Leadership by Teachers Gains Notice

By Lynn Olson — May 09, 2007 6 min read
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This article was originally published in Education Week.

Like a growing number of other teachers nationwide, Danna S. Clinton has taken on a variety of leadership roles in her school, from chairing the science department to helping with the school’s improvement plan. But she has one thing many of her colleagues do not have: a teacher-leadership endorsement from the state of Louisiana testifying to her skills.

“I’ve been teaching a long time,” said Ms. Clinton, a 27-year veteran and a physics teacher at the 2,400-student Lafayette High School in Lafayette, La. “So I thought this would be something new for me to do, stepping out of my comfort zone.”

Louisiana is one of a handful of states that have created or are considering adding endorsements to their state licensing systems that would formally recognize teachers who have taken on leadership roles outside their own classrooms. Illinois adopted a teacher-leadership endorsement last year, and Georgia has new rules that went into effect April 15. Other states, such as Delaware and Kentucky, are considering similar steps.

Advocates cite a number of reasons for such endorsements: They recognize teachers who have already assumed leadership functions in their schools. They make the principal’s job more doable by encouraging other teachers to take on such tasks. They create options for individuals who want to pursue leadership roles but are not interested in becoming principals. And they can serve as a pathway for future school leaders.

“These teacher-leadership roles are a natural pipeline into future principal and central-office leadership roles,” said Ann L. Duffy, the director of policy for the Atlanta-based Georgia’s Leadership Institute for School Improvement, a public-private partnership.

“There’s also a very clear need for building-level principals to recognize that leadership is more than just one person,” she said, “so there’s a need to codify, as well as create, incentives to help distribute leadership.”

Purely Optional

The actual requirements for the endorsements, which recognize a specific area of expertise on top of the basic license required to become a teacher, vary across states.

In Louisiana, teacher leaders must complete six hours of graduate coursework in educational leadership that can also be used toward a master’s degree. In Illinois, teachers can earn the endorsement by completing a master’s program in teacher leadership. But those in the state who are certified by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards or who have already demonstrated leadership experience in their schools can complete a smaller sequence of courses.

To receive state approval for offering such programs, Illinois institutions of higher education must submit program descriptions to the state department of education that specify how the courses will enhance teachers’ ability to improve instructional programs, provide effective professional development and leadership to their peers, and help foster a school environment conducive to learning.

In Georgia, the endorsement programs must address a variety of leadership functions, including how to develop and implement a shared school vision, provide effective instructional programs based on Georgia standards, and design comprehensive professional-growth plans for adults.

“The things that Georgia codified really center around creating or leading change,” Ms. Duffy said. “The idea is that as you take on those responsibilities outside the classroom, you are recognized and can apply them in a performance-based certification program.”

One thing is true across all the states so far: The endorsements are purely optional. Teachers don’t need to hold an endorsement to assume leadership roles in their schools. And the endorsements do not assure a teacher of any extra pay, unless a district chooses to provide it.

“Practically speaking, there’s no money attached to it,” said Ms. Duffy of Georgia. “It’s up to the district to determine whether or not the endorsements are required for certain roles and responsibilities.”

Erika L. Hunt, the project director of the Illinois-State Action for Education Leadership Project, part of a 22-state initiative sponsored by the New York City-based Wallace Foundation, said that “at some point, we would like to give some state incentive funding, but we weren’t able to at this point.”

“Right now, it’s not really anything more than paper,” said Nathan M. Roberts, the director of graduate studies in education at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. “A principal, we hope, will look at it and say, ‘You’ve got this; you’re valuable.’ But there’s nothing built into the Lafayette system, or others, right now that says these people are one notch up and they’ve got priority.”

Even so, he said, his university probably has 10 times as many people interested in the teacher-leadership endorsement as in becoming school principals. “These people care about their school. They want the school to improve,” he said, “but they don’t want to become a principal. They want to teach, but they want to have some impact.”

While the endorsements aren’t mandatory, said Jo Anderson Jr., the executive director of the 130,000-member Illinois Education Association, he could foresee local bargaining agreements using the credential to mark teachers for salary increases, perhaps as part of career-ladder systems.

“But you can’t do that if the credential doesn’t exist,” he said.

“We think there will very definitely be a demand,” he added. “There are a lot of young, and more seasoned, teachers who would love to have more responsibility. … This whole reform strategy ultimately comes down to a single sentence: The more powerful the adult learning community, the more powerful the student learning. And that takes all different kinds of leadership.”

Rigidity a Worry

Anything that prompts the field to understand and encourage teachers to exercise more leadership is good, according to Joseph F. Murphy, a professor of education at Vanderbilt University, in Nashville, Tenn.

But he cautioned that the endorsements could have a downside if they rigidify the leadership opportunities for teachers and limit those roles to a small number of individuals.

“How do you create opportunities for teachers to work together around the important stuff of schooling, where they can move in and out of leadership fluently depending on their expertise and wisdom?” he said. “That seems to me to be the most powerful element of teacher leadership. If it just sets up another set of roles and responsibilities, it will be helpful, but it won’t be as helpful as it could be.”

For Ms. Clinton, at least, the experience has been positive.

As part of a teacher-leadership institute created by the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, the physics teacher helped her school gather information from teachers and students about their perceptions of block scheduling. That research led the teacher-leadership team at her school, which completed the institute as a cohort, to design an upcoming workshop for their colleagues about how to use the 90-minute teaching blocks more effectively. The teacher leaders also meet regularly with one of Lafayette High’s assistant principals to help with the school’s improvement plan.

Ms. Clinton, who said she’s gained a new appreciation for the work of building leaders, is now completing her master’s degree in educational leadership and considering becoming a principal herself.

Once she completes the program in June, she said, she’s thinking of applying to become an assistant principal.

“I was a little nervous at first,” she said, “but I think I’m going to do it. I think that I would like to go ahead and be an administrator.”


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