Posted by Kristoffer Kohl on Wednesday, 04/12/2017
by: Elizabeth Sheehan
Elizabeth (Liz) Sheehan has been an English Teacher at Palatine High School for 12 years and the building's Instructional Coach for the last two years. She currently serves on the school's Professional Development Committee, Student Learning and Equity Coalition, and as a Technology Innovation Coach. At the district level, she serves as the Palatine High School representative on the District 211 Union Scholarship Committee and as a member of the District 211 One-to-One Committee. In addition, she is Palatine's Speech Team Head Coach and teaches PSAT and SAT prep classes.
A number of years ago, ASCD's Educational Leadership magazine spotlighted “Ten Roles for Teacher Leaders” in a brief article. The roles on this list were not surprising, especially for grizzled classroom veterans who’ve long served as “Resource Providers,” “Curriculum Specialists,” or “Mentors.”
But one of the more nebulous roles on this list was “Catalyst for Change.” Unlike many of the other roles, those who lead as “Catalysts for Change” don’t have space carved out in a typical school leadership hierarchy. In fact, those who try to lead in this way could be met with resistance from both peers and school leadership. Even the description of the “Catalyst for Change” is filled with professional and personal landmines. Consider this situation as quoted from the article.
In a faculty meeting, Larry expresses a concern that teachers may be treating some students differently from others. Students who come to him for extra assistance have shared their perspectives, and Larry wants teachers to know what students are saying. As his colleagues discuss reasons for low student achievement, Larry challenges them to explore data about the relationship between race and discipline referrals in the school. When teachers begin to point fingers at students, he encourages them to examine how they can change their instructional practices to improve student engagement and achievement.
By pointing out some of these issues, Larry runs the very real risk of alienating himself. But it’s this very risk that teacher leaders need to embrace, even if it feels uncomfortable.
Teacher leaders: take a leap.
Often times, administration and leadership teams are either aware of underlying issues like the ones that Larry points out or at least have access to data that could help contextualize concerns like his. This is a real opportunity for a potential leader like Larry to position himself not just as someone who challenges others (although that step is certainly important), but also as a potential problem solver.
This is where many teacher leaders have to take a leap. They should consider taking the time, effort, and risk to collaborate with administration, either formally or informally. Often, this collaboration does require additional work outside of a teacher’s regular responsibilities. But embracing the additional responsibility could help the school move from merely recognizing the need for change to moving to enact change. Even if a teacher isn’t necessarily ready to step into this risk-taking role, they may often find support with other teachers who agree, but aren’t ready to speak up. Finding a like-minded tribe of teachers can be both empowering and therapeutic for teachers like Larry, who may need to know they’re not alone in taking the first steps toward change.
One place to start is for a teacher like Larry to meet informally with an administrator or school leader that oversees the issue being identified. Larry could start by expressing his concern. Then, he could solicit insight from the administrator with open-ended questions like, “How much does the data support this?” or “Have you noticed this pattern?” The key for teacher leaders is to position themselves as an administrator’s teammate, not adversary. Informal conversations like this can help lay the groundwork for future collaboration.
Build collaborative relationships
Another way for a teacher like Larry to move from being a catalyst for change into actively implementing change is to network with other teachers. Chances are good that Larry isn’t alone in his observations. Change is often more easily implemented when there’s a crowd on the bandwagon, so to speak. As Larry finds like-minded colleagues, he’ll be able to learn about the initiatives currently being considered by committees around the school. He can either join those committees to help with their efforts or he can find a coalition of willing participants and start a new one. Starting a whole new committee to tackle a whole new initiative can be daunting, but if a teacher leader has built collaborative relationships with peers and administrators, it can be a worthwhile undertaking.
Finally, a teacher like Larry will be best able to serve the students in his building if he’s done his research. We ask our students to come to class prepared to participate; likewise, Larry should come to his administration and peers prepared not only to challenge the status quo, but provide alternatives to it. Teacher leaders should leverage their PLNs, connections, and research skills to find solutions to the issues that they see. When teacher leaders are prepared not only to identify problems, but also help facilitate solutions, they are far more likely to find allies in both the rank-and-file faculty and in administration.
Teachers should leverage their networks and expertise to not only identify problems but facilitate solutions.
Collaboration is most effective when everyone sitting around the table has a shared understanding of the issues and feels compelled to contribute to solutions. Teachers who serve as catalysts for change are certainly important; they can spark an important and necessary conversation. But if teacher leaders are willing to shoulder some responsibility for implementing important changes, schools can not only change for better, but become beacons for collective leadership.