Teacher leaders contribute tremendously to a school. They can mentor new faculty members, contribute deep knowledge of their school and community to the decision-making process, provide examples of outstanding teaching to colleagues, and support school improvement efforts (Barth, 2001; Lieberman & Miller, 2004). Although educators know a lot about the potential benefits of having teacher leaders in schools, we don't always understand how to support the development of the teacher leaders in our midst. In fact, some administrators assume that because teacher leaders appear to intuitively know how to work with colleagues, they need little additional support (Katzenmeyer & Moller, 2001). A review of the available literature on teacher leadership and evidence from teacher leaders themselves suggest that this line of reasoning is false.
In an effort to better understand how to support teacher leaders, I interviewed teachers who had been identified as leaders by their students, colleagues, and administrators. The narrative accounts of two of the teacher leaders I met highlight four essential qualities found in schools where teachers are most likely to grow as leaders.
Respect for Teacher Knowledge
Teacher leaders thrive when they feel respected for their knowledge and experience (Little, 1988). Certainly this was true for Jane Woods, a 23-year veteran who taught at a high school near the U.S.-Mexican border.1
Jane said that the most effective period of growth in her career took place when a new principal confronted his staff with the “sometimes uncomfortable” truth that they were not meeting all their students' needs. Rather than provide a ready-made solution, the principal encouraged the faculty to work together to analyze student achievement data, assess instructional practices, gather input from outside resources, and develop site-focused curriculum maps and unit plans. He told Jane and her colleagues that they were the experts and that it was their responsibility to figure out how best to serve their students. Jane noted that this principal
had a clear understanding of what the teacher does in the classroom, and how important that teacher is. . . . He gave us permission and encouragement to grow, and we saw then that teachers are a force to be reckoned with.
Although Jane readily admitted that this multiyear process was time-consuming and exhausting, she appreciated her principal's respect for the knowledge and experience she had gained through her time in the classroom. Jane felt empowered by the opportunity to help improve her school and raise student achievement.
Conversely, school environments and reform efforts that teachers perceive as not respecting their knowledge and experience lead to frustration and resistance (Cuban & Usdan, 2003; Hubbard, Mehan, & Stein, 2006). Jane drew a sharp distinction between the site-based initiative described above and a more recent textbook-driven reform in which the district office provided teachers with daily curriculum guides to follow. Jane explained,
They tell us what to do and when to do it. We don't have to think. . . . We could just have an automaton in here. . . . It is brainless. It takes away all the joy and the creativity. It isn't teaching.
Jane's perception that this latest reform devalued her knowledge and expertise led her to withdraw into her classroom, wary of getting “caught doing something wrong” and unwilling to engage in professional conversations because she believed her voice would not be heard.
A second component for developing effective teacher leaders is the existence of a strong professional teacher community (Caine & Caine, 2000). When teachers regularly discuss such topics as student achievement data, curriculum mapping, classroom visitations, and lesson study, teacher leaders arise organically from within the community. Colleagues recognize their peers' strengths and seek to strengthen the community by building on each individual's gifts.
On the other hand, when those outside the teaching ranks attempt to anoint teacher leaders, community falters and leadership fails. This was the case for Jennifer Smith, a teacher with seven years of experience teaching at a large urban high school. As a new teacher, Jennifer followed the mandates of the school and district administration to the letter. She papered her room with the requisite charts, and she met the timing expectations of the lesson map to the minute. She was hailed as an exemplar, and the principal began bringing other teachers through her classroom. Although she appreciated the positive feedback, the dynamic made her uncomfortable and unhappy:
It was very clearly set up that myself and two or three other teachers were the darlings of the department. . . . We were the ones that everybody always went into their classrooms and watched. . . . Everybody always asked us questions, and there was this group of teachers who were berating themselves constantly. . . . It was a really negative environment to be in.
Although the principal believed she was giving Jennifer an opportunity for leadership, Jennifer didn't see it that way. In reality, she believed that she couldn't express her own views or question school policies because, in doing so, she would fail to meet her principal's expectations. Further, she felt alienated from colleagues who saw her as a puppet of the administration. Looking back, Jennifer viewed those early years as the least rewarding period of her teaching career.
A Clear Understanding of Student Needs
When teachers believe that reform efforts connect to student needs, they are more willing to take on leadership roles. Jane, for example, took tremendous pride in the curriculum that she and her colleagues designed based on state standards and student achievement data from their site. Using a backward planning approach (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005), they examined curricular and content expectations, consulted with local college officials about the strengths and weaknesses of the school's graduates, reviewed current coursework and student work, interviewed students about their interests and motivations, and then created units of study tailored to their students' needs. Jane's pride and willingness to work hard were evident in her description of the materials that she and her colleagues developed:
In the first year there were flaws, and then the next summer we spent revising, and adding, and deleting and we just had these rich, rich materials that really met the needs of our students.
In contrast to her previous isolating experience of being held up as an exemplar, Jennifer felt empowered when she and several other teacher leaders had the opportunity to redesign their schools into a collection of small learning environments. Jennifer and her colleagues were willing to take the time required for this process and step into leadership roles because they believed that they could make changes that would benefit their students.
Conversely, teachers are more likely to resist decisions that they believe are made by people who aren't connected to the classroom and are therefore unaware of students' needs. Jane, for example, was upset by what she perceived as a lack of rigor in her school's textbook-driven reform. She described the program as “lacking depth,” “dumbing down expectations,” and “racist.” She questioned administrators' motives for implementing this reform in a low-income school with a significant immigrant population, wondering aloud whether the administrators believed that these students weren't capable of high levels of achievement.
Although Jane and her colleagues expressed many frustrations about this reform, their primary concern was that it would lower academic expectations of students and reduce the number of opportunities available to students in high school and beyond. This concern led Jane to resist implementing the reform in her own classroom and to resign from the formal leadership roles she once held.
Opportunities for Critical Reflection
A final condition that is crucial to developing strong teacher leaders is the opportunity for critical reflection. School improvement efforts that encourage teachers to step back and reflect on their knowledge, beliefs, and practices help practitioners make changes in their teaching (Ball & Cohen, 1999; Franke, Carpenter, Levi, & Fennema, 1998).
When Jennifer and her colleagues were asked to help redesign their school into small learning communities, they reflected on their current practices and their students' needs to determine how best to move forward. This period of reflection led to innovative structural changes and, perhaps more important, meaningful dialogue about the connection between teaching practices and beliefs about student learning.
Jane and her colleagues began their curricular reform process in response to a deceptively simple question from the principal: “What can we do to improve student achievement at this school?” This question led teachers to think critically about their curriculum, practices, and beliefs about teaching and learning. Jane said that this challenge “forced me to really think through the reasons behind what I do in the classroom. I grew so much.” Teacher leaders flourish when given opportunities like these to reconsider their own work and engage in meaningful conversations with colleagues about their thinking.
On the other hand, mandates that limit the need for critical reflection minimize teacher growth. When told to simply follow the textbook, Jane shut down, limiting her contact with colleagues and spending less time and effort on her classroom. When told to follow a district-prescribed curriculum, Jennifer dutifully did; she noted, however, that it was the “easiest and least satisfying” period of her teaching career. She could come in late and leave early, she didn't have to plan much, and she didn't have to think. Despite praise from outsiders, Jennifer lamented that she hadn't really pushed her students academically, nor had she pushed herself: “I try not to feel guilty about those days. . . . That's what they wanted us to do.”
Tapping Teacher Potential
Although the experiences of Jane and Jennifer offer inspiration about the possibilities of helping teacher leaders grow, they also serve as cautionary tales. As dedicated and engaged as these two teachers were when offered appropriate opportunities for leadership, when those opportunities were denied, these same teachers retreated in frustration and defeat.
Consider one of the last things Jane said to me about her experiences with the textbook-driven reform: “I don't know where it is going, but I only have five years left. . . . And every week I play the lotto.” Extremely sad words from an effective teacher leader who has worked for more than 20 years to meet the needs of her students.
Under the right circumstances, teachers—sometimes even those who appear disengaged—can become tremendous leaders. Jane and Jennifer are two such teachers. When their environments supported their development, these teachers responded. Schools can do much to encourage or discourage potential leaders like Jane and Jennifer. Such teachers can be a vital resource—when given the opportunity to thrive.
Ball, D. L., & Cohen, D. K. (1999). Developing practice, developing practitioners: Toward a practice-based theory of professional education. In L. Darling-Hammond & G. Sykes (Eds.), Teaching as the learning profession: Handbook of policy and practice
(pp. 3–32). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Barth, R. S. (2001). Teacher leader. Phi Delta Kappan, 82(6), 443–449.
Caine, G., & Caine, R. N. (2000). The learning community as a foundation for developing teacher leaders. NASSP Bulletin, 84(616), 7–14.
Cuban, L., & Usdan, M. (Eds.). (2003).
Powerful reforms with shallow roots: Improving America's urban schools. New York: Teachers College Press.
Franke, M. L., Carpenter, T. P., Levi, L.W., & Fennema, E. (1998, April). Teachers as learners: Developing understanding through children's thinking. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, San Diego, CA.
Hubbard, L., Mehan, H., & Stein, M. K. (2006). Reform as learning: School reform, organizational culture, and community politics in San Diego. New York: Routledge.
Katzenmeyer, M., & Moller, G. (2001).
Awakening the sleeping giant: Helping teachers develop as leaders (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
Lieberman, A., & Miller, L. (2004). Teacher leadership. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Little, J. W. (1988). Assessing the prospects for teacher leadership. In A. Lieberman (Ed.), Building a professional culture in schools (pp. 76–106). New York: Teachers College Press.
Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by design (2nd ed.). Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
Teachers' names have been changed to protect their privacy.
Heather Lattimer (firstname.lastname@example.org) is Assistant Professor in the Department of Learning and Teaching, School of Leadership and Education Sciences, at the University of San Diego, 5998 Alcala Park, San Diego, CA 92110.
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