What happens If teacher leadership is codified?

Several states, including Louisiana, have created or are considering adding endorsements to their state licensing systems ‘that would formally recognize teachers who have taken on leadership roles outside their own classrooms,’ says a recent story in Education Week. The report by Lynn Olson was one of the five ‘most viewed’ stories at the Ed Week website for nearly a week.

Why create a teacher leadership endorsement? Here’s what the story says:

Advocates cite a number of reasons for such endorsements: They recognize teachers who have already assumed leadership functions in their schools. They make the principal’s job more doable by encouraging other teachers to take on such tasks. They create options for individuals who want to pursue leadership roles but are not interested in becoming principals. And they can serve as a pathway for future school leaders.

“These teacher-leadership roles are a natural pipeline into future principal and central-office leadership roles,” said Ann L. Duffy, the director of policy for the Atlanta-based Georgia’s Leadership Institute for School Improvement, a public-private partnership.

“There’s also a very clear need for building-level principals to recognize that leadership is more than just one person,” she said, “so there’s a need to codify, as well as create, incentives to help distribute leadership.”

Here at TLN, we  wouldn’t define the primary role of teacher leadership to be a training ground for future administrators. Indeed, much of the conversation in our Network about what it means to be a teacher leader revolves around a desire to serve in leadership roles that do not require teachers to cross over into administration.

The story goes on to note that, in most states, “codifying” the role of teacher leader will be done through the traditional method of requiring graduate course credits to earn the credential. Colleges, presumably, would develop courses to meet whatever demand might emerge.

“The things that Georgia codified really center around creating or leading change,” Ms. Duffy said. “The idea is that as you take on those responsibilities outside the classroom, you are recognized and can apply them in a performance-based certification program.”

Olson writes that – so far – the endorsements are purely optional. “Teachers don’t need to hold an endorsement to assume leadership roles in their schools. And the endorsements do not assure a teacher of any extra pay, unless a district chooses to provide it.”

“Right now, it’s not really anything more than paper,” said Nathan M. Roberts, the director of graduate studies in education at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. “A principal, we hope, will look at it and say, ‘You’ve got this; you’re valuable.’ But there’s nothing built into the Lafayette system, or others, right now that says these people are one notch up and they’ve got priority.”

Even so, he said, his university probably has 10 times as many people interested in the teacher-leadership endorsement as in becoming school principals. “These people care about their school. They want the school to improve,” he said, “but they don’t want to become a principal. They want to teach, but they want to have some impact.”

Here at TLN, we listened closely to the comments of Vanderbilt professor Joe Murphy, who told Olson that teacher leadership endorsements could have a downside if they begin to rigidify the leadership opportunities for teachers or limit those roles to a small number of individuals.

“How do you create opportunities for teachers to work together around the important stuff of schooling, where they can move in and out of leadership fluently depending on their expertise and wisdom?” he said. “That seems to me to be the most powerful element of teacher leadership. If it just sets up another set of roles and responsibilities, it will be helpful, but it won’t be as helpful as it could be.”

In fact, codification could very well become counter-productive. Given the penchant in many school cultures for titles and carefully defined roles and responsibilities, it’s not too hard to imagine a scenario where one educator looks at another and says, “You can’t lead this. You don’t have a leadership endorsement.”

And what about teacher leadership in the school policy arena? TLN is a strong advocate for teacher voice around decisions that affect teaching and learning. When teacher leadership is codified, how likely will it be that policy leadership is included in the job description?

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