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From catalyzing to implementing: Creating partnerships for change

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.


Elizabeth’s post is part of CTQ's March/April blogging roundtable on collective leadership. To join the conversation, comment on this blog and read the other blogs in this series. You can find an updated list of all posts on this page. Follow CTQ on Facebook and Twitter to see when each new blog is posted, and use #CTQCollab to join the conversation on social media.

 

4 Comments

Carl Draeger commented on April 12, 2017 at 3:04pm:

TRUTH. BOMB.

"Collaboration is most effective when everyone sitting around the table has a shared understanding of the issues and feels compelled to contribute to solutions."

Thanks for providing hints and helps to get there, too.

John Holland commented on April 13, 2017 at 12:38pm:

Collaboration with and without leadership

Elizabeth, Thank you for this thoughtful post. I have often pursued the role of change catalyst in my work. Your suggestions about working with adminstration is right-on in many ways. I have had some principals who welcomed collaboration. I have also had those that don't. This is where it gets tricky. The same is true of colleagues. I think the most important skill of the change catalyst may be relationship building.

I believe teachers are often motivated through care. It is through care for students and colleagues that teachers become more willing to take the professional risks you mentioned. This is why the change agent's friend is time.

I find it is hardest to implement change when one of the two parties is not engaged with the emotional risk to improve. It happens with teachers and principals. I think the most important thing to be wary of though, is that sometimes people say they believe in collaboration but as soon as ideas don't mirror their own this false collaboration dissappears. This is why I also suggest the counter-intuitive decision as a change agent to be patient and measured. I think it is critical to watch how certain perenial situations play out between teachers and principals before trying to affect change. What happens when a teacher speaks up in a faculty meeting? Are they listened to, postponed, or shut-down. In my expereince I actually found that principals who shut down teachers in faculty meetings were much more likley to collaborate behind closed doors. Principals who have espoused collaboration publicly have put additional responsibilities - minus autonomy- on teachers in the name of teamwork. Watching how these types of situations playout have made me better able to wait for the right moment to push admin and teachers as a catalyst. But, always it is with relationships already built. 

 

Ben Owens commented on April 17, 2017 at 7:51am:

Step 1 is essential: Take risks & get uncomfortable.

Thank you, Liz, for this inspiring post. I have the great fortune of teaching in a teacher-powered school, where risk-taking and intense collaboration per a common mission and vision are our life blood. But I also recognize that this is, unfortunately, the exception and not the rule. An environment where "Larrys" have to worry about speaking up when they recognize a better way, for fear that a challenge to the status quo will be seen by peers and administrators as a challenge to authority. It doesn't have to be this way.

What you have offered is a simple but bold way that any teacher at any school can be the Catalyst for Change. When we are willing to lead by taking the solution-focused risks that help move the needle from a controlling, hierarchical environment to an organization based on collective leadership, we better serve our students and our communities. That's the kind of collaborative leadership every school deserves and it's up to me to make it happen.

Amanda Montes commented on April 19, 2017 at 7:47pm:

Partnering Together for Greater Change for All!

Elizabeth,

       I really like your ideas and tips on how to create an atmosphere of collective leadership. This idea sets teacher leaders apart from teachers because teacher leaders are change agents. Being able to bring up issues and brainstorm ideas of improving or solving matters allows for teacher leaders to make positive changes occur for teachers, families, and most importantly, students. I love your example about Larry. I agree with your statement that time and again, teacher leaders may alienate themselves in the sense that they do stand up for what is best for students and bring up sticky situations at Larry did. But this risk is something teacher leaders need to embrace, even if it is uncomfortable. This is how changes are made, by asking the hard questions and creating action plans. Teacher leaders take the leap and by building collaborative relationships, we don’t have to do it alone! Thank you for your suggestions on how we can informally meet with an administrator and ask open-ended questions on a topic in order to solicit change. I am lucky that my principal welcomes collaboration. My question for you is what suggestions you have if your administrators do not welcome collaboration?

Great thoughts! I look forward to reading more of your posts.-Amanda

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