Teaching Profession Opinion

Defining Teacher Leadership

By Nancy Flanagan — February 12, 2016 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

So--this pops up in my Twitter feed, retweeted by a friend that I consider a teacher leader, a thoughtful voice for the issues that teachers are wrestling with right now.

My first thought? Well--yeah. Especially the first sentence. The best teachers--my colleagues, my children’s teachers, the dynamic teachers I know in my state and across the country--are all risk-takers. They challenge themselves, they try new things with no guarantee of success. In fact, they are continuously re-defining success. They speak out when kids are being harmed or bored into submission.

But the second half of statement? Most of the school leaders I encountered in 30 years in the classroom were good people, but the overwhelming majority were cautious rule-followers and cheerleaders for incremental change. The principals followed the superintendent’s directives and the folks at Central Office looked to the state for guidance. Most recently, everyone has experienced the heavy hand of the feds--for standards, assessments and “aligned” materials. “Successful” leaders hit benchmarks set far from actual classrooms.

Only a few school leaders--distinct in my memory--were willing to step out of the box, pursue a different climate in their building, pilot a new program just to see if it works, or challenge the people they are supervising to be creative and playful.

If I had waited for my school leaders to be risk-takers before feeling comfortable with change in my classroom, decades could have gone by. Still. It’s a great thing to imagine--school leaders strapping on metaphorical, non-standardized wings.

As I am mulling this over, this appears on my Twitter feed. (Yes. I am spending more time than normal on Twitter. We’ve got a water crisis going here in the Great Lakes State.)

It says: Teacher leadership is the process by which teachers, individually or collectively, influence their colleagues, principals and other member of the school community to improve teaching and learning practices with the aim of increased student learning and achievement. (York-Barr & Duke, 2004)

So--a kind of dry and dusty, run-on definition of teacher leadership, full of edu-speak and lots of adverbs and sub-clauses.

Is the goal of teacher leadership to “improve teaching and learning practices?” Well--it’s one possible goal. But isn’t there a panoply of goals involved in teacher leadership? Think of all the things we want teacher leaders to do--from comforting a frightened pre-schooler who misses her mama, to lobbying for safe and warm school buildings. Is demanding another recess teacher leadership? Resisting excessive testing--is that leadership? How about building community coalitions? Heading up the food drive? Organizing a conversation at the bar after school?

And then there’s the last bit: the assertion that we’re wrestling with leadership for one reason--to increase student learning and achievement. Pushing teacher leadership into the “practice” box and narrowing its scope to jazzed-up instructional strategies and “measuring” learning is precisely where “reformers” would like to lead us. Notice who’s being influenced in the definition-- not policy-makers, the media or the general public. Stay in that classroom, teacher. Someone else will make the big decisions that shape your work

I’ve read dozens of descriptions of teacher leadership. I have sat in circles of smart, passionate teachers trying to come up with the One True Definition, the sentence that would make everyone’s heart sing and re-focus the work. I think it has something to do with Daniel Pink’s big three: Purpose, mastery and autonomy.

But what do you think?

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.