools.
National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. (2007). The five core propositions
[Online]. Arlington, VA: Author. Available:
Jason Margolis is Assistant Professor of Teacher Education, Washington State University, Vancouver; firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright © 2009 by Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development
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