Why Teacher Leadership Is Not Busy Work [The Takeover Part 2]

A couple of days ago, I spoke about the importance of teacher leadership and the urgency of creating your own voice. Rafranz Davis commented:

“I agree with you 100%, however I’ve seen too many instances where teachers have tried to take a stand, lead and be heard…only to be “put in their place” by the admin, campus and district, being uncomfortable with relinquishing control … stopped that “little revolution” before it even started. What do you tell that teacher?”

It’s a great question and one that comes up too often. Why must teacher leadership be so difficult? The idea of teacher leadership sounds like a novel idea, one necessary for the growth of any profession. It helps everyone involved, too. Teachers get to demonstrate their professional growth over time and help the school in whatever capacity necessary, filling voids where need be. Principals get to say they cultivate leaders in the building, and work with teacher leaders on mentoring new teachers. Students get a benefit of having a teacher with a macro-view of the school, and any expertise shared by the teacher leader could be shared in their classrooms.

Yet, as with everything, how teacher leaders arise can either inspire or smack of favoritism, depending on the school.

Leadership often requires a level of honesty that our education system still doesn’t value. Sometimes, the person who wants their voice heard isn’t trying to be part of the solution, which is another problem altogether. The most effective of us know that our voices often come with a responsibility; speaking up means providing more than “See, the problem is …”

Because teacher leadership is any number of things, but it’s not busy work. When I think of teacher leadership, I think of teachers creating, facilitating, and helping items that directly influence student learning. Curriculum development? Yes. Data creation? Eh, somewhat. Dean-ing / disciplinarian work? It depends. Mentoring other teachers? Absolutely. Organizing paperwork? Mostly no.

I have plenty more examples, but our little revolutions won’t go anywhere if we don’t clearly define what it is we’re after. In no way am I saying don’t speak up. I’m merely saying we should know what we do once we speak up. Because, otherwise, you’ll be given a task that’ll keep you quiet, and that’s not how change happens.

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  • Jonas Chartock

    Meaningful, competency-based roles matter

    Thanks for posting this, Jose. Important topic and one that doesn’t get covered enough. Meaningful teacher leader roles that are attained based on compentency and not politics, favoritism, or solely by student test performance are indeed critical. Leading Educators works in this area lead us to believe that self awareness and constant learning are among the most important leadership prerequisites.


    • Bill Tolley

      Political Uses and Perceptions of Teacher Leadership

      I have seen teacher leadership largely fail at two separate institutions for reasons implied by your post: 

      1. At the first school, a large public school, “teacher leaders” were recruited into dean and department chair positions very clearly based on the degree to which the supported the principal–a man still facing charges of sexual harassment and corruption/misuse of funds. All PD opportunities related to growth included a 1-1 interview with the principal in which he very clearly spoke to the support he would want in return for his. Clearly, then, this was a school in which conscientious teachers did not respect the teacher leadership role or movement–and it poisoned, understandably, the few of many of them for the rest of their careers. 
      2. At the second school, a small private international school, a well-respected and professional principal began establishing teacher leadership positions as a part of his new leadership strategy. He transformed the previously ceremonial department chairs into a real leadership group, established curriculum and instructional coaches and gave our technology coordinator far more license to lead PD than before (she used to be regarded as more of a one-person “mouse squad,” reacting to tech glitches here and there. What this principal forgot to do, however, was carefully explain these roles, put the force of his authority behind the teacher leaders’ work and end the isolation of the other teachers in the school. Thus, many transactions between the TLs (Can we do that? Let’s make that a thing if it’s not already: “TLs.”) and the rest of the staff involved: 
      • Distrust: “What does he tell the principal about me and my teaching? Better to avoid him.”
      • Skepticism: “Why do I need this new app/gadget/strategy? I was teaching just fine before. I am not going to support this. Or her.” 
      • Resistance: “A paperless classroom is impossible in an IB school. This PD session is a waste of my time. I have grading to do.” 

      And that was among good people who generally got along! In the learning and teaching laboratory, emotions are intensified. Teachers take their work, and let’s face it–themselves–very seriously. This is the environment in which we want to create a space and purpose for TLs–so we have to overcome these obstacles. A simple, and ongoing, procedure for this would include, at a minimum: 

      • A clear rollout that dispels distrust: “Bob is now your new instructional coach. He is there for you whenever you need him. He has NO SAY in your evaluations and/or hiring/firing decisions.” 
      • Ending teacher isolation in a way that DOES NOT TAKE MORE TIME FROM TEACHERS: “This year we will be giving up two of our monthly Wednesday meetings to small group collaboration, discussion, and/or PLCs. You will continue to receive overtime for these meetings, of course, and we will discuss the vertical, horizontal and inter-disciplinary teaming involved.” 
      • Putting the weight of the institution behind the new TL work: “Here is the schedule for all teachers to work with Bob, Jane and Betty during these meeting times this year. Everyone will have 2 mandatory meeting with each of them, but you can of course see them more often and schedule appointments with them outside of these meeting times if that works better for everyone involved.” 

      #3 might still put some people off, but I have seen again and again that some teachers need to be “encouraged” to go to their first session with e TL, but afterwards, they can’t get enough. Once they learn that’s all about talking and exploring in order to improve practice, they respond the way any keen educator would–they can’t get enough. 


      • Nilda Silen

        Language Arts

        I am the Language Arts Department Head at Gateway High School in Kissimmee, Florida. I am very pleased to see that our school is heading on the right track. We have PLCs, same subject/grade level common planning, different curriculum coaches and we follow Common Core. Our principal has provided us with orientational visits from a Common Core specialist, with whom we have been able to learn this educational trend.

        Like you mentioned earlier, we used to have overtime for these meetings but unfortunately, we no longer have it. As a result of this, there is no time for Department meetings, which we all miss, and now our guest’s orientations are held during our planning period, making it a volunteer session.

        When we first started it wasn’t easy; change is never 100% welcome. Time, in my personal opinion, has indeed demonstrated that working together is preferable than working in isolation! I feel very proud of our achievements and understand that we are not done yet, there is still a long road to travel, but together we’ll reach that, which at the beginning seemed an unreachable star!   Happy New Year!

  • Matthew Gawlik

    Technology Education

    Teacher Leadership must also be recognized by School Boards and Communities. The contribution by teachers leading teachers is sometimes lost by school boards and their community. Shortsightedness by school boards eliminating staff development and reducing teacher co-curricular interaction stymies new teacher improvement and the sharing of best practice in a school. Some communities, in trying to reduce their tax burden, eliminate or reduce funding to teacher leadership/staff development programs that are focused on improving student performance to maintain or create high performing schools. Past student performance in standardized testing does not guarentee the same performance in the future, but the continuing improvement of a professional staff keeps those test scores up as well as property values.

  • Bob Phillips

    Teacher-Leaders Under Our Very Noses

    This posting underscores the collaborative, mentoring, and authentic learning benefits of identifying and supporting those colleagues among us who can be effective teacher-leaders. Often those individuals just need a push or an encouraging word. Two of us were involved in a multi-year, school-based staff development project to incrementally improve student success in literacy and numeracy. Our process and achievements in developing teacher-leaders have been documented in an article that appears in Learning Forward Ontario Vol. 3, Issue 2 (pp. 12-14). http://learningforwardontario.ca/files/LFO_Newsletter_Winter_2012.pdf

  • Alexander

    teacher leadership
    It is important to know which qualities you need to have to be a teacherleader so you can work on on them, getting experience in different extra curricular jobs in school, such as lifeskills, angermanagemant to students and not in school like scoutleader or member of different community organizations. These jobs teach you the multitasking skills and tactics to deal with people. To convince them, this is the right way to go, so they work with you to reach the goals.

  • Janet Abercrombie

    Symbolic roles

    When I began applying for teacher leadership positions, I did so because I wanted to practice leadership skills and facilitate school wide improvements. I was able to lead meetings. 

    I was frustrated to find that the roles were more symbolic than real. I was told what to put on the agendas and which programs to run. When I made suggestions for improvement, I was told that the suggestions required approval from a number of people. I met with all those people to find out that none of them were able to approve the changes – and no one could tell me how to proceed. 

    teacher leaders should be empowered to make some decisions and it is helpful for admin to be clear which decisions teacher leaders can make as well as a protocol to follow before making changes (consultation with team members, curriculum leaders, etc).

    The numerous meetings took away time I would have otherwise spent making planning and assessing – which I would have happily done at home if I thought my efforts at leadership would result in change. 

  • Jim Greenaker

    Too many variables

    Often I find teacher leaders being tossed into a lose lose situation. If a teacher talks to the administration the union gets upset. If a teacher sees a problem and offers a solution to the administration and it doesn’t fall into “their philosophy” the teacher is ignored. And other times some of my colleagues (10% or so) are the reason administrators don’t trust the other teachers. Finally it seems education loses the reason most of us teach…… To help students be the best they can be. We all need to let go of egos and power plays for betterment of entire system.

  • Shannoncdebaca

    Chasing Crumbs

    There is a pattern in many teacher leadership iniatives in that they only offer crumbs and not the real full slice of the loaf for teachers. That is partly because our plate is full with teaching and many in positions of authority see leadership as an add on or as an unwritten obligation on the part of teacher leaders. I know when an new position is created at a district level it comes with the requisite office, secretarial assistance, authority and lines of responsibility. Teacher leadership is often more nebulous, less defined, fuzzier with no added resources (or the control of those resources) and certainly no secretarial assistance. Those may lead to frustration and certainly to making the tasks more difficult.

    So, I as I was working with a new teacherpreneur she asked me what she should ask for from her superintendent. I said there are three big wishes. Number one, control of your schedule. The teacherpreneur/teacher leader should be able to manage and structure their own time as administrators often can. This allows the teacher leader to stay connected to teachers and not become another limb of administration. I have seen teacher leaders work in classrooms and help other educators impact meaningful changes in their district. It only happens when the time is flexible enough to allow the leader to respond to the leadership moments. Number two, control of some level of funding or resources that this teacher leader can shift and manage to do important work for and with teachers and students.In some cases this may involve some clerical assistance (freeing the leader to work on the nuts and bolts of the tasks). Lastly, a clear negotiated list of deliverables. What is it that the teacher leader will see as successfully managing this new role. This list will need to be revisited each year. I do know that this list is often far shorter than all the amazing stuff that teacher leaders accomplish year to year.

    I am not certain I gave her the complete list but it was what I had to have to be successful. I wonder what this group would add or subtract from this list?


  • CherylSuliteanu

    Why must teacher leadership be so difficult?

    Jose asks the question that has been plaguing me for years.  Details like favoritism versus competency, the role of ego in decision making by administrators, symbolic roles, distrust by colleagues, and isolation have been brought up in the responses so far in this thread. 

    There are those who are in schools and districts with positive relationships and the culture needed to foster teacher leadership.  There are others, like myself, who have reached the glass ceiling of leadership in my district.  I am happy in my classroom yet, I know I have more to contribute that can positively impact students in my school and district – not just in my classroom.

    I am proud to say I have met with my superintendent, associate superintendent, and my principal to discuss innovative ideas and concepts.  I have also cultivated relationships with administrators through participation in district committees and professional development opportunities.  However, years later the status quo remains.  Perseverance to create the culture for meaningful teacher leadership from within is a significant challenge to maintain…  

    Is relocation the best option for teacher leaders who lack the school and district culture for teacher leadership? 

  • ReneeMoore

    Leading With and Without Titles

    I’m grateful to you, Jose, for helping us discuss these thorny, real-life issues of teacher leadership. There have been many teacher leaders down through the years who have played these roles without titles or compensation. But that’s one of the many reasons teaching is not yet treated as a true profession. 

    Think of the question we are begging in this thread: If teacher leaders meet with so much resistance from within our institutions and among each other—who is LEADING the teaching profession?  Or, stated another way: If we [teachers] are unwilling to follow another teacher who has demonstrated leadership qualities in and out of the classroom, is it any wonder the political leaders in our country look to non-educators to advise them on what’s best for education?