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Creating Young Teacher Leaders

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Until very recently, the skills and knowledge required to be an effective teacher leader were developed mostly by happenstance. Few teachers of the Baby Boomer generation can recall any specific training in leadership as part of their undergraduate degree programs. Even today, much of the collegiate “action” around teacher leadership takes place at the graduate level, as master’s and doctoral programs proliferate. But if, as many believe, young teacher leaders can be a critical element in future school improvement, the question begs itself: Can you prepare preservice teachers with leadership skills before they actually enter their own classrooms?

When Tanya Judd Pucella joined our Teacher Leaders Network community, she was a full-time National Board certified history teacher in Orlando FL, working to complete her doctoral degree. In 2006, she moved to Ohio for a new position as an assistant professor of leadership and education at Marietta College, home of the McDonough Center for Leadership and Business, one of the oldest undergraduate leadership programs in the country. In this interview, Tanya describes how she capitalized on her new role to pursue a long-time interest in building a bridge between undergraduate teacher education and leadership development.

* * * * *

John Norton: Tell us something about the McDonough Center and your work on teacher leadership there.

Tanya Judd Pucella: In 2007, I had the good fortune to have an idea approved that had been burning in the back of my mind since my move to higher education—the notion of an undergraduate certificate in Teacher Leadership. McDonough Scholars study leadership from a variety of perspectives, and represent nearly every major on campus, including the sciences, psychology, communication, and, yes, education. I saw an opportunity to focus the study of our Education majors specifically on Teacher Leadership, and as a result I proposed our new certificate program.

The most common question that any professor in our undergraduate leadership program faces is how in the world do you teach leadership to undergraduate students with limited professional experience? All of our students study a variety of theories and models of leadership behavior. In addition, McDonough Scholars examine and practice the varied skills that leaders need—everything from team building, facilitation, and deliberation to communication, goal setting, and project planning. All this takes place while they’re engaged in authentic experiences built into their courses. In short, we try to give them real world, practical experiences that allow them to see leadership in action.

When students pursue the Teacher Leadership Certificate, they take several core courses with their peers that examine leadership in a liberal arts context, and then have specialized coursework focusing on teachers as leaders.

Norton: What happens in your specialized coursework?

Judd Pucella: When I set out to teach a course in teacher leadership, I faced the same question faced by other professors: How can you teach pre-service educators about teacher leadership when they have never been inside the classroom, other than as a student or an observer, and never worked closely with other professionals in a school? I found this to be an interesting conundrum. When I began thinking about course design, I posed this very question to other members of the Teacher Leaders Network, and got some great tips and suggestions. From there I plunged forward with my fingers crossed and my hopes high.

We begin the course by examining a variety of “expert” definitions of teacher leadership. We spend several class sessions picking these apart. Each time I’ve gone through this exercise with students, they’ve finally settled on a definition put forth by Katzenmeyer and Moller in their groundbreaking work on teacher leadership, Awakening the Sleeping Giant: “Teacher leaders lead within and beyond the classroom; identify with and contribute to a community of teacher learners and leaders; influence others toward improved educational practice; and accept responsibility for achieving the outcomes of that leadership.”

From there we spend some time examining some definitions put forth by practitioners—my cohorts at the Teacher Leaders Network. All in all, the students seem to prefer the complexity of the practitioner definitions, with an emphasis on two components of leadership put forth by Katzenmeyer and Moller. First, they must work inside and outside of the classroom, and second, they must develop a repertoire of strategies that they can use to influence their peers if they are going to be effective teacher leaders.

Norton: Do your undergraduate students find it odd to be talking about leadership so early in the process of becoming an effective teacher?

Judd Pucella: One of the things I’ve found most encouraging is that these students do not shy away from the idea that they could be teacher leaders. If anything, they are eager to lead and confident that they will do so, even early in their careers. While they acknowledge the need to build up a base of expert and referent power in order to be able to truly influence their peers, they feel that part of being a good leader is being a good follower.

My students generally agree that the key to teacher leadership for beginning teachers is spending the early part of their careers—that crucial 3-5 years—fine tuning their expertise in the classroom, because all teacher leaders need to be, at the very least, effective teachers. During this “apprenticeship,” they will be working toward learning more about the how-to’s of being a great teacher from the best veterans in their schools. The students also identified this early period as an excellent opportunity to really observe and analyze the school culture in which they’re working, so that when the time comes, they can use the knowledge they’ve accrued to bring about positive change. They also see their novice years as a time where they can take on a variety of roles, both formal and informal, that may lead to leadership positions in the future.

Norton: Tell some more about your course content.

Judd Pucella: We seek to identify what key skills and abilities would be necessary to be a good teacher leader. My students invariably come to the quick conclusion that while all teacher leaders are effective teachers, not all effective teachers are teacher leaders. To be a teacher leader one must do more—you must stand up for what is best for all students. In addition to being an effective teacher, we typically end up with a list of teacher leadership traits that includes advocacy skills; a working knowledge of action research; the ability to analyze professional literature; an awareness of some key issues and trends in the field (such as the impact of NCLB); the ability to use a variety of influence techniques to “sell” their point of view; the ability to work productively in teams; a knowledge of how to give constructive feedback to peers; the ability to deliver effective professional development; and an understanding of how to be a successful peer coach. While this is not a comprehensive list, these are the skills we hone in on.

Norton: What can you tell us about results? Any feedback from your graduates?

Judd Pucella: Meg, one of our first program graduates, returned this year as a guest speaker. The class immediately wanted to know what leadership roles she had been able to take on in her first year. Meg is actually a Teach for America corps member, and she offered a number of ways in which she’d been able to put into action the concepts and skills we learn about in the course. As a TFA member with a degree in Education, she’d first exerted her leadership during her TFA summer training. At her school, her proficiency in both technology and content-area reading strategies and her understanding of how to share these tools with more veteran teachers in a non-threatening way had established her as informal leader. Meg also actively sought out an effective teacher-mentor to assist her, using her “followership” skills to improve the experience in her classroom for herself and her students.

I heard from Meg just a few weeks ago—she’s been asked by her principal to take over the media center at her school, which is in severe disrepair. He felt she’d done such a great job as a reading instructor and was so good with technology that she would be an excellent choice. She’s thought about it and decided she’ll be able to impact more students and more teachers in that role.

One of the most encouraging things to result from our program has been the obvious eagerness of these pre-service educators to bring about positive change for students both inside their classrooms and in their schools, districts, and beyond. Many of them are really burning to be the change that we need. What is most encouraging is that they also understand how important it is for them to tap into the expertise of their veteran colleagues in the field if they want to become truly effective teachers and leaders.

Norton: Any advice for veteran teachers who share your belief in the importance of early teacher leadership development?

Judd Pucella: There are so many teachers who are working tirelessly as leaders in our K-12 schools right now. I believe my experience shows that their expertise as mentors is not only essential to help the new generation of teachers become effective educators, but also to help them develop into positive teacher leaders. There are a variety of roles, both formal and informal, where even beginning teachers can make a significant contribution. The desire and interest is there; we just need to nurture it when they get into our schools. Invite them to observe your classrooms. Include them in committee work. Ask their opinions, even if they are newbies. They have some rich insights that may just help change your school—and your profession!

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