Teachers become leaders when they are resilient, collaborate with others, work through an inquiry stance, and engage in effective professional learning with those principles in mind. Within a framework for teacher leadership, it’s suggested turning the recognition of teaching challenges into a process rather than an event, engaging more in education-related research, reflecting on results, and developing an attitude of resilience, all contribute to effective, successful teachers who are also leaders. Developing an evidence-based practice and mentoring colleagues allow the characteristics of leadership to flourish in all teachers.
“Part of our responsibility as teachers working to create a professional identity must be self-examination. ‘Is my present practice as effective as I think it is?’ As teachers, we must we willing to confront this question every day of our professional lives if teacher leadership is to become a reality rather than a slogan.” (Reeves, 2008)
Leadership Building Block: Resilience
Resilience in teachers is about managing the everyday challenges of the realities of teaching, while sustaining a sense of moral purpose and care. There’s a determination to ensure the students’ progress and achievement, which is accomplished through the quality of the teaching.
The nature of resilience and the resilience-building process is embedded in a web of interpersonal relationships. Resilience is the culmination and continuation of collective and collaborative endeavors driven by a common understanding of moral purpose. It’s also nurtured by the social and intellectual environments where teachers work and live (Day & Gu, 2014).
The entire system must be resilient:
Accountability should not merely be something done to children or a threat to classroom teachers, but rather a system-wide ethic from the classroom to the boardroom. When such a pervasive focus occurs, there is a high probability that a resilient system will be sustained (Day & Gu, 2014).
Teacher leadership is critical to a successful school system. The single greatest influence on the professional practices of teachers is the direct observation of other teachers. And with systemic support, that network of direct observation can transform a large and complex system with dramatic effect.
Without systemic support, great teachers remain islands of excellence, surrounded by oceans of well-intentioned teachers who lack the information, skills and opportunities for practice that distinguish their most effective colleagues. A framework for teacher leadership, explained more fully later on, describes two stark alternatives: rejection or resilience. When teacher initiative and insight are repeatedly followed by rejection, the lack of systemic support will undermine the framework and render teacher leadership nothing more than a hollow slogan. When policymakers, administrators, and leaders at every level embrace the framework, then they contribute to the establishment of a resilient system that will endure disappointments and hardships because of the confidence in a culture of evidence and support for teacher leadership (Reeves, 2008).
Barriers to teacher leadership:
It’s the three Bs: Blame, Bureaucracy and Baloney (which refers to prejudices and deeply held convictions without evidence). All three undermine research and teacher leadership. When we give evidence over baloney, supplant bureaucracy with networks and give evidence power over baloney, doors to the teacher leadership framework are open. (Reeves, 2008)
Leadership Building Block: Inquiry
Taking an inquiry stance means teachers and student teachers work within communities to generate local knowledge. They envision and theorize their practice, and interpret and interrogate the theory and research of others. The work of inquiry communities is both social and political – that is, it involves making problematic the current arrangements of schooling; the ways knowledge is constructed, evaluated and used; and teachers’ individual and collective roles in bringing about change (Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 2001).
It’s important to remember that inquiry is a stance, not a project or strategy:
- Through conversations and writing, teachers make what they know visible. Assumptions about common practices are called into question, and a variety of alternatives are considered. Descriptive talk and writing makes day to day classroom events and practices of teaching visible and accessible not only to other teachers, but to students, administrators and families. This is an important part of the culture of a community of inquiry.
- Taking an inquiry stance on leadership doesn’t involve specifying or carrying out the most effective way to implement proposed educational change. Teachers aren’t ‘trained’ in workshops or staff development projects, either. Instead, they challenge the purposes and underlying assumptions behind such change.
- When inquiry is a stance on teaching, learning, and schooling, there is an activist aspect to teacher leadership. From this perspective, inquiry communities exist to make effective changes in the lives of teachers and, just as importantly, in the lives of students and in the school environment.
- When inquiry is a stance on teaching, it is assumed that professional development is inextricably linked to larger questions about the consequences and ends of professional development:
- What are or should be the purposes of professional development?
- Who makes decisions about these purposes and consequences?
- In what ways do particular initiatives for professional development challenge and/or sustain the status quo?
- What are the consequences of teachers’ learning for students’ learning?
- What part does professional development play in school reform?
- How is professional development connected to larger social, political, and intellectual movements? (Friesen & Jacobsen, 2015)
Professional learning should start with teachers asking themselves some direct and focused questions about what their students need to know and do, together with more specific questions:
- What capabilities (knowledge, skills, attitudes, and values) do our students need to meet curricula, personal and social goals?
- What do they already know?
- What sources of evidence have we used and how adequate are they?
- What do they need to learn and do?
- How do we build on what they know?
Answering these questions requires focused assessment. Leaders and teachers need to know how to gather detailed diagnostic information about the knowledge and skills of individuals and groups of students to determine what is limiting their engagement and learning – and what is getting in the way of their learning (Timperley, 2011).
Checking that students have new opportunities to learn is also a way to deepen teachers’ professional understandings and to identify what needs to be refocused and refined to continue improvements. Monitoring practice and its impact on students is not about checking that teachers are complying with requirements to practice in new ways, but rather, finding out what else needs to be learned. Through trying things out in practice and checking to see if students are responding differently, learning is deepened. Teachers further develop metacognitive skills and come to take more control of their own learning. They are able to work in partnership with others who have specialist expertise to identify what is working well so it can be retained and what is not working so well in order to change (Timperley, 2011).
As mentioned previously, inquiry habits of mind can be developed through examining assessment information. This is true only if it’s treated as a learning opportunity and discussions are conducted in respectful, yet challenging ways. What areas and which students have shown improvement? Is the improvement adequate? What areas and which students have not shown improvement?
One of the most contested issues around interpretation comes when people try to identify possible causes of improvement or non-improvement. Investigating possible causes is fundamental to promoting an inquiry habit of mind and further learning. This process is aided greatly by bringing together evidence of student learning. By doing so, the group can investigate possible causes over which teachers have some control. It’s also important to consider the lens through which individuals are bringing to interpretation (Timperley, 2011).
The Framework for Teacher Leadership:
The seven elements below are part of a perpetual cycle. It does not lead to a destination, but rather illustrates a continuous process that begins with the recognition of a challenge and proceeds to research by teachers and leaders. The results of the research can then stimulate reflection and reinforcement. This stage is critical because many inquiry processes stall at this point. Will future actions of the system be based on the evidence, or will the filter for action research be a fact-free debate in which personal preferences, traditions and opinions not only take precedence over evidence but also prevent a rational discussion of the evidence from taking place? (Reeves, 2008)
- Recognition of challenge – the power of comfortable convention frequently exceeds the attraction of potential benefits of change. Recognizing an educational challenge as a process and not an event, is key. When recognition is an event, it is characterized by information that is isolated, late and disconnected from the daily reality of the school or system. Newspaper articles about district and school average scores, elaborate data analysis, and new initiatives, whether presented with breathless enthusiasm or stern commands, are all events – and the reactions are predictable.
- Research by teachers and leaders – research holds an important, even hallowed place in education. Perhaps it is too hallowed, according to Ronald Wolk (2007), chairman of the board of Editorial Projects in Education, which publishes Education week. “Research is not readily accessible – either physically or intellectually – to the potential users…Even if research findings were widely available and written in clear prose that even a dimwit like me could understand, the reports would not be widely read. Most teachers are not consumers of research, nor are most principals or superintendents.”
It is not, however, merely the availability and accessibility of research that is the issue – too much research fails to meet teachers where they are, leaving them in a sea of ambiguity, filled with conflicting studies and findings.
When teachers work in an inquiry-based community of practice, they become educational innovators, capable of identifying and expanding upon what works in the classroom, with the ability to pass their knowledge on to other professionals.
- Results in a public forum for students, schools and systems – for research to have meaning for teachers, results must be compelling, transparent and public. It can be presented in a science fair-format with panel boards featuring student data, observations, results and inferences. Each teacher team can publish a report that includes research questions, hypothesis, research methods, findings, conclusions, personal reflections and suggestions for future research. This type of forum leads directly to reflection and reinforcement.
- Reflection – no matter what works in theory, the actual implementation of effective practice depends on providing teachers with the opportunity to reflect on research and consider the personal and professional implications of compelling research findings. Reflection is hardly a natural event among teaching professionals. It is not that they are unenthusiastic about reflection, but rather that few school schedules provide the time and structure for meaningful reflection on professional practices. Although many educators embrace the notion of professional learning communities, even the foremost proponents of the concept, Richard DuFour (2004), lament the use of the label without the supporting structure, time and leadership to allow for meaningful reflection.
In an evidence-based culture, systems nurture and encourage teacher leaders and the insights they offer from their research. Even when the results are disappointing, the culture displaces blame with inquiry. The fundamental questions, then, aren’t ‘who was wrong’, and ‘where does the blame belong,’ but rather “What can we learn from the results? and “how can we save time and resources by applying these valuable lessons.”
When results are encouraging and validate effective teacher leadership practices, the response should be ones of celebration, encouragement and genuine enthusiasm. Most important, the desired response to any research result – whether discouraging, encouraging or perplexing – is resilience.
To be sure, the challenges are difficult as teacher leaders strive to achieve widespread implementation of action research. The goal will require a commitment of time for research, public sharing of results, and personal reflection. Data systems must be sufficiently sophisticated to provide frequent reinforcement and avoid the unproductive exercise in annual feedback that is too frequently late and irrelevant.
- Reinforcement– depends on consistent feedback about student achievement, professional practices and leadership decision-making. Annual test scores are demonstrably inadequate to serve to reinforce instructional strategies that require daily perseverance.
- Rejection– for teachers, it’s a visceral, emotional and powerful experience. Teachers invest their intellect, creativity, energy and emotion into an idea. With personal and professional courage, they engage in action research, exposing their successes and failures to the critical reviews of colleagues, friends and strangers. This is again, why strong, supportive learning and teaching environments are so important (Reeves, 2008).