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Response: 'Teacher Leadership Is the Lifeboat to a Better School'

This week's question is:

How can teacher leaders continue to develop once new building leadership comes in and eliminates teacher leader positions?


Wise administrators who are new to a school take time to build relationships, support healthy teacher leadership,  and get a "lay of the land."  On the other hand, some new administrators might feel threatened by teacher leaders.  These latter principals often view power as a finite "pie" - if others have power, then that means they have less.  Wiser administrators, however, recognize that if power is shared, then the whole pie gets bigger and more opportunities are created for everybody.

Today, we'll consider how teachers can respond to those new administrators who don't share that vision of power and teacher leadership.

Megan M. Allen, David Allen, John DeFlaminis, Mustafa Abdul-Jabbar, and Eric Yoak, along with readers, share their suggestions for ways teacher leaders can respond when new administrators are not thrilled with their role or presence. You can listen to a ten-minute conversation Megan, David, and I had on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

You might also be interested in reviewing my collection, The Best Posts, Articles & Videos On "Teacher Leadership."

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 recently began writing a blog for Education Week Teacher. She co-hosts #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:

Teacher leadership. It's all about the formal positions, right? Not in my book.

There seems to be a lot of dialogue about the formal and informal roles in teacher leadership. My understanding of the definitions is that a formal leadership equates to leadership as an explicit part of the teacher's job description, while the informal equates to leadership bubbling up organically in a teacher's job, as a more implicit happening. Having worked in both roles, I have a rough understanding of the nuances and impact of each. I think formal roles, such as instructional leaders, coaches, and other positions are great and much needed as we think forward about creating a career lattice in education. But what packs the real punch? It's in the informal work and roles of teacher leaders.

In my experience, informal leadership gives a teacher more autonomy, less people to report to, and can be easier to put into place (because you usually do what you need to do because it needs to be done!). You may not always be responding to the needs or wants of a school, district, funder, project, or education trend, but you are responding to the needs of your students and fellow teachers, then acting upon it. You can navigate the waters more easily and make decisions with your colleagues fairly quickly, like a motorboat zipping around a watery obstacle course. And if informal teacher leadership is the speedboat, formal teacher leadership tends to be the barge. It's harder to move and change directions, with more formalized structures and potential layers of bureaucracy in place that can slow great ideas down to a manatee-like pace (I'm sticking with the water theme here).

So what does it mean if an administrator comes in wipes out all of the formal leadership roles? From what I've seen, the informal leadership still survives. Though leadership can really thrive under a great principal, it can still survive in pockets with a leader that is not as supportive. In fact, pockets of informal leadership will most likely survive the churn and burn of non-supportive administrators, or it may even cause less supportive administrators to "see the light" and recognize the value of teacher leadership.

I think of the book The Starfish and the Spider, and how that might relate to this situation. In the book, the author makes an unlikely but right-on-the-money analogy between leadership and these two creatures. If a spider loses its head, the organism cannot live any longer. If the starfish loses a leg, it can regenerate and survive. This is compared to distributed leadership, where if the "head" is gone, the organism/school survives due to the other pockets of leadership found throughout. And I'd take it a step further and say if the principal comes in and tries to throw that starfish out to sea, it's going to return with the tide.

Teacher leadership is a school's stability and foundation through rocky waters. So if a administrator comes in and wipes out the formal leadership roles? It's my prediction that informal leadership will survive the cuts, and may even use this as momentum to build even more leadership. Good ideas live on...even through bad leadership. Teacher leadership is the lifeboat to a better and stronger school.

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Response From David Allen

David Allen is an English teacher educator at the College of Staten Island, City University of New York. He is the co-author of Facilitating for Learning: Tools for Teacher Meeting of All Kinds (with Tina Blythe) and Looking Together at Student Work, 3rd ed. (with Tina Blythe and Barbara S. Powell), and the author of Powerful Teacher Learning: What the Theatre Arts Teach about Collaboration:

Teacher leadership is a fragile construct in many schools. All too often, administrators do not fully understand the crucial role teacher leadership plays in a school's professional community. When they cut back on or eliminate teacher leadership positions, the effect is disheartening not only for the teacher leaders but also for their colleagues. It is only human for the affected teacher leader to turn inward, focus on his or her own students and classroom instruction--and keep an arm's length from whatever forms professional development may take under the new administration.

But being a teacher leader is more than a title:  It is an essential role within a school that functions well for its students and adults--most especially for a school that is trying to do a better job of supporting those students' learning. For the disenfranchised teacher leader, it may be helpful to return to a fundamental question: What is teacher leadership about anyway? If the answer has to do with supporting the professional learning of other teachers in the school, then there are myriad ways an individual can do so without the title (or allocated time).  Here are a few:

Be a model. Keep your classroom door open. Invite colleagues to observe your classroom and offer feedback on your teaching. And ask to do the same with theirs. Share samples of your students' work along with your lesson plans and instructional resources--informally in the teachers room, within PD sessions (when appropriate), on-line, etc.  As a teacher leader, you already know how to do this is in ways that are collegial and reciprocal, rather than showy.

Be a facilitator. Use the skills you have developed as a teacher leader to facilitate discussions so that they focus on key questions related to instruction and student learning; are respectful of teachers' and students' work; and are inclusive and open to different perspectives. This might involve volunteering to facilitate during small-group work time during a PD session or within your department or grade-level team meetings. Or suggesting that a group use a simple protocol to structure its discussion. Or taking some notes on chart paper or laptop, so that the group's ideas won't be lost. Or suggesting some norms for a meeting.

Be patient. Over time, some administrators come to appreciate the role of teacher leadership, especially if they see examples of it like those I share above (and many others). And, of course, new leadership may be just around the corner . . .

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Response From John DeFlaminis, Mustafa Abdul-Jabbar, and Eric Yoak

John DeFlaminis, Ph.D. has had a teaching career ranging from elementary through university work. Prior to joining Penn's Graduate School of Education, Dr. DeFlaminis was superintendent of the Radnor Township School district for 17 years. He has consulted with the U.S. Department of Education, several state departments of education, rural and urban school districts, administrative organizations, private business organizations, and the Kettering Foundation.

Mustafa Abdul-Jabbar, Ed.D. is a recent graduate of the University of Pennsylvania. He has served as a teacher, school administrator, as a director of diversity initiatives for schools and as an education researcher. His most recent work has been with the Penn Center for Educational Leadership (PCEL) where he worked with the Archdiocese of Philadelphia to develop and implement a distributed leadership approach in their schools. This included professional development and training, program evaluation, and coaching-support for school leadership teams.

Eric Yoak, Ed.D. has served as a teacher, school principal, school district administrator and in university-based roles in research and policy. He worked to design and implement evaluative research, action research, and professional development seminars for school-based teams of administrators and teacher leaders at the Distributed Leadership Program at the Penn Center for Educational Leadership (PCEL). Dr. Yoak currently holds a position as a project manager and researcher of leadership development with a large, urban school district:

In our experience, it has been very challenging but not impossible for teacher leadership to survive an unsupportive leadership transition. Though the principal is not the sole source of influence within a school, the authority to make and carry out decisions, to allocate resources and to act as a symbolic leader are all aspects of leadership over which the principal generally has more control. And thus, the leadership actions of teachers can be constrained when there is a lack of principal support or when teacher leader positions are eliminated.

There is a distinction, however, between simply eliminating teacher leader positions and not supporting (or actually opposing) opportunities for teacher leadership. We believe in building strong teacher leaders and leadership teams, and this has been a major feature of the Distributed Leadership Project at the Penn Center for Educational Leadership (DeFlaminis, 2011). However, it is important not to confuse the role itself with the goal of accessing and leveraging the inherent distribution of talents possessed by teachers and other actors alike within schools.

The teacher leader role, while very important in many schools, is but one strategy for a distributed approach to leadership. The distributed perspective (Spillane, Halverson, & Diamond, 2004) brings our attention to the way leadership influence is "spread across" the interactions between potentially multiple leaders, followers and the school context. These relationships may change with the situation, looking different, for example, in departmental and grade-level teams, or in a parent-teacher association meeting. A truly distributed perspective allows us to acknowledge and tap into the existing expertise and knowledge held by all school stakeholders (including teachers, parents, students, and others), so that we may align our partnerships, routines and decision-making with the resources and perspectives which will most positively impact instruction.

Leadership is not just about formally declared roles or "the buck stops here" decision-making. When we come to understand this, a world of possibility opens up for teacher-led activity. Even without formal teacher leader roles, there is much teachers can do to continue as leaders in their schools. Some strategies we have seen include collegial book clubs on educational topics; implementing new protocols or routines in team meetings, such as for the review of student work products; forming new partnerships with parents or community organizations; or teacher-led sharing of novel pedagogical strategies with other staff members.

To learn more about these and other perspectives and experiences on teacher leadership and distributed leadership gleaned from nearly the decade-long Distributed Leadership Project, please visit our website and look for our upcoming book "Distributed Leadership in Schools: A Practical Guide for Learning and Improvement."

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Responses From Readers

Michelle Strater Gunderson :

The Chicago Teachers Union built teacher leader committees into our contract. The teachers are elected by union membership - not appointed by principal. This way the teachers are chosen through democratic process and a change in administration is not a whimsical change in teacher leadership.

Nancy Flanagan:

My first thought: Leadership is not about positions. Or formal roles or titles. We've all been in schools where the formal leaders (from the principal to the instructional coaches) were not particularly influential, around the issues that matter most: teaching, learning, community-building. Genuine leadership is more organic. Also--I just posted a blog about this very thing.  Perhaps you can find some ideas in the blog and the comment discussion that follows.

Thanks to Megan, David, John, Mustafa and Eric, and to readers, for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment  with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

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