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March 1, 1993
Vol. 50
No. 6

The Search for Teacher Leaders

More than 2.5 million teachers in 15,500 school districts across the country strive to develop the skills, attitudes, and knowledge of young people. The quality of their work determines the future well-being and economic welfare of a generation of Americans. Education can make a difference.
The general assessment, though, seems to be that education is not making enough of a difference. Why do students not achieve as they should? This tough issue has resisted glib policy solutions and thereby has created a window of opportunity for teacher leaders.

Sketching the Picture

Do teacher leaders exist? Who are they? How do they think, feel, and behave? How do they show leadership? Do they have any impact on the system? I began my search for teacher leaders by asking more than 400 teachers at all six high schools in one school district to nominate teachers that they regarded as leaders. Despite their difficulty with my request, the reasons listed (by more than 100 teachers) for nominating a colleague, were remarkably consistent.
  • They are hard-working and highly involved with curricular and instructional innovation.
  • Their creativity is demonstrated by their power to motivate students from a wide range of backgrounds and abilities.
  • They are gregarious and make themselves available to other teachers as a resource or an advocate.
  • They energetically sponsor extra-curricular activities for young people.
These responses were cursory answers to a simple question: Who is a teacher leader? To give the portrait more detail, I used a reputational nomination procedure to elect 13 of 355 teachers for intensive interviews. With demographic data from these interviewees, a fuller picture of teacher leaders emerges. A typical leader is 42 and has taught for 18 years, at the same school for almost 13 years. More than half of them have served as formal leaders, either as department chair for an average of 11 years and/or as a committed representative of the teachers' union for at least 3 years. They usually hold a master's degree.
How do these men and women compare with leaders from other fields—for example, business? Choosing a template to understand and assess the leadership ability of these teachers was not easy. Theories about leadership are numerous, and transcribed interviews yielded 560 pages of description. I eventually selected the widely disseminated Kouzes and Posner (1990) model as the best tool for understanding teacher leadership.
In The Leadership Challenge: How to Get Extraordinary Things Done in Organizations, Kouzes and Posner describe the leadership behaviors of 1,300 middle and senior managers in private and public sector organizations across the country. Briefly, leaders challenge the process because they are risk-takers who capitalize on opportunities. As idealists who communicate expressively, they inspire a shared vision. Since they like teamwork and instinctively nurture the talent and energy of colleagues, leaders enable others to act. Leaders are role-models and planners who model the way. By serving as coaches and cheerleaders, they encourage the heart.
Interviewees candidly shared thoughts and feelings, making it possible to understand their strengths and limitations as leaders. Let me share the evidence and the exploratory understanding I gained about teacher leadership.

Seekers of Challenges and Growth

First, in common with other leaders, teacher leaders seek challenge, change, and growth. Here are some of their comments: Today was something different. We worked on a grant-writing project and are submitting a building grant proposal. We are so excited about it that we can hardly see straight.I think one ought to like what one is doing, so I expend a lot of energy creating situations that I will like. I don't want to get stagnant.I had so much fun learning about 9th graders. I see so many neat and exciting things that I can do, things that if I were a 9th grader would really interest me. The teacher leaders I spoke with go out of their way to find innovative, exciting programs, both for the benefit of their students as well as themselves.

Supporters of Colleagues

At the same time, teacher leaders feel like family: informal, reassuringly dependable, and supportive of colleagues. My sense is that anytime you get teachers who work together talking about kids, problems, and curriculum in a supportive way, they feel better about themselves, and there is more energy. All of that has positive consequences for kids in their classrooms.A number of us feel that one of the most significant things we ever did was arrange to have lunch together outside the faculty lounge.... It was an environment where everybody had given you permission to be elated about things that worked and cry about the things that didn't. The end result is that it created relationships that made possible a lot of sharing and encouragement to try things when you were nervous.I created materials that we then passed out to everybody who was teaching that subject in my department. I have a personal interest in digging out information that I think may be helpful to somebody else even if I can't use it at that particular moment.
Thus, these teachers busily pursue novel opportunities, but continue to be nurturing and cooperative people.
Using leadership jargonese, they are risk-oriented and collaborative. Clearly, these leaders both “challenge the process” and “enable others to act.”

Role Models for Students, But Not Teachers

Third, leadership is the process of bringing forth the best from oneself and others. Unfortunately, these teachers do not as yet seem to lead colleagues. However, the Kouzes and Posner model shows they are potent leaders of students. Around here I have a reputation of working hard and pushing the kids hard.... Some people just hold kids' hands.I like to be able to love my students. When I get letters from them after they have graduated or when they come back to see me and tell me that what we did in class was right and that it worked for them, that's the kind of positive stroke that I think teaching is all about.They'll come in early and sit down, and they won't look at you, but they just want strokes. Their parents don't ever talk to them. Ever. Their parents ask you questions like, “Who is my son? Who does he go around with? What's he like? What does he do?”I would caution student teachers always to be flexible with the kids, but not to leave them with no structure, because many times we are the only structure, the only model, these kids have.
In the eyes of their colleagues, leadership skill with students is what uniquely qualifies some teachers as leaders in their schools. Ironically, teacher leaders do not see that simply by “walking their talk,” they inspire and influence others. They fail to understand that role modeling is a powerful form of leading. I don't know that we are leaders, because we are not out championing any cause. We don't do what we do for recognition. We are here because we enjoy teaching, and we like to improve the quality of our teaching and help kids. I think because we do these things, people notice us.I think of him as a master teacher, and that is how he gets his influence ... [by] modeling what an excellent teacher should be as far as relationships with students and content. His leadership hasn't been with anything he has done outside the classroom.
This lack of understanding of how they can play a leadership role, just by “modeling the way,” has some unfortunate consequences. As committed and competent professionals, teacher leaders could invigorate their schools. But if they do not recognize that role models are critical to school improvement, their leadership potential is aborted.

Coaches and Cheerleaders

Fourth, coaching and cheerleading “encourage the heart” of workers in any organization.
Historically, teachers have not coached other teachers, but the following comments are telling in their portrayal of the need for, and the potential efficacy of, peer-coaching. When I am God of Education, for at least two years, nobody will be in a classroom by themselves.I am excited about mentoring because it is a support system for new people who sometimes feel they have just been thrown to the wolves. That is such a terrible thing to have happen to somebody who is full of new ideas, and there is nobody out there to bounce ideas off or vent frustrations on.When we first started peer-coaching, the people who came forward weren't the new teachers. It was the person with 18 or 20 years in who came to the first meeting and said, “What can I do?” “If I could do this, I could do a better job.” They were the ones who ... were looking for something to re-energize their life and their teaching.Peer-coaching gave teachers the power to try things, to seek out innovation, to find out about what was going on in other places.
Yes, committed and competent professionals can invigorate their schools when they choose, and are formally chosen, to be role models, coaches, and cheerleaders. The question remains: Is their ability to “model the way” and “encourage the heart” likely to be put to systematic use in any school district?

What About a Shared Vision?

One leadership behavior that they did not demonstrate was “envisioning a unique and ideal future.” These teachers seemed to register dreams too hazy to shape an ideal school. Though committed to idealistic personal goals, they were tentative about schoolwide goals. While recognizing that a leader is “a strong personality who has some sense of where she is going and what she wants to do,” only two asserted that teachers are entitled to express “an idea of what they want the school to be like, and a willingness to work toward that, rather than just being in the environment and existing and coping with it.”
Some themes emerged: Teacher leaders want schools to be communities with more resources for instruction and greater influence and control for teachers. However, these ideas were not expressed persuasively enough to “inspire a shared vision.”
A useful picture of teacher leaders had taken form. This picture had light and dark aspects, and areas of gray as well. Yet other goals of the study were unmet. Leaders or not, did these teachers have an impact on their high schools? Did their initiative win them recognition and influence? How was their influence demonstrated in interactions with colleagues? Was the teacher's exercise of leadership supported by the organizational culture of their school? What part could teacher leaders play in the drama of school reform?

The Costs of Playing by the Rules

The findings of the next phase of this study are disconcerting. The very capabilities that distinguish teacher leaders from others in the high school environment—risk-taking, collaboration, and role modeling—produce tensions between them and colleagues.
Administrators, for example, often prefer to avoid risks. Interviewees typically observed that: It's not what the kids learn that matters to them; it is whether the boat is rocking or not.Sometimes we have different missions in schools. As an administrator, one of your missions is order and discipline. That is important within the building, and that is a primary mission for them. If they are not doing that job, nothing else works. If you have multiple missions, at times they are going to conflict with one another. These comments cut to the heart of the conflict between the administrative need to maintain order and risk-taking attitudes that naturally generate some disorder.
Nevertheless, most of these teacher leaders choose a non-adversarial stance toward principals, and their credibility as innovators usually enables them to push their own priorities. Teacher leaders accept that administrators have different agendas, and they adjust by adopting a live-and-let-live attitude.
Also, collaboration between administrators and teachers is a new rule of the game. Traditionally, administrators have not expected to be influenced by teachers. Teacher leaders, in general, find this restrictive attitude toward teacher initiative to be distasteful. For example: I'm not saying that all administrators come with a chip on their shoulder ready to do their thing. It's just that they have been trained to say, “This is what we are going to do,” trained to not ask teachers, to not accept any kind of direction from teachers.
Teacher leaders prefer to cooperate with others in order to create learning options for their students, themselves, and others. However, administrators, by habit, seem averse to teamwork that disregards rank-based authority. Teacher leaders do not like this traditional attitude, but pragmatically choose to ignore the impasse.
Finally, teacher leaders often are dismayed by the behavior of colleagues who don't seem to want the best for students. Leaders are committed to student welfare. They like young people and willingly devote tremendous time and energy to students as individuals; they focus on students first and subject matter second. As they put it: We have teachers who don't like kids. They don't get from behind their desks ... they have to have authority; they have an “us vs. them” mentality. They talk about “bad kids” and how they are going to take them on.Too many high school teachers are content-oriented instead of kid- and process-oriented. Yet, they choose not to censure less-committed colleagues, partly because they believe that “professionalism” requires the freedom to choose the ends and the means you wish to adopt for your classroom.
So, just as school-culture norms prevent teacher leaders from demanding public air-time for their risky teaching ideas and recognition for their collaborative style, professional norms restrain them from openly criticizing teachers whose commitment to students is low. Given these cultural and professional norms, “teacher leadership” sounds hollow. When a teacher leader does not audaciously insist on the best for all young people, is he or she really a leader?

Teacher Leadership: A Feminine Paradigm?

Thus, this research indicates that the school culture, as perceived by these teachers, does not reward (and perhaps obstructs) risk-taking, collaboration, and role-modeling. In fact, leadership traits such as initiative, an instinct for teamwork, and commitment actually can create stress for teacher leaders in their relationships with colleagues.
  • The label of “leader” sets a person apart from peers and diminishes his or her ability to bring about change.
  • Leadership is a role played by one person in a group. The role seduces the leader into believing that he or she is the mouthpiece of the group. Given a strong group of competent people, a leader may not be necessary.
  • Secondary teachers value their autonomy and do not wish to lead or be led.
  • As a group, teachers should exercise more control over the initiation and implementation of change.
  • Participatory decision making is critical. Any teacher who wishes to participate in a particular decision should be encouraged to do so.
What do such statements suggest? Maybe these teachers misunderstand the nature of leadership. Or conceivably, as individuals, they are reluctant to give up their enjoyment of good teaching for the uncertain satisfaction of good leading. Certainly, not one interviewee aspired to become an administrator.
A third supposition is that if the behaviors and attitudes commonly regarded as demonstrating leadership are not acceptable to these teachers, perhaps they prefer a style of leading that is not as yet prevalent. Notably, a majority did not consider themselves leaders, despite their influence on colleagues and appointment to leadership positions. Could it be that lacking an alternate set of rules for playing the leadership game, they choose to bow out of the leadership arena?
Their preferences are theoretically and practically significant. Rosener differentiates between so-called masculine and feminine styles of leading. The masculine style uses structural power, which is based on authority associated with position, title, and the ability to reward and punish. The feminine style relies on personal power, which is based on charisma, work record, and contacts. Masculine versus feminine styles of leading also are labeled transactional versus transformational.
Additionally, these teachers prefer shared leadership, with roles and tasks distributed among members of a group. Individuals move in and out of membership. Perchance, these teachers' hazy notions of leadership hint at a dynamic organizational form for which an organizational chart does not as yet exist. Can this organizational form be described (for want of better terminology) as feminine rather than masculine? Unfortunately, not enough information is available to warrant such generalizations.

Dilemmas and Dreams

Paradoxically, though the teachers described here are highly proficient leaders of their students and themselves, in their work with colleagues they appear to be reluctant leaders who exercise incomplete leadership. Their remarks illustrate how their influence in the high school is curtailed by school-culture and professional norms, as well as self-imposed limits. For example, they neither accept nor fulfill their leadership role in the school due to prevalent misconceptions about professionalism and leadership. To be fair, though, they seem to reject the leader's job because they like neither the structure that props up leaders, nor the style the role requires.
For me, my research led to some answers but raised an even bigger question: Can “teacher leadership” be more than a semi-fulfilled potential? I hope so. I hope the school of the future will be a formal but nonhierarchical system that nourishes informal arteries of influence, a place where the pulse and rhythm of good teaching and learning are driven by the capabilities of teacher leaders. It seems to me that only then will the potential contribution of these teachers to their schools be realized. Only then will we genuinely begin the work of fashioning school environments within which it is possible for every student to achieve.
End Notes

1 Newsweek, (Fall/Winter 1990), special issue entitled “The Future Is Now.”

2 J.M. Kouzes and B.Z. Posner, (1990), The Leadership Challenge: How to Get Extraordinary Things Done in Organizations, (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass).

3 J.B. Rosener, (June 1990), Leadership Study: International Women's Forum, (available from the Graduate School of Management, University of California, Irvine).

Meena Wilson has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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