School & District Management

There’s Now a Body of Research on What It Means to Be a Teacher Leader

By Madeline Will — June 24, 2016 5 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

All teachers have the capacity to be leaders, researchers wrote in a recent comprehensive review of literature on teacher leadership—but not all teachers want to be.

Julianne A. Wenner, of Boise State University, and Todd Campbell, of the University of Connecticut, reviewed 54 reports and studies from the last 12 years to compile a literature review about what exactly it means to be a teacher leader. They define teacher leaders as “teachers who maintain K-12 classroom-based teaching responsibilities, while also taking on leadership responsibilities outside of the classroom.”

The teacher-leadership movement has gotten a boost from the U.S. Department of Education’s recent support, and advocates say the constant shifts in education policy have motivated more teachers to take on leadership roles.

So what does the literature say about teacher leadership? Here are a few important points.

What exactly does a teacher leader do?

Wenner and Campbell condensed the extra workload of teacher leaders into five themes.

  1. Teacher leadership goes beyond the classroom walls.
  2. Teacher leaders should support professional learning in their schools.
  3. Teacher leaders should be involved in policy and/or decision-making at some level.
  4. The ultimate goal of teacher leadership is improving student learning and success.
  5. Teacher leaders are working toward improvement and change for the whole school organization.

How do you become a teacher leader?

Teacher leaders are typically prepared in two ways, Wenner and Campbell wrote. Most commonly, teachers develop leadership skills and strategies in professional development, local training, and/or conferences.

Another pathway that surfaced in the literature is university master’s programs, where teachers focus on personal and professional growth, or engage in action research to take steps to improve their practice.

The important part is that teachers need to be empowered in their training and preparation, the researchers concluded. “If teachers are told what to learn, how to learn, and why to learn, their learning is controlled by others and their capacity to lead is stunted,” researcher Monica Taylor once wrote.

Also, Wenner and Campbell wrote, administrative support seems to be critical to foster successful teacher leadership. One way principals can support teacher leadership, they noted, is through additional compensation for their extra responsibilities.

What are the benefits of becoming a teacher leader?

There are some clear and obvious benefits of becoming a teacher leader, according to the research. Teacher leaders reported increased positive feelings and professional growth. They feel more confident, empowered, and professionally satisfied. And many teacher leaders have said that it allows them to improve their practice in the classroom and learn more about pedagogy.

Teacher leaders reported an increased leadership capacity, where they look for even more leadership opportunities in other areas of their work and life. One teacher leader was quoted in the research as saying that as a result of being a leader, “I constantly want to better myself and look forward to the next challenge.”

The researchers also found that teachers taking on added leadership roles resulted in feelings of empowerment for all teachers in the school. Teacher leaders’ colleagues receive relevant support that encourages professional growth, and teacher leadership contributes significantly to school change, the research found.

What are the drawbacks of becoming a teacher leader?

Still, several of the consequences of teacher leadership reported in the literature were negative. Teacher leaders reported being more stressed and experiencing more difficulties at work.

And there was also a common refrain of teachers seeing a negative change in the relationship with their peers—the literature revealed that peers often resent teacher leaders because of their increase in power. Their status change disrupts the egalitarian norms of the school, the researchers write.

But this can change over time as everyone adjusts to the new roles—and teacher leaders’ relationship with administrators do become more positive.

Why factors would make a teacher not want to become a leader?

Wenner and Campbell identified four factors that inhibit teacher leadership. One of the most significant factors is, unsurprisingly, a lack of time and an already-overwhelming workload. Teachers expressed concern that they would have to leave their classroom to go to meetings, or the added responsibility would infringe on their personal or family time.

Teachers also stayed away from teacher leadership when they had poor relationships with administrators or colleagues. Unsupportive principals can prevent teacher leaders from doing their duties, and working with resistant or resentful colleagues can make teacher leadership difficult. As Wenner and Campbell wrote, “Obviously, it is difficult to be a leader when others do not wish to follow.”

A negative school climate—like a school for instance, that is resistant to change or doesn’t have a unified vision—was also a prohibiting factor. And of course, personal characteristics play a role. A teacher who doesn’t feel comfortable being a boss is not likely to become a teacher leader.

How diverse are teacher leaders?

That’s a good question, and one that hasn’t been explored in the literature. Only five pieces of the 54 that Wenner and Campbell analyzed touched on issues of diversity and equity.

And it does matter—in 2011, a group of researchers wrote that school leaders must attend to issues of equity and social justice because “a school culture that perpetuates the status quo and turns a blind eye to the social injustices that permeate our schools is not really ‘excellent.’”

Source: Image of a teacher leader conference by US Department of Education on Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons

Looking for More Articles on Teacher Leadership?

Related Tags:

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.