Published Online: October 29, 2013

Developing Teacher Leadership for the Long Haul

Leader. It’s one of those words that can mean very different things, depending on who’s speaking.

Dominant American culture suggests that leaders are easy to spot. They speak well. They’ve earned college degrees. They volunteer a lot. They are often outspoken critics. Identifying or becoming this kind of leader is almost a formulaic process.

But in community organizing—my career for 19 years before I entered teaching—we define leadership differently. For us, the key characteristic of a leader is a following. Are there other people who respect the person’s judgment and, more often than not, are swayed by it? That is what we take to be the foundation of leadership.

This kind of leader can be purposefully developed, but only through the forge of experience. Organizers look at community problems as opportunities to build individuals’ leadership. In this view of things, the struggle is not just about the issue at hand—housing or childcare or unemployment—it’s about building the skills, sensitivities, and relationships needed to sustain community progress.

By taking this tack, communities “win” in the short and long term, achieving results over time, long past the point when a traditional “leader” would’ve moved on to a more glamorous cause.

How does this relate to education? I'm suggesting that developing the leadership potential of our students, parents, and teachers is a key strategy to improving our schools. I've previously written about helping students develop leadership skills and about encouraging parents to lead, emphasizing engagement over involvement. But how can schools nurture teacher leadership?

Here are a few ideas for structural changes that would develop more leaders within the traditionally top-down profession of teaching.

Small learning communities: The California high school where I teach, like many others around the United States, is divided into small learning communities (SLCs). The idea of SLCs is to create “schools within schools.” Our total population of 2,000 students is divided into six SLCs, each of which includes about 20 teachers and 300 students. For the most part, those students and teachers stay together year after year.

Each SLC includes lead teachers with lighter teaching loads who run weekly SLC meetings and partner with administrators on student planning and scheduling. Other teachers also have various leadership roles.

Peer assistance and review programs: A growing body of research suggests that peer assistance and review (PAR) programs are effective tools for teacher evaluation (and, as a side effect, for opening up teacher-leadership options). PAR programs can operate in a variety of ways, but in most such programs teachers are trained and temporarily moved out of the classroom to function as peer reviewers and teacher advisors.

Instructional coaching: Some districts do not have a PAR program but still have instructional coaches who may or may not be part of a formal evaluation process. You can learn more at "The Best Resources on Instructional Coaching" and, of course, at Education Week Teacher's own instructional coaching blog by Elena Aguilar.

Teachers’ unions: There are many leadership roles in teachers’ unions, including important ones in revitalizing associations that may be working with the Teacher Union Reform Network.

Teacherpreneurs: This is a movement led by educators affiliated with the Center For Teaching Quality, based on the idea that we should be able to lead without leaving the classroom for full-time administrative roles. More teacherpreneur roles would support the options mentioned above and create many more opportunities for teachers to teach part-time and spend part of their time on research, education-policy work, school administration, etc.

Professional or personal learning networks (PLNs): When educators speak of developing their PLNs, they refer to connections they are building with colleagues across the world through online social media. A robust PLN is another vehicle through which teachers can learn from and influence others.

Of course, there are many other ways for us teachers to develop as leaders and other roles to benefit our own growth and that of our students and communities. The real challenge to keep in mind is the over-quoted advice from Yoda:

"Do or do not. There is no try."

Below is the 18-minute presentation Ferlazzo delivered as a keynote presenter at the K-12 Online Conference, a free international online program for educator professional development. Go to Ferlazzo's blog for supplemental material.

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