Teacher leadership means different things to different people. Team leaders, department chairs, and respected teachers live it every day: They experience the pushes and pulls of their complex roles, located somewhere between administrative leadership and almost invisible leadership. Yet many administrators, school board members, citizens, and even teachers don't recognize or understand teacher leadership (Ackerman & Mackenzie, 2006). And this lack of understanding adds to the obstacles many teacher leaders face.
At issue is our understanding of leadership itself. Most of us hold the deep-seated assumption that leaders must have appointments and titles that formalize their leadership and officially confirm their knowledge, traits, and competencies. Our analogy of leader as hero tends to package superior judgment and knowledge with superior authority and power.
Many teacher leaders, however, cannot find a comfortable niche in this analogy. Although schools may be formally structured to support hierarchical leadership, the culture within the education profession supports a rich egalitarian ethic. Within this culture, relationships determine who communicates with whom, who shares professional wisdom with whom, and who ultimately influences the quality of teaching and learning (Darling-Hammond, 2001).
An alternative to the hierarchical model of school leadership is the relational model, which views leadership as residing not in individuals, but in the spaces among individuals. This model starts by recognizing that relationships already exist among teachers, principals, specialists, counselors, and support staff. The question to ask is, How do these relationships influence the adults in this school to do good things for students? Leadership is a particular type of relationship—one that mobilizes other people to improve practice.
Relational leadership runs through the daily life of every school as educators attend to the quality of relationships, insist on commitment to the school's purposes and goals, and examine and improve instruction (Donaldson, 2006). Leadership is about how individuals together influence these three streams of school life to make learning better for all students. Although school administrators play a vital role in these efforts, teachers are uniquely positioned to contribute special assets to the school leadership mix in each of the three areas.
Teacher Asset: Building Relationships
Sylvia, an elementary school teacher, recruited colleagues from each grade level to pilot alternative assessments in math. She began by inviting colleagues with whom she had worked closely and then asking each of them to reach out to others in their working networks. Sylvia's strong relational skills pulled colleagues together, a marked contrast to her principal's style of pushing teachers to collaborate. Sylvia's reputation as an excellent teacher attracted others, and her inclusive style sent the message that every team member's opinions counted. Because of her knowledge of her colleagues' working styles, she was also wise enough to let the group's energy and time govern the speed and course of the initiative.
Teacher leaders like Sylvia have earned the trust and respect of other teachers (Bryk & Schneider, 2002). They are in the trenches with colleagues. They struggle with the same instructional issues, and they have demonstrated their success in the eyes of their peers. They are motivated by a desire to help students and support their fellow teachers, not to enforce a new policy or to evaluate others' competencies. Other teachers can go to teacher leaders without fear of judgment or dismissal. Their conversations can be frank, authentic, and caring.
Teacher leaders also have the benefit of working with others in small, intimate, adaptable groups or in one-on-one relationships. They aren't burdened, as administrators are, with setting policy for the whole school. Some of these small units are formal work groups, such as grade-level teams or departments. But many are naturally occurring and informal—clusters of teachers who get into the habit of dropping by one another's rooms, sharing materials, ideas, and challenges or generating a proposal to the principal for a new science initiative. In these less formal clusters, it's often difficult to say who's leading whom. But few would say that leadership doesn't exist among these energetic and closely connected professionals.
Teacher culture based on relationships is hugely influential in schools, often trumping administrative and legislative influence (Spillane, 2006). Although some administrators and policymakers might see this as a problem, strong relationships are teachers' most powerful leadership asset (Goleman, Boyatzis, & McKee, 2002).
Teacher Asset: Maintaining a Sense of Purpose
Patrick, a high school English teacher, became a champion of detracking. His reputation for integrity and commitment among his colleagues enabled him to voice deep—and at first unpopular—concerns that the school was failing its non-college-bound students. His willingness to examine his own teaching and to continue speaking up in conversations and meetings eventually persuaded other teachers to explore ability grouping practices in their own classrooms and to implement more equitable grouping practices schoolwide. His belief in the school's goal of equity drew others, including school administrators, into the effort.
To build on their sense of purpose, teacher leaders like Patrick need to listen astutely to their colleagues and help them sort through many issues, keeping basic goals as the top priority. They need to know how to facilitate professional dialogue, learning, and group process—the keys to mobilizing others to action.
These teacher leaders use their relational base to help their colleagues keep their eyes on the prize. Because they are teaching every day, facing the same challenges and reaping the same rewards as their peers, their singular focus on their own instructional work and their commitment to reaching every student act as beacons to those around them. When the going gets tough and colleagues lose sight of their purpose or begin to question their commitment, teacher leaders' clarity, optimism, and dedication are a powerful antidote.
Teacher Asset: Improving Instructional Practice
Clarissa, a middle school teacher, has always pushed herself to improve. She has also freely shared her struggles with colleagues, often discussing them in weekly team meetings. Her influence has been different from Patrick's; instead of seeking a broad program change, Clarissa informally shares ideas, techniques, and problems from her classroom that cover the spectrum of daily teacher practice—for example, goal setting, assessment, instructional delivery, student management, and use of technology. Over time, she has helped cultivate in her teaching team a spirit of openness and a focus on developing more effective instructional practices.
Clarissa has influenced her colleagues to improve their practice in part through her instructional expertise: her capacity to understand students and their learning needs, to analyze her own instructional choices, and to continually monitor effectiveness. But her leadership assets also grow from her capacity to share professional inquiry with colleagues. She is comfortable revealing her failures and worries, soliciting these in others, and facilitating professional sharing and learning. It takes both a strong cognitive foundation and skilled interpersonal capacities to exercise leadership in improving practice.
Traditionally, we have viewed school improvement and reform as a matter of wholesale replacement of dysfunctional practices with new, “proven” practices. The current reform era, however, has taught us that permanent improvements happen in a much more piecemeal manner (Darling-Hammond, 2001; Elmore, 2004). Teachers have an extraordinary opportunity to exercise leadership because they are the most powerful influence, next to students, on other teachers' practice (Darling-Hammond, 2003). Whereas principals
can shape teachers' beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors, other teachers do shape them. Teacher leaders understand this and are deliberate about shaping their environment in a positive, responsible way. They draw on their relationships and their strong sense of purpose to help colleagues explore, share, and improve the practices they use daily with students.
Teacher leaders like Clarissa both model and cultivate professional improvement. They take pains to share what they do with others and to be accessible to colleagues concerning their own issues of improved practice. The power of their leadership stems from the fact that colleagues find these teacher leaders helpful. They are leaders because their own capacity to teach and to improve is infectious and helps others learn more effective ways of working with their own students.
A Complementary Mix of Leaders
The relational model of leadership obligates us to look first at leadership relationships and second at the individuals who are leaders. The leadership litmus test is, Are the relationships in this school mobilizing people to improve the learning of all students? If that test comes up positive, then we can ask, Who's contributing to that leadership—to strong working relationships, to a robust commitment to good purposes, and to relentless improvement of practice?
We must start by disposing of our old assumptions about leadership and about who can lead. We have placed too much responsibility and too much power with the few individuals whom we label “leaders” in our school systems. Superintendents, curriculum directors, and principals cannot on their own generate leadership that improves education.
Principals need teacher leaders of all kinds. Although principals are better positioned than teacher leaders are to influence the goal-directed areas of school life, they often have more difficulty leading through positive relationships. Their position and authority give them a platform for promoting vision and mission and focusing on improvement. But their power over reappointments, assignments, resources, and policies can undercut their working relationships; and their management responsibilities, can distance them from teaching and learning. In this respect, the assets that teacher leaders bring to schools are an essential complement to principal leadership.
We can strengthen school leadership and performance by acknowledging and supporting the vital roles of teacher leaders. Administrators, school boards, and state and federal policymakers should
- Identify and support those clusters of teachers in which professional relationships and commitments are fostering instructional innovation.
- Respect the judgment of these professional clusters and be willing to adjust their own strategies and initiatives to complement such teacher-led innovations.
- Put resources behind the efforts of teacher leaders by supporting shared practice, planning, and professional learning focused on their purposeful improvement of practice.
- Acknowledge that their own goals and initiatives can best be addressed by treating teacher leaders as vital and powerful partners.
Great schools grow when educators understand that the power of their leadership lies in the strength of their relationships. Strong leadership in schools results from the participation of many people, each leading in his or her own way. Whether we call it distributed leadership, collaborative leadership, or shared leadership, the ideal arrangement encourages every adult in the school to be a leader. Administrators, formal teacher leaders, and informal teacher leaders all contribute to the leadership mix. They hold the power to improve student learning in the hands they extend to one another.
Ackerman, R., & Mackenzie, S. (Eds.). (2006). Uncovering teacher leadership: Essays and voices from the field. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
Bryk, A., & Schneider, B. (2002). Trust in schools: A core resource for improvement. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
Darling-Hammond, L. (2001). The right to learn: A blueprint for creating schools that work. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Darling-Hammond, L. (2003). Enhancing teaching. In W. Owens & L. S. Kaplan (Eds.), Best practices, best thinking, and emerging issues in leadership (pp. 75–87). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
Donaldson, G. (2006). Cultivating leadership in schools: Connecting people, purpose, and practice (2nd ed.). New York: Teachers College Press.
Elmore, R. (2004). School reform from the inside out: Policy, practice, and performance. Cambridge MA: Harvard Education Press.
Goleman, D., Boyatzis, R., & McKee, A. (2002). Primal leadership: Realizing the power of emotional intelligence. Cambridge MA: Harvard Business School Press.
Spillane, J. (2006). Distributed leadership. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Gordon A. Donaldson Jr. is Professor of Education, University of Maine; 207-581-2450;
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