Theme of the month

Theme of the Month

Join us each month as we focus on a topic of interest to STEM Teacher Leaders with a webinar panel, open discussion, resources and blog post. 

Synthesis: How Teachers Measure Their Impact as Leaders

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At a workshop at the National Research Council on teacher leadership, Dr.  Bruce Alberts (UC San Francisco) observed that the changes required to implement  the Next Generation Science Standards require extensive involvement by teachers. One of the challenges in engaging teachers as leaders, however, is that schools remain predominately hierarchical organizations; even as businesses have learned to harvest "ground truth" from their employees to improve systems, many schools still remain relentlessly top-down. Alberts also emphasized that we can't always focus on innovation. "If all we have is innovation and no spreading of what works, then we won’t make much progress."

The February STEMTLnet Monthly Theme addresses key parts of this challenge.  First, how do you see yourself as a teacher leader, and how did you find yourself in that role? Then, how do you measure your impact, and what ways have you found to tell your story?  In addition to our facilitator, Prof. Barnett Berry of University of South Carolina, our expert panel included Jaraux Washington, Jeff Milbourne, and Lori Nazareno.

While teacher leadership (TL) as a concept is not new, there is still an urgent need for TLs.  A recent survey suggested that 25% of teachers would like to exercise leadership in their schools, districts, or beyond, while continuing to teach in their classrooms.  We have to acknowledge that there are many definitions of teacher leadership, but all kinds can make valuable contributions. The need has only increased, as principals' work has gotten more demanding and many-faceted. 

The need is clear, and the potential supply of teacher leaders is sufficient — but the demand is not yet there. Moreover, school systems tend to define teacher leadership "slots" to fill, taking a top-down approach that is not well designed to meet the needs of the schools or potential TLs.   Much more leadership can be deployed when the teachers themselves find their pathways to leadership.  For this to have the kind of impact that is needed, teachers exercising authentic leadership need to be able to describe and measure their impact, and then tell their stories, both to make the value of their work visible to peers and administrators, and to encourage other potential leaders to get involved.  In this way, important work will get done from the ground up, and its recognition can potentially stimulate demand.


Finding your way to authentic leadership

The panelists talked about whether there is something distinctive about STEM teacher leadership, and they suggested that STEM teachers are immersed in the STEM mindset, which is one of identifying questions or problems, developing proposed solutions, testing the ideas and evaluating the outcomes to refine understanding and improve results.  They suggested that this problem-solving orientation is at the core of the process of TL growth and development.  The root of it all is reflection about, and response to student needs. This begins with any teacher in their own classroom, and several of the panelists described how this started their path to leadership. They wanted to change their practice, or introduce a new technology, or work with a population of students of special interest.   As they got involved in the work of learning, trial, error, and growth, they were forced to innovate, and to think about what would make such an innovation easier, more effective, more sustainable for themselves and others.  Authenticity comes from this grounded approach, "leadership in the work," as Barnett Berry said.

Such authentic leadership, aimed school improvement (whether at the classroom, department, or school level), is the best foundation for sharing one's experience with other teachers, who are likely to face similar problems in their own practice.   Leadership at first can take the form of sharing one's "case studies" — the problem identified, the solution attempted, resources created or found, the outcomes and reflections.  A colleague will recognize the problem from their own experience, and benefit from your pioneering exploration of solutions, resources, and outcomes.  Your leadership comes from your making  your experience and thought available to others for their own use and growth.

This kind of authentic leadership also can get the attention of conscientious administrators at the building or district level.  Evidence of good results is valuable to them because they, too, care about school improvement, they can see that improved practice and teacher growth helps them accomplish their own objectives — and school improvement makes everyone look good, and builds morale, which can in turn support further improvement.  So it's important for a TL to be able to describe what they're doing and why — and what the impact has been.


Measuring impact as part of the cycle of growth

All the panelists talked about the importance of measuring the impact, the results, of leadership.  This becomes more concrete when "leadership," often a vague term, is understood, as in this discussion, in terms of specific innovations aimed at solving specific problems.  Then both the situation and the interventions can be described clearly enough that the change — whether in kind, or in size (effect size, percentage, etc. ) — can be characterized.  Evidence can be gathered, evaluated, and disseminated in a way that others can understand and use in their own sphere. Evidence may be qualitative or quantitative, depending on the nature of your intervention or experiment. It helps to keep focused on assessing not a particular teacher's "performance," but on how the team is faring, as it undertakes a school improvement.

As one panelist (Lori Nazareno) pointed out, it may be that the TL will need to look at effects that are otherwise overlooked.  She gave the example of her work in an alternative school, where the students' reading skills were very far below grade level.  The standard measures for students and school would inevitably continue to show poor scores — but she and her colleagues developed ways to measure relative growth — growth across the year — for students. In this way, although the standard scores continued to be discouraging, the students' actual, real, and impressive progress could be described and reported.

There are several organizations that have worked to develop metrics and protocols to use in measuring and assessing TL impact;  some of these are included as Resources for this month's Theme. These can be helpful to TLs as they think about how best to characterize and measure their innovations and impact. Lori Nazareno told how her decision to seek National Board Certification helped her in learning to assess her impact as a leader, since the application required her to describe and evaluate her work in a way she hadn't had occasion to before.  This kind of capacity building is one of the benefits of certification and award programs.


"Action, validation, networking"  — a spiral of innovation, capacity building, and story-telling for TLs

In this context, several panelists mentioned the "Action-validation-networking" cycle that Jeff Milbourne has written about.  This framework can be helpful in the development of a TL's role over time.  It is based in authentic problem-solving, as discussed above, but provides a simple model of how a TL's leadership capacity can grow. 

The first step has been addressed already —Action:  identification of a problem, designing a solution, measuring the impact, reflection. When there are demonstrable results, which have been documented in a way that they can be communicated to colleagues,  parents, administrators, or other interested constituencies, these results (and the work that produced them) are can be given validation — credibility — and encouragement. 

Communicating validated actions throughout your own and others' networks will bring several kinds of benefit:  informed critique, connections with others working along similar lines or on similar problems, connections with cross-site efforts (across the school, across the district, across the region, etc.)  This is one benefit of programs like the Presidential Awards and Einstein Fellowships — it helps make leadership visible, and helps connect people in the work, across boundaries of organization and locale.  Networking can feed new ideas, resources, and collaborators into a new round of reflection and action — and the cycle continues.

Learning to communicate your experiments and results is a rich area of learning in itself.  Barnett Berry reminded us that social media and similar tools are important in part because they break down the collegial isolation that any teacher may feel, but that can be discouraging for an emerging TL.  Jaraux Washington spoke of how social media can do more — it can widen the "audience", so that people outside the usual channels, who care about school improvement, can hear about what you're doing, what's happening in your school.  When there's good news going out from the classroom, and from the teachers' point of view, it can in effect create a branding for the school as a place where innovation and experimentation are taking place and having an impact.  This can especially be important when the school is otherwise only known by its ranking on state test scores or other measures that oversimplify the school's character, and do not measure the kinds of grass-roots leadership that can have big long-term effects in school improvement.


Implications for teacher leaders

• Teacher leadership grows from commitment to improvement in your practice  It's about the work, not about the person.  In this way, your authentic leadership helps your school look good, too.

• Become intentionally reflective about the improvements you make.  What problem are you trying to address?  Why have you chosen the approach you're trying?  How can you tell what effect it's having?

• Take or seek opportunities to share your stories — informally (in conversation or through social media) or formally (presentations to colleagues, or professional gatherings, or in newsletters or journals).

• Take the feedback you receive, and use it to improve your own efforts.

• Be on the lookout for opportunities to contribute beyond the classroom, and encourage your colleagues to do the same.

In short, remember the Action-Validation-Networking cycle.


Implications for administrators, policy-makers, and researchers

Remember Bruce Albert's comment:  “If all we have is innovation and no spreading of what works, then we won’t make much progress.” Our panelists reminded us that authentic innovation, and authentic communication of improvements, start from the ground up.

• Policy-makers need to bear in mind that teacher-leaders are a key ingredient for successful school improvement, and that many more teachers want to serve in this way than can find opportunities to do so.

• However, there are many teachers who are exercising leadership within their sphere of activity, whose growth can be encouraged by opportunities to share what they're doing.

• When a teacher takes leadership, it is important for administrators to notice and validate it, and help them communicate their efforts.

• Recognizing teacher leadership is an investment in school improvement, and a way to share the administrator's burden so that more colleagues can contribute.

• Researchers can do more to document and understand the growth and impact of teacher leadership at every level of education, as well as effective ways to encourage leadership and build capacity.  As part of this work, researchers can make a valuable contribution to their field, to policy, and to improvement on the ground by helping develop and validate qualitative and quantitative measures of teacher-leadership impact that are usable by teachers and schools as well as researchers.