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October 1, 2009
Vol. 67
No. 2

Insights from Leaders

Educational Leadership asked educators, "What personal insight have you had about school leadership?"

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Leaders Take Initiative

The first day of my first year as a middle school teacher, I arrived feeling energized— only to discover that my assignment had changed. Instead of life science, I would now be teaching earth science, covering many subjects about which I lacked in-depth knowledge. I discovered that in almost every school in the system, many science teachers were assigned out of field. Some science courses were even being taught by teachers who had little background in science.
A biology teacher at a local high school decided to take action. She invited science teachers from other schools to work together regularly after school to learn and improve. We began offering workshops after school and on weekends to help science teachers learn about laboratory techniques and inquiry-based learning. We also sent newsletters with teaching tips to every science teacher in the system. This made a difference for me and my students. I know it made a difference for other teachers as well.
This experience showed me that a leader recognizes a problem and takes action to address it. Leadership involves vision, determination, and hard work. True leadership makes a difference for others.

Leadership Is More Than Management

Good leaders help the organization examine itself and recognize where change is needed. They help mobilize the various constituencies to bring about positive change. Management, on the other hand, means maintaining the status quo and making it run well.
Leaders find ways to make people brave enough to do something different. Leaders blend the best of competing viewpoints—even incorporating dissenting ideas. From a united vision, leaders bring people together to forge new approaches to old, persistent problems.
When I've worked for manager-type bosses, I've seen little to no change happen, even in the face of compelling problems. When I've worked with leaders, I've seen them thrive on refining the vision for the organization. If they realize they are leaders and not managers, they will empower or hire someone else to do the daily stuff.

Change Comes from Teachers

When teachers feel empowered, they work together to empower their students. At my school, an analysis of our state assessment data revealed that black males' achievement was lagging. Rather than send teachers out of the building for training, the administrative team decided to give the staff an opportunity to participate in a book study. Mychal Wynn's Empowering African-American Males (Rising Sun Publishing, 2005) elicited collegial discussions among teachers that eventually led to strategies designed to motivate our black male students.
Teacher teams organized Success Day, an event in which black professionals shared success stories. An expert on this topic spent a day working with our staff to develop strategies designed to address the unique needs of these students. In the classrooms, each of our teachers chose a student to whom they would devote special attention. We began contacting parents weekly to develop relationships.
As a culminating event, the entire staff partnered with the Rebuilding Together organization to renovate two houses in the primarily black neighborhood in which many of our students lived. Hard work, sweat, and hands-on relationship building replaced rhetoric. The result—our black male students made significant progress in all areas.

Respect Overcomes Resistance

New practices must become part of the instructional culture of the school. They must move from new practice to the "way we do things around here."
But what happens when teachers are deeply attached to their own way of doing things and comply (somewhat) with the new practice but never truly make it their own? A solution came to me while I was speaking with a highly respected teacher who did not like our new writing curriculum. We decided that she would continue her way of teaching while the rest of the grade level adopted the new curriculum. When state-level test scores arrived, we would compare the grade-level average with her [students' scores]. If her average was higher, she would continue to use her method, and we would reexamine what we were doing. If the grade-level average was higher, she would adopt the new curriculum.
In the end, she adopted the curriculum without reservation, and our scores continued to climb. I was able to honor this teacher's skills, and yet move forward, enabling the new curriculum to eventually become "the way we do things around here."

Start with Vision

I've been teaching for five years following a 19-year career in community organizing, and I've found that effective leadership in schools works the same as elsewhere—it's about having a vision and then, through listening and developing relationships, agitating others to modify that vision so that they make it their own.
It's not about being a charismatic guru who sweeps everybody off their feet. That kind of cult of personality (no matter how well intentioned) is a house of cards that will collapse at the first sign of trouble or when that Dear Leader leaves.
And it's not about knowing exactly what should be done and then being self-righteously indignant and whiny when others don't follow your lead.
If you think your vision is valid, listen to the hopes and dreams of people around you. Ask them what they think it'll take to make their dreams happen. Incorporate those ideas into your vision, and help people see how they can realize their goals through working with you.

Be Positive

Relationships are at the heart of leadership. In these tough economic times, with more and more funding cuts, teachers are being asked to prepare children to compete globally in a fast-changing society. As a budding school leader in a growing high school, I understand that my most important job is to work continually, systematically, and steadfastly to create the most positive working and learning environment for teachers and students. This task must be a priority at all times.

Ownership Leads to Success

Effective teacher leaders don't mandate from a position of power; they provide opportunities for teachers to define their own goals. When I was a literacy coach, I worked with a small cadre of English teachers who resisted and resented district-mandated curricular policies. But when given the task of collaboratively developing an action research question based on data or their own observations, our cadre developed camaraderie and mutual respect. We researched topics, shared our findings, developed and implemented lessons, and then came back together to discuss our learning. As the literacy coach, I provided resources like research articles and compiled the data and conclusions. Cadre members, other English teachers, and other district cadres recognized the quality and value of our work.

Relationships Count

No matter what you are trying to work on at your school, you need to build relationships. Taking the time to build positive relationships between teachers and administrators, between teachers and students, among teachers from different grade levels or disciplines, and between teachers and the community will increase your chances of success.
When I was a new assistant superintendent, I took the time to visit all principals and schools in the community. We had informal information-sharing meetings so we could get to know one another as individuals and colleagues. We invited community members in for a community conversation to hear people's thoughts and hopes. This helped us move forward on curriculum changes.

Learn Together

Teacher leaders are the most underutilized asset. Unfortunately, relatively few principals are prepared to effectively work with teacher leaders. Joint academic programs that prepare future principals and teacher leaders together could help break down the "them vs. us" mind-set.
I am a teacher leader who recently completed my masters in educational leadership in such a program. About half of our cadre had no plans to leave the classroom. Earning the same credential required of formal leaders greatly enhanced my credibility as a teacher leader. Our diverse viewpoints enriched our class discussions and joint projects.
Our professors only occasionally differentiated assignments to better fit the needs of teacher leaders, but even what seemed to be strictly "principal content" made us more effective as teacher leaders by enhancing our ability to understand and communicate with formal leaders. The future principals in our cadre benefitted by working as a team with teacher leaders, and they learned to consider and value our teacher leader roles. All of us, teacher leaders and future principals, graduated much better prepared to leverage the power of teacher leadership than we would have in separate programs.

Apply Research

Effective leadership is essential to improving student achievement. The Evansville Vanderburgh School Corporation in Indiana is collaborating with Brown University on an initiative to develop entrepreneurial school leaders with the capacity to improve schools.
The Learning Leadership Cadre is designed to identify and support exceptional teaching practices and develop effective change leaders within the district. The cadre will focus on four cornerstones: leadership, collaboration, engagement, and data. The intensive two-year program has the potential to significantly improve student achievement.
Through the application of research-based theory, cadre participants will determine needs within the school district and develop action research and change projects. Leaders in the administrators' strand will participate in two one-week institutes at Brown University, and Brown faculty will visit the district throughout the school year to conduct eight weekend seminars for participants in the administrator and educator strands.

Leadership—Not a Job

The most effective school leaders are those who empower others to lead. They demonstrate the characteristics of strong teachers: clarity in expectations, belief in the good intentions of those with whom they work, the patience to allow others to learn to "do it themselves," and the humility to give others the credit for accomplishment. They understand that to lead, they must be someone others will willingly follow. They are open to shared vision, shared responsibility, and shared decision making. Leaders, regardless of their position, do not forget that leadership is not a job title—it's a way to go about the business of school. There is too much work to be done to accomplish the job any other way.

This article was published anonymously, or the author name was removed in the process of digital storage.

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