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Teacher Leadership: How To Make It More Than a Catch Phrase

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Teaching is not a profession that values or encourages leadership within its ranks. The hierarchical nature of public schools is based on the 19th-century industrial model, with the consequent adversarial relationship of administration as management and teachers as labor.

Recognizing the serious flaws in this way of thinking, the school-reform reports of the late 1980's made compelling recommendations for teachers to provide leadership in restructuring the nation's schools. The reports emphasized the importance of creating new roles for teachers that acknowledge the centrality of classroom teaching and extend teachers' decisionmaking power into schoolwide leadership activities. The 1986 report of the Carnegie Task Force on Teaching as a Profession, "A Nation Prepared,'' went so far as to say that without teacher support "any reforms will be short lived'' and that "the key'' to successful reform of schools "lies in creating a new profession ... of well-educated teachers prepared to assume new powers and responsibilities to redesign schools for the future.''

Recently, in the education community's fervor to find a quick fix to school ills, the attractive phrase "teacher leadership'' has emerged as a new buzzword for how to cure the schools. It is tempting to ignore the fact that such teacher-leadership roles--in curriculum, school improvement, and professional development--are developed and delegated by the central office and are therefore limited in scope and vision, and subject to cancellation.

School districts proudly point to examples of teacher leadership no matter how minimal the impact on day-to-day operations. That's somewhat like calling a banana republic a democracy if a few of its citizens are allowed to vote. But life goes on as usual anyway, with the bulk of the populace resentful of those who do vote, and the supreme power at the top of the administrative ladder watchful and suspicious lest this idea of participation spread and disrupt the status quo.

We would suggest, however, that true teacher leadership enables practicing teachers to reform their work and provides a means for altering the hierarchical nature of schools. Our experience has proven to us that it is absolutely vital that teachers remake the profession and establish a culture in which classroom teachers are seen as fully empowered partners in shaping policy, creating curriculum, managing budgets, improving practice, and bringing added value toward the goal of improving education for children.

In 1987, we two classroom teachers created the Learning/Teaching Collaborative (a partnership among the Boston and Brookline, Mass., public schools and Wheelock and Simmons colleges) to provide opportunities for teachers to assume new professional roles while remaining in the classroom. This team-teaching model, administered by teachers, has altered the organization of instruction, mainstreamed special-needs students, integrated bilingual students into regular classrooms, and created new professional roles for teachers.

As part of the collaborative, full-time classroom teachers conduct research, are faculty members at partner colleges, supervise graduate-student interns, and participate in national curriculum-development projects. And, for the most part, these activities occur during the school day.

How is this achieved? A vital component of the Learning/Teaching Collaborative is what we call "Alternative Professional Teaching Time.'' A.P.T. time is facilitated by the presence of graduate-student interns who work in the classroom for a full year. When the interns are ready to assume independent classroom responsibility, their mentor teachers take time during the school day, up to one full day per week, to assume leadership roles.

During alternative-professional-teaching time, teachers acquire skills not generally considered to be essential to teaching. They learn to communicate more effectively with other professionals, build coalitions, identify goals, work behind the scenes to achieve these goals, and develop and manage budgets (an exceptionally important part of leadership). As fully empowered partners in the team-teaching process, they become improved classroom teachers and stronger advocates of education as well.

And yet ... despite its successes inside the classroom and without, despite the fact that the Learning/Teaching Collaborative continues to expand within the Brookline and Boston public schools, and is even exported elsewhere, it is far from becoming institutionalized as a model of teacher leadership.

Neither, as far as we know, has any other model of teacher leadership been institutionalized in America.

Why is it so difficult to institutionalize leadership roles for teachers?

  • The nature of teachers. Concerned with the problems of teaching and most interested in life in the classroom, teachers are reluctant to think of themselves as leaders. They view with some discomfort the idea of assuming quasi-administrative or expanded teaching functions. What's more, experience has taught them that teacher leadership and risk-taking are not valued in the schools in which they work. As Roland Barth so aptly stated: "A teacher is like a mushroom. It thrives in the darkness, but when it sticks its neck out, its head immediately gets cut off.''
  • The nature of teaching. In schools there is an expectation of top-down mandates with little input from practitioners. It is as inappropriate for a teacher to assist in school restructuring as it is for an assembly-line worker to suggest how to improve the assembly line. Perhaps we should say as it was for an assembly-line worker, for automobiles are built by teams these days. As an indicator of social change, teaching is less progressive than manufacturing.
  • The issue of egalitarianism. If some teachers are leaders and others are not, how can teaching be egalitarian? When teacher leaders emerge and begin to affect policy and the larger domains of the school, they encounter resistance not just from the principal, but from other teachers who have been heard to say, "Just who does she think she is?''

To introduce teacher leadership is to introduce status differences based on knowledge, skill, and initiative into a profession that has made no provision for them. Seeing some teachers do something new and different, getting attention and respect, intensifies feelings of turf protection and powerlessness in others. And this brings up what is probably the most important obstacle of all to the institutionalization of teacher leadership.

  • The issue of power. Often left undiscussed in the reform dialogue surrounding the implementation of "shared decisionmaking,'' "school-based management,'' and the "professionalization of teaching'' is the issue of power. The "zero sum'' view of power impliesthat there is only a limited amount of power in the school. Decisions about classroom policy--what to teach, how to use time, and how to assess progress--are made by teachers. But other decisions that affect teachers' work--scheduling, class placement, assignment of specialists, and the allocation of budget and materials--are made at higher levels of the school bureaucracy. This norm is accepted by teachers and administrators alike. It is unlikely that teacher leaders will emerge from the ranks in places where teachers are powerless to affect schoolwide policy. And where principals fear they will be relegated to becoming operational managers as a result of teachers' taking on new leadership roles, teacher leadership cannot succeed.

What needs to be done, then, in order to further the goal of institutionalizing teacher leadership?

  • Reform the workplace. If we are to change the professional environment of the school, we must foster better relationships among professionals. Those in schools must come to believe that power is not zero-sum, indeed, that by sharing power with others, the quantity of power for each participant increases. This could lay the groundwork for teacher leadership to become a powerful catalyst for the professionalization of teaching.
  • Redefine the role of principal. Because principals are encouraged to be instructional leaders, they often feel threatened when they are asked to move over and make room for teachers. Principal-preparation programs must be restructured so that principals are charged with the mission of developing a community of leaders within their schools. They must be provided with strategies to facilitate teachers' taking on leadership roles and they need to participate in teaching teachers how to be leaders. They need to provide teachers with both the reason and the opportunity, including time, to lead. Principals must understand that their influence over classroom teaching will be enhanced, not diminished, by involving teachers in decisionmaking on matters of curriculum, instruction, scheduling, and budgets.
  • Support the role of teacher as leader. The phrase "teacher leader'' will remain no more than an oxymoron if the education community continues to treat it as such. Teachers themselves must advocate for the creation of leadership roles. Building on their expertise in teaching and learning and their understanding of the needs of children, teachers must now acquire leadership skills and an understanding of organizational theory and behavior in order to facilitate change.

School districts must evaluate principals on their ability to foster teacher leadership in their buildings, and provide incentives and rewards for teachers who take the lead on tasks or problems. Teacher unions must cultivate leadership among their members and take responsibility for educating teachers in the political and organizational aspects of their work. Policymakers must support and oversee rigorous, professionally defined standards of practice.

Simultaneously, colleges of education must recognize the importance of teacher leadership and strengthen their commitment to teaching those skills as a required component of teacher education.

In the Learning/Teaching Collaborative, we have demonstrated that teachers themselves can create successful models of teacher leadership and empower themselves to change today's schools. Myriad difficulties and obstacles confront the institutionalization of teacher leadership, but we must continue this ongoing struggle if we are to claim new territories in school reform.

Vivian Troen is a 4th-grade teacher at the Edward Devotion School in Brookline, Mass., and the project director of the Learning/ Teaching Collaborative. Katherine Boles is a visiting scholar at Harvard University and a Spencer Post-Doctoral Fellow studying the effect of the Learning/Teaching Collaborative.

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