Synthesis: Leading Without Leaving the Classroom
What is it like to become a teacher-leader, while still being rooted in classroom work? In this month’s blog, expert panel, and discussion on “Leading Without Leaving the Classroom,” experienced teacher-leaders and other educators focused much of their attention on the experience of leading, and especially on the challenges that they encountered as they found themselves growing into leadership. Recurring themes were growth and school culture. The comments of some of the participants suggested that the challenges they encountered were, in fact, the impetus and the stimulus for their own growth and their contributions to their school’s, district’s or state’s education culture. Julie Olson said,
I was offered the opportunity to go from a traditional classroom of college prep students to having total oversight to design and carry out a self-paced, customized science program for our alternative school. I had worked with many of our at-risk students in the regular classroom and the director asked me if I was interested. The risks: working with a larger group of at-risk students, not having everyone in the same place at the same time, dealing with a lot more than just school curriculum. The benefits: I get to try things not possible in a regular class - smaller groups. I don't need as much of everything when there are only a few students doing an activity at a time. I get total latitude to try what I want. I really get to know the students.
...I was terrified at first - I had to trust in my training and instincts. It was a lot of work but I have a program that I am very proud of - most of our alt. school students take extra science courses!
Looking to learn. Several of the discussion participants spoke of what got them to begin taking on some form of leadership. It often wasn't a desire to be a leader. Rather it is was the basic desire to improve their practice, and to improve the learning experience for their students. This often meant moving out of their comfort zones, whether by taking a chance to teach abroad, or by beginning to collaborate with teachers of other subjects, such as in a new maker-space. Whether teachers took these steps for their own professional edification or specifically to benefit their students, they had the effect of enriching both themselves and their students. Maggie Schultz wrote,
My school recently developed a 'Makerspace' room, which is a resource that encourages engineering-based approaches to problem-solving and critical thinking....I worked with the art department and the computer science department to design a project for my physical science students. ...I am the only biology teacher at my school, so any leadership-type roles that I could fill would require leading teachers from outside of my 'department'. I am also only a fourth-year teacher, and my lack of experience makes taking on leadership roles difficult....getting out of my classroom, working with other teachers, and trying something that other teachers in my district haven't done yet was very rewarding for me professionally, but also for my students. The novelty of the project made students automatically more engaged and excited. The other teachers were excited that I asked for their help and opinions. And my principal was excited that I was taking advantage of the new resources that our district worked so hard to provide.
Time. Teachers noted that they often have additional tasks and duties that can compete with classroom work. One participant called it administrative "busy-work." Others, however, pointed out that many of these tasks arose from administrators' responsibilities, and mandates from superior agencies. How to push back, to open or keep space for the classroom? One way to turn this dilemma into an opportunity for leadership is to follow up on the task: How was my input used? What was the outcome of our work? How will this affect our school, your work, my classroom? Administrators will often be quick to see that making the work more collaborative and responsive through this kind of dialogue can improve their own practice and outcomes.
I don’t believe that most of these activities are initially engaged in just to keep us busy and if we have ideas that can make it worthwhile and useable, we should talk to them. It is also important to know the Why? What is the reasoning for doing this activity? This also shows that one is paying attention and really thinking about the business of education. The administrators may think more the next time. (Julie Olson)
Credibility and school culture. The foundation for credibility as a teacher leader is borne from one's practice in the classroom, as several discussion participants suggested — the lessons learned, the experiments and innovations, the new patterns of collaboration that emerge when teachers take risks and seek opportunities for growth. José Rivas said,
The courage to be wrong is tremendously important, and has helped me grow because I am constantly reflecting on my practice and working at improving it. I feel that it is also important to have courage when you are right and step out of ones comfort zone to walk the walk and talk the talk.
Yet, this is where school culture can present barriers — some participants in the Theme discussion spoke of the way that an "egalitarian ideal" can prevent emerging leaders from having credibility among their colleagues in their school — even when their capacity for and record of leadership are recognized and celebrated elsewhere. School culture takes time and perseverance to change, but the strategies that people suggested are straightforward: find ways to help teachers get to know each other and to get out of their silos (whether of disciplines or of habits). Claudia Walker told of training on "Opportunity Culture" which offers a valuable way for a school to work on change, and opens new doors for teacher leadership:
As I mentioned in our discussion, I was recently educated on a program called Opportunity Culture. I know it started in Vance County in North Carolina and it is also happening in Guilford County Schools in NC. It intrigued me because it was an opportunity for teachers to be multi-classroom leaders within their schools. They work in several classrooms and collaborate with other classroom teachers to develop instruction that works.
Another spoke about how informal lunchtime gatherings can begin to build knowledge about each others' interests and abilities. Inviting someone from outside your normal coterie of colleagues to join you in attending a professional meeting, or in implementing a school or district project. Networking — the process of making and using connections — is a central aim, building a sense of new possibilities. Julie Olson wrote about looking for the everyday opportunities that a school may offer for networking:
When do teachers take their lunch break? Is it just the STEM teachers then the English teachers, etc. There are no conversations happening. We don't really get to talk and find out what others are doing in/out of the school....Does the school have multiple buildings? I am with the CTE course teachers (auto, building trades, biomedical, welding) and we have had many successful collaborations and know what each other's skills/leadership abilities are because we all take the same lunch period.
Where to get started? Sometimes, of course, there are explicit opportunities to "take leadership" or seek recognition — applying for an award, or taking on a special assignment, perhaps as a coach or curriculum specialist within the school or district. But smaller beginnings matter, too, and they have the additional advantage of helping to reach across boundaries and extend the network of acquaintance and mutual knowledge. It may be as simple, at first, as attending a committee meeting, or becoming more active on a social media site frequented by colleagues. See how it goes, and look for opportunities to bring other colleagues along, after learning the territory a bit. One participant, a high school teacher, told of making a point of being helpful to elementary and middle school teachers such as offering resources they might not have in their classrooms. In every case, it's important to see that these leaders have experienced how leadership emerges from teachers' actively seeking professional growth.
The teacher leadership programs I have gone through and now lead, starts with the idea of building teacher efficacy in the classroom as a springboard for developing teacher leaders, by training teachers to become the exemplars of instruction through the implementation of researched based strategies. As my program director would say, "We want our teachers to walk the walk and talk the talk." (José Rivas)
Teachers supporting teachers, leaders encouraging leaders. As teacher leaders conversed in both the expert panel and in the follow-on discussion, it was clear that they all have learned that leadership is not a zero-sum game. They spoke of the importance to find ways to encourage and celebrate others' gifts and abilities, to make the school culture more hospitable for new ideas and initiatives, and to encourage an inquiry orientation so that the classroom is knowledge-seeking, as well as knowledge-dispensing. Rivas added:
I wanted to improve my practice. The Presidential awards give you important feedback on who you are as an educator, and you end up improving. I am always trying to get as many teachers as I can to join me — it’s everyone’s work, and I want everyone to be better than me.
An emerging leader's credibility is continually built on the basis of real accomplishments for students, teachers, and their school. As Steven Rogg put it, teachers' changing understanding of their work as creators of knowledge can open new paths for innovation and discovery:
I have pondered why it seems relatively uncommon for professional educators (us), of domains whose nature is oriented toward discovery, inquiry and problem-solving, to regularly practice the same?... Allow me to propose a disciplinary-driven view of teacher leadership. Imagine for a moment a research laboratory at a local university or industry. The PI or lab manager is a leader of the progress and discovery that unfolds there. Now imagine our classroom/labs/communities as OUR laboratories for advancing learning for our students, our schools, and our profession?
Administrator Support. Principals and other school or district administrators play important roles when they acknowledge teachers leadership accomplishments in their districts for example, when teachers receive a PAEMST or other leadership award, obtain an education grant, or engage in a partnership with industry. Acknowledging leadership adds value and substance to the school's or district's credibility— with the state education system, with the local community, and with local or regional policy makers concerned about schools and community welfare. This, in turn, helps to shape the development of a pro-growth mind-set, in which administrators and policy-makers learn to seek out advice and input from the excellent teachers in their area who have credibility with their peers, have a track record of service and innovation, and demonstrate a commitment to everyone's success. Margo Murphy said,
Perhaps a major reason we need STEM teacher leaders rather than general teacher leaders is to help all aspects of the system connect research to practice, highlight models that are working and help focus on systemic change.