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December 1, 2019

Leading Together / The Language of Teacher Leadership

We must find the words to talk about what teacher leadership means "here."
Professional Learning
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It's easy to get excited when we hear the term "teacher leadership." Teachers hope it means they will have a voice in decision making and possibly even receive a boost in their salaries. Principals believe it will lighten their own workload while improving school culture. District leaders expect it will represent a commitment to career advancement that attracts and retains the best teachers. And everyone expects that teacher leadership will have a positive impact on student learning.
However, the research is largely inconclusive on whether and under what conditions teacher leadership impacts student learning (Nguyen, Harris, & Ng, 2019), and this may be due in part to the fact that "teacher leadership" has no widely accepted definition. It simply describes too wide an array of experiences. Must a teacher be legitimized externally as a leader, or can one claim oneself to be a teacher leader? Is receiving special privileges and support from administrators a sign of endorsement or selling out? Do teachers who exert influence beyond teaching and learning count as teacher leaders? What activities count as teacher leadership, and who decides? Must we keep one foot in the classroom to be a teacher leader? On these fundamental questions, scholars and practitioners give a variety of conflicting answers (Berg & Zoellick, 2019).
Yet language shapes our ability to think, work, and collaborate, so if we want to improve teacher leadership, we need shared language to talk about it. The lack of consensus about what counts as teacher leadership and what teacher leadership might accomplish prevents educators from being strategic in "doing" teacher leadership in a way that will maximize its impact on schools.
In a recent analysis of nearly 300 teacher leadership programs, my colleagues and I found that these initiatives were designed to support teachers in one or more of three ways: They prepared teachers to lead by bolstering the knowledge and skill they might need to be effective leaders; they rewarded teachers whose valued expertise might be a model for others; or they placed teachers in positions through which they might influence colleagues (Berg et al., 2019). It's easy to imagine how they might accomplish these things, and how essential a guiding definition of teacher leadership would be to the success of these efforts, yet few of these programs communicated one.
Learning to speak the same language would go a long way toward leveraging teacher leadership as an asset for improvement—but waiting for a national consensus to form is unnecessary and potentially futile. Teacher leadership already exists in every school environment, since teachers influence the quality of instruction beyond their classrooms in formal and informal ways every day. Communities should convene local stakeholders in a deliberate effort to turn tacit understandings of common terms into an explicitly shared language about teacher leadership. We need to identify our own dialect. What does teacher leadership mean here?
In 2007, I moved to Ecuador with my family, arriving during the harvest of a special fruit. I didn't know what the lumpy green orb was called, how to select a ripe one, what it should cost, or, most important, how to access it as food: Should I peel it? Eat only the seeds or avoid them? The English term for it, "custard apple," was deceptive and unhelpful, as it was nothing like either. I was not just learning a new word; I was developing a new concept. But it wasn't until I shared my curiosity with others, asked them to show me the ropes, and wrestled with the fruit myself that I developed a practical understanding of what I could do with a chirimoya.

Finding Meaning in the Words

We might take a similarly inquisitive stance and see teacher leadership as a new concept: There's much more to it than "teachers" and "leadership." In order to develop a nuanced and authentic understanding of the term, we need to see and hear it in action. Too often conversations about teacher leadership advance from theory. We need teachers at the table.
While living in Ecuador, my family and I traveled throughout South America, often on public buses. My Spanish dictionary gave me a whole list of ways to say "bus," but they were not all applicable in every context. In Quito, a bus was a colectivo, while outside the capital it was often a camioneta. In fact, throughout the region, a bus could be called, combi or buseta or chiva. It was helpful to know the range of terms—and that there was a range—but I had to remain attentive to what was in local use.
Similarly, national teacher leadership frameworks, including model standards and competencies, describe a great range of roles teachers might play and identify a wide repertoire of knowledge and skills that teacher leaders might need, depending on the context. It's helpful to have this range compiled for reference. However, these guides only tell us what teacher leadership might mean; we must commit time and attention to discerning what teacher leadership means here.
Earlier in my career, I taught at an international school in Brazil. Even after living there for two years, I inevitably found myself leaning against doors labelled puxe (and pronounced "push"), which means "pull" in Portuguese. My colleagues didn't stand by shaking their heads or ignore my struggle and leave me outside. They patiently corrected me as I tried to heighten my attention to false cognates. It was difficult, they understood, to ascribe new meaning to such familiar-sounding words.
In the shifting terrain of schools, the meaning of words is shifting, too. The term "school leadership" no longer means "the principal," "professional development" doesn't only refer to a set of designated hours after school, and the term "teacher leader" no longer references individuals with only formal roles. Further, what it means to be a good colleague, coach, and principal evolves as schools recognize and maximize the distribution of leadership in creative ways. We have to help one another make the shift in our language use, and to patiently provide and accept corrections from each other until our new shared language takes hold.

A Necessary Conversation

As momentum builds for viewing teacher leadership as a strategy for accelerating student success, educators need to convene locally for conversations that can proactively surface critical assumptions about what teacher leadership is and synchronize their expectations of what teacher leadership should do. If they can learn from each other's experience, leverage existing frameworks, and patiently help each other to adopt new shared language, soon they'll be singing about the successes of teacher leadership.

Berg, J. H., Horn, P., Supovitz, J. A., & Margolis, J. (2019). Typology of teacher leadership programs. CPRE Research Reports.

Berg, J. H., & Zoellick, B. (2019). Teacher leadership: Toward a new conceptual framework. Journal of Professional Capital and Community, 4(1), 2–14.

Nguyen, D., Harris, A., & Ng, D. (2019, September 25). A review of the empirical research on teacher leadership (2003–2017). Journal of Educational Administration. (Ahead of print).

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