Opinion
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.


Commenting has been disabled on edweek.org effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Teaching Webinar
What’s Next for Teaching and Learning? Key Trends for the New School Year
The past 18 months changed the face of education forever, leaving teachers, students, and families to adapt to unprecedented challenges in teaching and learning. As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Curriculum Webinar
How Data and Digital Curriculum Can Drive Personalized Instruction
As we return from an abnormal year, it’s an educator’s top priority to make sure the lessons learned under adversity positively impact students during the new school year. Digital curriculum has emerged from the pandemic
Content provided by Kiddom
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Equity & Diversity Webinar
Leadership for Racial Equity in Schools and Beyond
While the COVID-19 pandemic continues to reveal systemic racial disparities in educational opportunity, there are revelations to which we can and must respond. Through conscientious efforts, using an intentional focus on race, school leaders can
Content provided by Corwin

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Teaching Profession We Feel Your Grief: Remembering the 1,000 Plus Educators Who've Died of COVID-19
The heartbreaking tally of lives lost to the coronavirus continues to rise and take a steep toll on school communities.
3 min read
090321 1000 Educators Lost BS
Education Week
Teaching Profession Letter to the Editor Educators Have a Responsibility to Support the Common Good
A science teacher responds to another science teacher's hesitation to take the COVID-19 vaccine.
1 min read
Teaching Profession With Vaccine Mandates on the Rise, Some Teachers May Face Discipline
With a vaccine now fully FDA-approved, more states and districts will likely require school staff get vaccinated. The logistics are tricky.
9 min read
Grace John, who works at a school in San Lorenzo, gets a COVID-19 shot at a mobile vaccination clinic run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the state in Hayward, Calif., on Feb. 19, 2021. California will become the first state in the nation to require all teachers and school staff to get vaccinated or undergo weekly COVID-19 testing. The statewide vaccine mandate for K-12 educators comes as schools return from summer break amid growing concerns of the highly contagious delta variant.
Grace John, who works at a school in San Lorenzo, gets a COVID-19 shot at a mobile vaccination clinic in Hayward, Calif. California is among those states requiring all teachers and school staff to get vaccinated or undergo weekly COVID-19 testing.
Terry Chea/AP
Teaching Profession In Their Own Words Why This Science Teacher Doesn't Want the COVID Vaccine
Contrary to public health guidance, Davis Eidahl, an Iowa high school teacher, has no plans to get the COVID-19 vaccine.
4 min read
Davis Eidahl, a science teacher at Pekin High School in Packwood, Iowa, says he doesn't want to get the COVID-19 vaccine. He thinks social distancing and occasional masking will be sufficient to keep himself and others safe.
Davis Eidahl, a science teacher at Pekin High School in Packwood, Iowa, says he doesn't want to get the COVID-19 vaccine. He thinks social distancing and occasional masking will be sufficient to keep himself and others safe.
Rachel Mummey for Education Week