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Professional Development Opinion

Response: ‘Schools Cannot Thrive’ Without Teacher Leadership

By Larry Ferlazzo — November 28, 2015 23 min read
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(This is the first post in a two-part series)

This week’s question is

How would you define “teacher leadership” and what does it look like in practice?

Today’s guest commentators are Regie Routman, Aubrie Rojee, Megan M. Allen, Shane Safir, Sean Slade, and Barnett Berry. You can also listen to a ten-minute conversation I had with Regie and Aubrie on my BAM! Radio Show. You can find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

You might be interested in a column and video presentation I previously posted elsewhere on Education Week, Developing Teacher Leadership For The Long Haul. In addition, you can explore additional resources at The Best Posts, Articles & Videos On “Teacher Leadership.”

Finally, you can check out previous posts appearing here on this topic at Teacher & Administrator Leadership.

Response From Regie Routman

Regie Routman is an educator who works in underperforming schools to increase and sustain reading and writing achievement for all students. She is the author of many books and resources, most recently Read, Write, Lead: Breakthrough Strategies for Schoolwide Literacy Success (ASCD, 2014). She can be contacted on www.regieroutman.org:

A teacher-leader, in addition to daily teaching of students, takes on a leadership role to improve instructional practices across a whole school whether it is an elementary, middle, or high school. Because collective leadership has been shown by research to have a stronger impact on student achievement than individual leadership, shared leadership between teachers and administrators is a necessity. Specifically, the teacher leadership role across a school involves working to build trusting relationships, taking on the qualities of effective leaders, and planning and facilitating the professional learning--all with the end goal of improving student learning.

My most significant learning lesson after more than four decades of teaching and coaching in diverse schools across the U.S. and Canada has been that teachers must be leaders and principals must know literacy in order for literacy achievement to improve and be sustained schoolwide. That crucial literacy-leadership connection is the subject of my latest book “Read, Write, Lead: Breakthrough Strategies for Schoolwide Literacy Success” (ASCD 2014.) Yet, teacher-leadership has traditionally been undervalued or ignored. Without it, schools cannot thrive. Principal-leadership is essential, of course, but because of the unrelenting demands of their job, principals need effective teacher-leader partnerships to be optimally effective.

A major role of the teacher-leader is as a member of the school’s Leadership Team. The Leadership Team, which typically has six to eight members headed by the principal, usually meets weekly (often over lunch) to take the pulse of the school community and to plan the professional learning. I have never seen a school sustain achievement gains without a strong Leadership Team or some similar structure firmly in place.

As previously noted, the teacher-leader takes on three significant roles in a school: building trust, acting as a leader, and facilitating professional learning. Descriptions of those roles follow.

Build trusting relationships

Without high-level trust and respect between and among all members of a school community, student achievement stalls every time. Teacher-leaders actively work to establish and maintain close ties with the principal, colleagues, and all members of the school community. Some of the ways teacher-leaders build and maintain trust are through publicly and privately celebrating the strengths and efforts of the principal, fellow teachers, students, and their families. With the principal, teacher-leaders also seek to develop a schoolwide culture of concern and caring for “our students”, not just “my students.” As a result of the trusting relationships teacher-leaders inspire, they courageously speak up to ask the hard questions, reach out and nudge their principal and colleagues on issues that need resolution, listen without judgment, and respect everyone’s voice. Teacher-leaders are also good communicators--orally, in writing, online, and through social media.

Take on the qualities of effective leaders

The same qualities that make any leader effective apply to teacher-leaders. They are highly knowledgeable about their field, whether it is literacy, special education, or a particular content or specialist area. They hold high expectations for their colleagues and students and are kind and encouraging to all. They know and apply the latest and most relevant research and generously share information and resources with others. They are humble experts at what they do and willingly mentor, coach, and co-teach with colleagues. At the same time, they are learners who are open to change and who constantly seek to get better at their craft.

Facilitate professional learning

Ensuring high level, onsite, ongoing professional learning is probably the most significant role for the teacher-leader. With the principal, teacher-leaders plan and carry out the professional learning in a school. (I choose not to use the term professional development, which often means outside experts, one-shot deals, and “training” on a newly adopted program.) Professional learning is about establishing schoowide beliefs that align with “best” instructional and assessment practices, reading professionally, viewing and discussing what authentic, purposeful practices look like and sound like, conversing with colleagues about applying those practices to the classroom, and--with support from the Leadership Team--getting better at daily teaching and assessing so that students learn more. In the end, it is the quality and depth of the professional learning in a school that determine student and teacher learning outcomes.

Response From Aubrie Rojee

Aubrie Rojee has been a social studies educator for the past 12 years in Rhode Island, D.C., and Massachusetts and is currently the Educational Leader for Humanities at Medway High School in Medway, Massachusetts. Aubrie is also a class of 2014 ASCD Emerging Leader:

There is often a certain leadership quality in those who wish to pursue the field of education as we are rarely individuals who wish to take on a passive role in the world around us. In the words of John Quincy Adams, “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.” In applying this definition of leadership to teachers, we will see that the concept of a “teacher leader” is becoming more and more defined and even assigned. In fact, the title given to me by my district is, “Educational Leader”. However, I struggle with this. Shouldn’t we all take an active role in “teacher leadership”?

What few realize is that we all can be “teacher leaders” in our own way. When I reflect upon my own colleagues, I see how each is a leader in his or her own right. In order to make our schools thrive, teacher leadership is something that we should all strive to be part of and something every school should foster. A wise educator once told me that leadership is not something that is found, but something that is bred. So what is a teacher leader?

A teacher leader is someone who:

  • Challenges their colleagues to think differently based on new research and ideas, while encouraging those who also try new teaching methods.
  • Supports the school’s mission, yet continues to improve it and move on to the next challenge when one is met.
  • Recognizes the strengths in each of their colleagues, welcomes their ideas, and celebrates them.
  • Is willing to admit their instruction or assessment needed improvement and seeks and applies the insights of others.
  • Reflects and shares insights about the outcomes of both the students in their class and those in the entire school.
  • Is willing to take on difficult tasks or guide the staff on new initiatives for the purpose of strengthening the school.

We often think about “teacher leadership” as those who are constantly volunteering, organizing, and presenting. Indeed, in order for schools to excel we need strong teachers to guide and support it. However, we must also remember that the best “teacher leaders” foster leadership among their colleagues as well. We must occasionally step back when there are opportunities for other teachers to take on a leadership role. By doing so, we will promote collaboration, camaraderie, learning, and avoid burnout.

Response From Megan M. Allen

Megan M. Allen is a National Board Certified Teacher and the 2010 Florida Teacher of the Year. She currently is serving as the director at Mount Holyoke Programs in Teacher Leadership, which has just launched an online Master of Arts in Teacher Leadership. She has taught for ten years, most as an elementary and special education teacher, serving in Title One schools in Hillsborough County, FL. Megan enjoys blogging for the Center for Teaching Quality at Musings of a Red Headed Teacher and co-hosting #Edugeekchat the 2ndand 4th Thursday of every month (visit the archives here). She is also proud to serve on the Board of Directors for the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards and the Alliance for Public Schools, but most excited about her new learning experience of being a new mom to four wild and wonderful children:

Education is complicated enough, but we sometimes make it more complex than necessary. Not to say we should brush aside all the nuances of learning and our profession, but we sometimes get caught in discussion paralysis around topics that might not be the best use of our time.

One of those topics is teacher leadership. It’s quite the catchphrase these days, and there is much debate around the definition of what a teacher leader is and isn’t, and what a teacher is and isn’t. I think we know it when we see it, and we need to embrace and nurture it when we find it. We need to do whatever it takes to cultivate it and help it grow.

But if we had to define it, I’d simply say: “It’s a teacher who positively impacts the practice of another educator.”

Here’s a few of my favorite definitions from the teacher leadership research landscape, thanks to Jackson, Burrus, Bassett, and Roberts (2010):

  • Teacher leaders influence in and outside the classroom as a member of a community of teacher learners (Katzenmeyer & Moller, 2001).
  • Teacher leaders hold influence outside of the classroom and are autonomous in their own work, not engaging in supervisory tasks (Murphy, 2005).
  • Teacher leaders hold an integral position within our schools (York-Barr & Duke, 2004).

When thinking of the myriad of definitions, I fall back on this nugget of information: It’s hard to peg down the definition of teacher leadership because it is constantly evolving (York-Barr & Duke, 2004).

So what does it look like in practice?

It’s the teacher giving up her planning period to mentor a group of new teachers. The teacher who is inviting his colleagues to have lunch conversations about instructional practice. The teacher who is encouraging her colleagues to email their state representatives about education funding, and the teacher who is leading his team in writing a grant for an amazing school butterfly garden. The teacher who is leading her team’s PLCs, and the teacher who is sitting with his peers at a Superintendent’s Advisory Council Meeting. It’s the teacher who is leading conversation about reflective practice with a cohort of National Board candidates, and the teacher who is blogging about her student’s thinking and productive struggle in math.

And it’s you, reading Larry Ferlazzo’s blog on Ed Week, gathering ideas to take back to your grade level team.

Response From Shane Safir

Shane Safir (safirassociates.org) is a leader, coach, and writer who has worked at every level of the school system toward a single goal: equity of opportunity for every student. Her experience spans 20 years in public education and includes founding June Jordan School for Equity in San Francisco, an innovative national model identified by leading scholar Linda Darling-Hammond as having “beaten the odds in supporting the success of low-income students of color.” Safir is writing a book for Jossey-Bass called The Listening Leader: Creating the Conditions for School Transformation:

Schools need an expanded view of leadership. We can’t implement complex initiatives like the Common Core through a top-down, command-and-control model. It’s time to unleash and empower teacher-leaders to drive school improvement.

I became a teacher-leader long before I knew that term. Nearly twenty years ago, my principal asked me to build a law academy program that would connect our diverse high school students with internships and a real-world curriculum. While I relished the role--the opportunity to innovate and pioneer--I realize in retrospect that I didn’t know what it meant to be a leader.

To define teacher leadership today, I look outside of education. Corporate innovators have softened their hierarchies and elevated informal and team leaders who use relational networks to drive change. Backed by research, this distributed-leadership approach suggests that organizations thrive as employees increasingly take the reins.

Public schools might also take their cue from the thriving Movement for Black Lives, which prides itself on being “leader-ful.” In contrast with the traditional civil rights movement--where a few charismatic leaders mobilized the masses--these young activists embrace a grassroots approach in which anyone can take leadership. With its emphasis on social media, this movement is changing the national conversation about race.

When it comes to schools, I subscribe to Julian Weissglass’s definition of a leader as anyone willing to “take responsibility for what matters to them” in the work of educational transformation. In leader-ful schools, you might see:

  • High-functioning, distributed-leadership teams where teachers have a real voice in decisions
  • Staff meetings where teachers share best practices and co-facilitate alongside administrators
  • Teachers leading meaningful collaboration with colleagues.

To get these outcomes, we must foster the right conditions for teachers to lead. Here are a few considerations:

  1. Leadership is a shift in identity, not just role or title.

A job description is necessary but inadequate to the complexity of taking on a leadership role. Teacher-leaders do need to understand what’s expected of them and should be able to answer the question, “What would success look like in my new role?” At the same time, leading one’s colleagues requires a big shift in identity--your sense of who you are as an educator--and new teacher-leaders need opportunities to reflect on what this means. Here are some helpful questions to pose:

  • Why do you want to take leadership in our school?
  • How do you want to be experienced as a leader?
  • What is your vision of a powerful teacher-leader, and who have been your models?

  1. Leadership requires new learning.

In my coaching across the country, I hear a common theme from struggling teacher-leaders: the challenge of working with adults. To be successful, emerging leaders will need to build new knowledge and capacity. They will benefit from exploring the literature on emotional intelligence (e.g. Primal Leadership by Daniel Goleman), the neuroscience of leadership (David Rock’s work is great), and adult learning (e.g. Stephen Brookfield, Malcolm Knowles). They need time to wrestle with and apply new ideas. When training teacher-leaders, for example, I engage them in a role-playing activity where they simulate and “re-do” a tough conversation with a colleague.

  1. Leadership takes time.

If you want teacher-leaders to succeed, give them time to lead. You can’t pile on new responsibilities without providing time to plan, do, study results, and take action. Time could take the form of a release period, or a summer leadership retreat followed by quarterly release days. Get creative, be flexible. Without adequate time, teacher-leaders will flame out quickly, and you’ll be back to square one.

In sum, a new title does not a leader make. Let’s stop appointing teachers to lead without supporting their transition into a new role. Set up to fail, they will become frustrated as they confront challenging adult dynamics and their own limitations. Set up to succeed, teacher-leaders will accelerate the pace of improvement by building a leader-ful school.

Response From Sean Slade

Sean Slade is the Director of Outreach at ASCD, a global community dedicated to excellence in learning, teaching, and leading. He is the co-author of School Climate Change: How do I build a positive environment for learning? (ASCD, 2014), a Social Development expert for the NBC Parent Toolkit, and host of the Whole Child Symposium. Follow Sean on Twitter @SeanTSlade:

Were you to ask a teacher for a definition of “teacher leader,” the likely response would be, “How much time do you have?” Today’s teacher leaders assume responsibilities once considered the sole domain of principals: they serve as peer coaches and mentors, they lead curriculum teams, they model exemplary instructional practices, and much, much more.

But there are succinct roles that teachers are both creating themselves and being encouraged to develop by others and these roles more often than not are being described as a “teacher leader”. It is a role that spans the previously distinct roles of Principal and Classroom teacher and is one that when utilized effectively can enhance teaching across the school and extend and expand the teachers role in education.

These roles can span various functions, including but not limited to coach, mentor, guide, content specialist, instructional lead; and can span both formal and non-formal titles. The biggest denominator of this role is that they are positions and individuals who are viewed by others across the school as influencers. Commonly influencers with regard to pedagogy and instruction, but also influencers in terms of developing a school’s climate and culture.

When formally named these roles take on extra responsibilities in assisting others across the school in their functions and learning, and frequently reduce classroom teaching time. They utilize the experience of the individual and maximize their input to the school and learning processes.

As former Executive Director of ASCD Judy Seltz stated, “What happens in schools is more complex than ever and cannot be accomplished with strict division between administrators and teachers. The leadership and responsibility for student learning must be a collaborative effort. If teacher leaders can help change school cultures so that teachers and principals collaborate to build a culture of learning, everyone benefits.

Additional thoughts and idea are available via ASCD Whole Child Symposium Report on Teacher Leadership.

Response From Barnett Berry

Barnett Berry is the founder and CEO of the Center for Teaching Quality, a nonprofit that connects, readies, and mobilizes teacher leaders to transform their profession. Teacherpreneurs: Innovative Teachers Who Lead but Don’t Leave (Jossey-Bass 2013) authored by Barnett and CTQ colleagues Ann Byrd and Alan Wieder, documents the bold leadership journeys of eight classroom experts who are spreading their expertise beyond their schools, districts, and states as well as nation:

Defining Bold Teacher Leadership for 21st Century Teaching and Learning

There has recently been a lot of talk about teacher leadership from the USDOE and high profile think-tanks like the Center for American Progress and the Aspen Institute. One would never know there is over 30 years of rich literature--from the likes of Judith Warren Little and Ann Lieberman from the U.S. and David Frost of the U.K.--by reading these recent reports on the power and potential of teachers to lead and not just be the target of school reform.

In many ways, teacher leadership has not much changed since the early 1990s, when my colleague Mark Smylie noted, while teachers have been “looked to with increasing regularity as agents of school and classroom change,” the stark reality has been that their leadership potential has been tamped down by administrators who “appoint or anoint” them to serve in narrow roles. (1)

Granted, more teachers today are joining networks and opening up space to learn from each other. And in communities such as the CTQ Collaboratory, teachers like Jessica Cuthbertson and Justin Minkel devise their own solutions to complex problems in their schools and districts. But, as Judith noted, formal teacher leadership roles continue to be “heavily weighted toward institutional agendas over which teachers have little direct control and over which (they) themselves are divided.” (2)

In a 1990 Phi Delta Kappan article, my colleague Rick Ginsberg and I suggested that the judicious use of lead teachers could create alternatives to narrow accountability metrics.

Throughout 2015, researchers, administrators, and teachers have been reporting to me that high-stakes accountability is the main culprit in tamping down opportunities for teachers to incubate and execute their own ideas.

Bob Maxwell, former Michigan school superintendent, told me that most principals today are trained by universities and districts to be “in charge of teachers” and that the “pressure to measure up is so intense, there is no space to even think about turning teachers loose.” Even when non-profits, such as New Leaders, branch into this work, their approach is far more about principals who develop the goals for teacher leaders and create incentives for them to take on formal roles than it is about teachers.

For more than 30 years, I have been fortunate to conduct research with many terrific scholars on teaching policies and their effects. In the last decade, I have had the privilege of working closely with teacher leaders, like Jessica and Justin and thousands of other teaching colleagues of the CTQ Collaboratory, who have been leading in authentic ways in spite of the schools and districts in which they work.

I have reached some new conclusions about “authentic” teacher leadership and what it looks like in practice as well as how classroom practitioners can affect broader educational policy decisions that influence teaching and learning.

Defining authentic teacher leadership

Teacher leadership is about influencing teaching, learning outside of one’s classroom and, taking responsibility for students. Effective teacher leadership is more about informal influence that classroom experts develop in collaboration with their colleagues as they collectively seek to solve a problem of practice or policy. Teacher leadership becomes most powerful when those who lead do so to develop efficacy among their colleagues in service of students, families, communities, and their profession. Teacherpreneurs--a special brand of teacher leaders--initiate, develop, and execute their own ideas and spread influence beyond their school and district to across their state and nation, and even globally.

Teacher leaders help solve complicated problems that they and their colleagues define. We can see powerful teacher leadership in well-orchestrated lesson study and in peer review programs designed by classroom practitioners. We can see powerful teacher leadership in the facilitation of professional learning communities that focus on inquiry into student learning, not just in spreadsheets of test score results. We can see powerful teacher leadership in Justin’s home-school library project and Jessica’s efforts to redesign the professional development apparatus of her local school district. We can see powerful teacher leadership in the work of thousands of classroom experts--like Carrie Bakken, Lori Nazareno, and David Briley--who have co-created teacher powered schools in Minnesota, Colorado, and Maine.

How teachers lead boldly

Bold teacher leadership requires group efficacy, which is developed through mastery experiences and vicarious encounters as well as persuasion. (3) Teachers learn to lead not just through training programs but when working with colleagues to “critically reflect on and experiment with practices.” (4) So how can teachers learn to lead when their schools and districts are so wedded to archaic organizational structures that continue to isolate teachers from each other?

We think we have found at least part of the answer.

The explosion of Internet opportunities is now allowing teachers to see directly--and indirectly--what teaching and learning can look like. We also have seen how teachers can influence each other through telling their own stories and going public with school reform narratives. We have learned how teachers, once unknown in their districts, practice their leadership skills in the private space of a well-facilitated virtual community--like our own CTQ Collaboratory. Now teachers are showing their colleagues how to teach to the new standards, turning rigid teacher evaluation systems on their sides and flipping top-down professional development programs.

We know from several recent polls from both PDK and Education Evolving that the vast majority of the public trusts teachers and thinks Teacher Powered Schools are a very good idea. The next step is to make sure the public knows more about those who are already leading--in bold ways--without leaving the classroom. By 2020, I expect to write another piece for Phi Delta Kappan on how the judicious use of lead teachers led the way for 21st century public education that all students deserve.

(1) Smylie, M. A. and Denny, J.W. (1990). Teacher leadership: Tensions and Ambiguities in organizational perspectives. Education Administration Quarterly. 26 (3), 235-59

(2) Little, J.W. (2003) Constructions of teacher leadership in three periods of policy and reform activism, School Leadership & Management: Formerly School Organisation, 23:4, 401-419.

(3) Bandura, A. (1993). Perceived self-efficacy in cognitive development and functioning. Educational Psychologists. 28(2). 117-148

(4) Szczesiul, S.A. and Huizenga, J.L. (2015). Bridging structure and agency: Exploring the role of teacher leadership in teacher collaboration. Journal of School Leadership. 25 (2). 368-410.

Thanks to Regie, Aubrie, Megan, Shane, Sean and Barnett for their contributions!

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