Teaching Profession Opinion

Teachers as Leaders

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — February 12, 2013 5 min read
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”...leaders who have worked in autocratic corporations realize that it’s not a model of leadership that you can link to issues of sustainability. If you’re interested in creating sustainable growth, sustainable productivity, sustainable morale, you can’t do that through autocracy. You can work the numbers for a quarter or a half a year, you can drive people to exhaustion for a few months or a couple of years. But if you haven’t focused on creating capacity in the organization, it will die through those efforts...If you’re trying to create a healthy organization, one that can sustain itself over time, simply legislating and dictating behavior and outcomes doesn’t work at all. (Wheatley)

The pressure is on our system and on each of us. We feel it every day. Sometimes it motivates us but too often it frustrates us and exhausts us. We need all hands on deck. The majority of school budgets go to support teachers and their benefits. Often formal teacher leadership is limited to union roles or mentorship. We demand increasing accountability from teachers. They are the ones who interact directly with our students. Why is it that we cannot trust them to make bigger decisions for schools? Do we believe they don’t want to join us? Are they unprepared? Or haven’t we opened our hands in invitation?

In the pre-consolidation era of the1950’s, many schools were led by teachers. With reorganization and complexity came the many levels of administration we have today. Leadership shifted hands as roles were more narrowly defined. Power shifted also. Unions followed. In this moment, there may be no greater need than for us to tap all the wisdom our profession possesses to accomplish the work on our plates. Let’s invite teachers to the table if they are willing.

Three Reasons to Develop a Teacher Leader
1. We need strong leadership on every level of an organization. Distributed leadership builds capacity. “Much like barn raising, school improvement is too big of a job for any single person to handle. A school can improve only with widespread commitment to the effort and many people involved in planning and carrying it out” (Goodwin, 2011).
2. If we develop our teachers as leaders, we will have better prepared leaders as they step into the ranks of principal or central office leadership.
3. Arguably the most important reason is children need more models. Children learn about leadership by observing the adults around them and by experiencing leadership opportunities while being mentored. Teachers are the adults students experience most in their hours in our schools. Our students do not have many opportunities to see transparency of leadership in action. Often our teachers don’t either. Modeling leadership behaviors, offering teachers opportunities for leadership and mentoring them through the process increases our capacity to get the difficult job done. It is imperative that no resource be underutilized in this pressure cooker time.

How Do We Find Those With The Potential And Encourage Their Development?
We can identify those who are teacher leaders. “Even though they have not been asked to become administrative leaders, they nevertheless exercise leadership on a daily basis. These teacher leaders are not gossips, but rather the people to whom everyone in the system - and many professionals outside the system- turn when they need a direct answer to a question about teaching practice” (Reeves, 2008, p.20).

Teacher leaders are researchers. Encourage teachers to become experienced with the art and science of inquiry and to become comfortable with data to answer and generate questions. Require data to become part of our meetings and model the use of good questions. This will help develop leadership in others. We need to ask questions like, “How is this different from.....” or “When else have we had an experience like this one?” or “What could we do to change the result we keep getting?”

Teacher leaders have an insatiable appetite for the next possible means to reach every child. Consistently offer opportunities for teachers to develop that appetite by sharing articles and books, providing professional development in which best practices can be shared, and highlighting successful experiences of others.

Teacher leaders have technology skills to create the path through thousands of apps into handheld technologies for every child so learning can truly be individualized, where collaboration can be spontaneous and global and virtual worlds only a click away. Support those who are knowledgeable and using technology and support their sharing of modeling to their peers. Modeling our own technology growth, sharing what we learn, and encouraging those who are daring to take risks is essential.

Teacher leaders know how to create safe environments and have the capacity of heart to listen to all voices, even silent ones, and respond with open hands of support and minds of knowledge and ingenuity. Schools need to be safe places for all. Encourage and support those teachers who are good at listening to all voices, and are welcoming in their actions.

Teacher leaders have the capacity to view things from different perspectives and are not weighed down with the old way of doing things. In that safe environment continue to invite different perspectives teachers bring to the table and listen to what they are saying.

We need new thinkers. And, we need to develop them, from within, right now. As Doug Reeves says,
“A radical transformation toward teacher leadership is not an option; it is a necessity. The nation, indeed the world, faces a shortage of leaders not only in education but also in every sector of society” (Reeves, p.17)

Note: The descriptors of teacher leaders are based on a list of attributes first mentioned in our February 7th post.

Goodwin, Bryan (2011). Simply Better, Alexandria, Virginia: ASCD
Reeves, Douglas B. (2008). Reframing Teacher Leadership, Alexandria, Virginia: ASCD
Wheatley, Meg, interviewed by Scott London, adapted from radio series Insight and Outlook

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The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 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.