Supports and Barriers to Teacher Leadership: Reports of Teacher Leaders
Based on three rounds of interviews and analyses, I developed a matrix categorizing key sources of support and barriers to teacher leadership. This six-celled matrix delineated major sources of support and barriers within three arenas: (a) conditions within the educational context: (b) conditions outside the educational context; and (c) internal factors (Table 2). I discuss contents of each cell in the following sections.Table 2
Categorization of Supports and Barriers to Teacher Leadership
Conditions Within the Educational Context
Many conditions within the educational context support or impede teacher leadership. Participants described these extensively. Interestingly, and not uncommonly, factors serving as sources of support at one time or in one setting could be barriers at other times or in other settings. For example, one principal might provide strong support and modeling of shared leadership, while another blocks all attempts at leadership among teachers. In the following sections, I describe sources of support and barriers to leadership arising from within the educational context.
Sources of support within the educational context. Support for teacher leadership comes from a number of different sources within the educational context. All teacher leaders spoke of having strong, dependable support networks, supportive principals or other administrators, and opportunities for leadership and training. They described support they receive from staff members, in general. In addition, they told of how they have created flexibility in their work days to allow for leadership responsibilities and how, in six cases, the nature of their jobs demanded leadership functions. Finally, they perceived their efforts as making a difference and felt their opinions were heard by administrators and school board members. I describe sources of support in greater detail.
A key source of support for teacher leadership mentioned by participants is a strong network of colleagues. This network of 'critical friends" (Lieberman, 1995) provides a safe, trustworthy forum for working through difficult problems. Participants relied on different sets of colleagues for different problems or concerns. Madison s support network consisted of the other literacy coordinators in her distnct, all of whom consulted in schools to implement a reading program for at-nsk first graders. She speaks of the confidentiality and mutual support which exists in this forum, commenting, ' It is truly wonderful. It is the safest place I can talk. We are really a sounding board for each other." Jo describes the role her own network of critical friends plays, remarking, "We can share. and we have great confidence in each other. You don't have to worry your words are being spread all over town." Colleagues give constructive feedback. Sonny considers some of the central of fice personnel in student services to be among his network of "critical fnends." As he says, 'When I have something I am unsure about, I am able to just bounce ideas off them."
Administrators are a crucial source of support for these teacher leaders. In many cases, administrators are members of teacher leaders' close support network. Administrators who support these leaders are. most often, principals, but other administrators have provided noteworthy support or encouragement, as well. Mary Ellen discusses her feelings when a district administrator once introduced her in front of a large group consisting of school employees and community members:
Not only do administrators provide verbal encouragement, they often demonstrate support by removing other barriers to the teacher's leadership. Sometimes, they provide information. Fran is impressed by the depth of current knowledge of her principal. Principals also locate needed resources. Fran remarks on her principal's resourcefulness.
Principals and other administrators publicized opportunities and encouraged teachers to take advantage of them. Lea was introduced to Glasser's Quality Schools movement, when a former superintendent selected her as one of three employees to attend a week-long seminar with Dr. Glasser. She remembers her feelings when this administrator chose her to go:
In several instances, administrators have pushed teachers into new roles. For Lea, Sonny, and Madison, it took forceful encouragement from their principals to move out of comfortable, static roles into new and unfamiliar ones. Sonny says his principal ''helped me to identify that I was holding back. I would not lead groups. It would scare me to death to go in front of a whole group of teachers. I could hardly talk." That principal was instrumental in helping Sonny gradually work into new roles, to the point that he now facilitates the work of groups of adults on a regular basis.
Administrators also model facilitative leadership skills Fran describes the effect her principal's modeling has had on her:
Teacher leadership changes working relationships with administrators. Madison feels comfortable dealing with principals, saying ' It's nice to now just call, and I can get right through. As a classroom teacher, you just don't feel people know who you are."
Participants view leadership opportunities as available to them in both their schools and their districts. Mary Ellen has had opportunities at state and national levels, as well. A number of interviewees say leadership opportunities seem to arise serendipitously. However, in reality, these teachers have significant amounts of leadership experience, strong track records as effective leaders, and solid networks of contacts. For them, one role leads to another. Anne's comments show this:
In a number of cases, new opportunities seem to come along just as they finish with existing responsibilities. For example, at one time, Mary Ellen's term on the National Education Association board of directors concluded just as an opening appeared on the accreditation board of the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education. As Lea describes it, "It just seems I am at the right place at the right time."
They also report training opportunities and leadership modeling are accessible. All have received training in leadership skills, such as presentation or facilitation skills. However, training availability does not create leaders, in itself. The reality is these teachers are always on the lookout for ways to enhance their leadership skills, so they, unlike some others, take advantage of training opportunities. In most cases, these teacher leaders have also learned from mentors. Jo remembers the mentoring she received from a district director of elementary education. She says, "With someone like that mentoring you and teaching you, it's bound to make a tremendous impact on your life."
These teacher leaders rely on a core network of "critical friends," but they also feel supported by their fellow teachers, in general. They feel appreciated for their work. Typically, other teachers are willing to help when participants request assistance. Generally, they sense mutual respect and interdependence among the staff team. Maya considers mutually supportive relationships a strong source of support for her leadership. She says, "I don't ever see myself as just working alone. I see myself as working on a team. I see an independent role, but also it's within the setting of an interdependent group."
Involvement in leadership places demands on teachers above and beyond their regular classroom responsibilities. For the most part, these teachers have found ways of making the use of their time more flexible. Three participants are classroom teachers. Maya and Anne have found creative ways to allow themselves the flexibility they need to engage in leadership roles. Maya enjoys mentoring student teachers, in part, because having a second adult in the room gives her additional, discretionary time. Anne has the assistance of a paraprofessional who helps with teaching. This gives Anne time to take on additional leadership roles. The remaining six participants have jobs which, by their very nature, offer flexibility.
Finally, these teachers feel they are heard. They feel their work counts, and they feel appreciated for their work at the district or building level. Ashley and Fran comment they appreciate it when their principal asks for and listens to their opinions. In Anne's case, she feels her voice gets heard, especially at the district level, because she is an Oriental woman, and others perceive her as representing a minority view.
Barriers within the educational context. Barriers to teacher leadership from within the educational context are considerable and sometimes seem overwhelming. Participants agree time looms as the greatest barrier to teacher leadership. However, they also perceive lack of support from teachers and administrators. Other barriers described are ill-defined or overly broad leadership roles and the physical layout of the building. I describe each of these barriers in somewhat greater detail in the following paragraphs.
Time is the greatest barrier to these teachers leadership. The barrier of time has multiple facets. There is simply too much to do and too little time in which to do it. Sonny's story will be familiar to anyone who tries to work with other teachers.
Frequently, multiple competing goals interfere with successful completion of a few key ones. The overall structure of schools impedes leadership, because it reinforces teachers' isolation. Classroom responsibilities limit available time for leadership endeavors. Participants feel desperately the need for time to work collegially, during the school day and during the school year. Mary Ellen describes some of her concerns, saying, 'We don't have the time during the day to be collegial or reflective. If time were available, I could provide mentoring for some of the young professionals in the building." As she says, teachers in most other countries do not have as much student contact time as teachers in the United States. Mary Ellen continues, "The rest of the time, they prepare intellectually around the topics and coach other teachers. All of the things we say we value, but our actions don't correspond. I thing leaders would emerge from that kind of environment."
Teacher leaders also perceive lack of support or involvement by other some of their colleagues. Participants feel a number of teachers resent them, their success, and their visibility. Lea's close working relationship with her former and current principals is resented by some of her colleagues. Mary Ellen senses jealousy because of the flexibility of her Title I job. She states, "Resentment... would come around the fact that my job, in itself, provides more flexibility than most jobs here in the building. And they don't like it, because they don't have that." However, relationships are important to these teacher leaders, who feel tense relationships with their peers sometimes makes them think about relinquishing certain leadership roles. Maya describes resentment of colleagues, as a result of her close working relationship with her principal. She states, ' Sometimes, you're seen as a person who has the ear of the principal... a teacher's pet kind of thing. And I think that plays a role in the perceptions of colleagues in the building." The high standards these teacher leaders hold for themselves and others exacts a toll, also. Mary Ellen explains, "When you have a high work standard, there are elements of jealousy that come in, because you get rewarded for what you've done and other people are envious of that."
Participants also see other teachers as being unwilling to take on leadership responsibilities. Jo, Mary Ellen, Fran, and Maya express concem that not enough teachers are interested in taking on leadership roles. They worry what will happen as today's teacher leaders retire. Fran wonders if perhaps present teacher leaders' willingness to lead enables others to disengage themselves from active involvement in leadership roles.
Although all feel strong support from their current principals, a number of participants have experienced barriers to leadership from former administrators. In some cases, administrators may have felt threatened by teachers in leadership roles. Fran worked for one principal who reprimanded her for not having him give his approval to special education staffing agendas. She felt discouraged and angry, because developing agendas was something she had done independently, with the support of her previous principal. Once, an administrator actively impeded Mary Ellen's leadership, by spreading false rumors about her. Other barriers erected by administrators include lack of access to information or resources. Mary Ellen has experienced instances when access to decision-making has been blocked by an administrator.
Sometimes, barriers erected by administrators have led participants to withdraw from leadership temporarily. As a result of bad experiences, participants have learned what they do not want to do as leaders, themselves. Sometimes, passive barriers exist, because administrators simply do nothing to support teacher leadership. In general, Mary Ellen does not see building level administrators fostering new leadership. As she says, "Principals may be overwhelmed. Or, perhaps. being able to foster leadership just wasn't part of the skill package when they were hired."
In certain cases, the nature of the leadership role serves as a barrier to teacher leadership. Poorly defined or overly broad roles limit the potential for success. As a literacy consultant in a school-university partnership, Madison began without a formal job description. As time went on, ever-increasing responsibilities led to stress and exhaustion. In one case, even the physical layout of the school is a barrier to leadership. Because of physical problems, Jo has difficulty getting around the five buildings that comprise Thayer Elementary.
Conditions Outside the Educational Context
Participants did not speak of as wide a variety of conditions outside the educational context as they did conditions within the educational context. However, factors they did mention were of critical importance. This was particularly true in terms of barriers to leadership stemming from sources outside the educational context.
Sources of support outside the educational context. The single most critical source of support for teacher leadership from outside the educational context was encouragement of family and friends. Several participants commented on encouragement received from their parents. Often, spouses and children have demonstrated support by taking on extra responsibilities, allowing participants freedom to keep demanding hours at work. Several participants recognized support from extended family or friends, as well.
Also mentioned briefly were support from media reports and support from parents of students. Ashley says her local newspaper influences community members' attitudes toward education. She appreciates it when the media recognize teachers' efforts to improve education for the community's students. Anne has similar feelings when parents of her students express appreciation for her work. When this happens, she feels encouraged to continue her efforts.
Barriers outside the educational context. Barriers from outside the educational context have significant impact on these teacher leaders. Barriers stem from several sources. The two most commonly mentioned barriers from conditions outside the educational context are: family and other commitments which compete with leadership roles and personal health problems. In three cases, participants' culture or religion do not value or encourage leadership roles. Several other barriers were also mentioned. I discuss these barriers in the following segments.
In all cases, teacher leaders note the difficult balance they must maintain between their commitments to work and their responsibilities to family. The needs of their families at any given time dictate the amount of physical and emotional energy they have available for leadership activities at work. At one time or another, every one has reduced work commitments to meet commitments in their pnvate lives. For instance, recently, Sonny was forced to move both parents into a nursing facility. He needed to reallocate his time so he could maximize his time with them and tend to their needs. Initially, Madison refused to apply for a position in the school-university partnership, because, at the time, she was a single parent and her daughter was in elementary school. Mary Ellen, speaking about her daughter's teenage years, declares. "I would have dropped the leadership activities in a heartbeat, if any of those things had not been working out."
Personal health issues are a very real impediment to leadership. With all participants in their forties or over, this is not surpnsing. Among the group, several have experienced serious health problems. As Fran says, a life-threatening illness forced her to reprioritize her life very quickly. Others expenence chronic pain and find the physical demands of leadership taxing. With bad hips and knees, Jo has difficulty getting around the school at times:
In three cases, cultural or religious values do not promote leadership behavior. Ashley comes from a Quaker background, Anne is an Oriental woman, and Maya is an Hispanic woman. As Ashley says, her religious background does not encourage leadership roles. Instead, her models have been for quiet, team membership. Anne's former husband never supported her working. Becoming a leader was even more threatening than taking a job, because of the way in which she was raised:
Though they are generally encouraging, Maya's parents warn her about spending too much energy on work outside the home. Their expectation is that she should be available to care for her children, her home, and her husband.
Participants describe several additional barriers from outside the educational context. One is the media. In Ashley's view, negative media reports about schools are far more common than positive ones. She gets discouraged when teachers' good work gets ignored, even in local newspaper reports. A second barrier relates to stereotypical perceptions of educators and schools by family and community members. At times, when working with non-educators, Mary Ellen has experienced bias about being female and being an educator. A final barrier was mentioned by Mary Ellen, who sits on a number of committees with non-educators. She has been disappointed at the limited number of positive leadership role models among non-educators.
Internal, psychological factors play pivotal roles in teacher leadership. On one hand, intrapersonal factors provide a teacher with the beliefs, value system, desire to learn and change, and confidence to support leadership. On the other hand, they can interfere with leadership when a teacher feels insecure, discouraged, frustrated, and unwilling to take necessary risks. As can external conditions within and outside the educational context, internal factors have powerful influence on a teacher's decision whether or not to lead.
Intrapersonal sources of support. Some of the strongest support for these teachers' leadership comes from within themselves. These teacher leaders hold strong personal convictions and values, enjoy challenges and change, and relish involvement in issues with potentially broad impact. A very important characteristic is their self-motivation. Generally, they are self-confident, feel appreciated, and like being treated as professionals. I discuss each of these factors in the following sections.
These teacher leaders are individuals with strong belief and value systems, which permit them to stop at nothing less than excellence. Fran says, "I have a very strong work ethic, and I am proud of the work I do. I'm conscientious. If I say I am going to commit to something, I do." Jo refers to her belief system in a spiritual sense:
These individuals are dedicated teachers, committed to helping make schools better places for students and teachers. They believe that through their efforts, they can make a difference. Madison says, "I guess there is this part of me that says maybe I can make a difference for children or for teachers in how they view what they're doing." Mary Ellen expresses this belief when she says, "If I do this small thing, that helps. Maybe if I do a bigger thing, that helps more." Contributing gives Sonny a feeling of personal power. He describes this in the following excerpt: "As long as you know you are making a difference, you are not just existing, as I call it."
These teacher leaders are learners and risk-takers. Mary Ellen says "unbridled curiosity" is a hallmark of those who get actively involved. Lea's statement represents a commonly held view among these teacher leaders.
Participants enjoy new challenges, and change does not threaten them. Madison laughingly states she has a "seven-year itch," which she says probably occurs every four years or so. Several of them were late coming to this realization. In fact, some of them look back on their former selves and see stagnation and burnout. Maya tells the story of her rejuvenation through leadership:
When new opportunities come along, these teacher leaders sense whether or not the time is right for them to get involved. Sometimes, conditions in their personal and professional lives are such that they feel able to contribute their time and energy. However, a key requirement seems to be a sense of connection with the task, the group, or even a particular set of ideas. Lea's statement mirrors those of others:
These teacher leaders want involvement in issues with potential for broad impact. Lea like working on school or district issues, because, as she says, when focused only on the classroom, you tend to be closed into your own little world and your own little problems." Madison feels she grows professionally when engages in leadership activities, stating, "Because you re exposed to so many other people's ideas you... grow in ways not possible when you stay in one building, one classroom, one grade level." These teacher leaders find it fascinating to participate in planning and decision- making for the school, district, and wider.
Most admit they really like to be in on the ground floor." because they get to learn what is going on for themselves, rather than being told second-hand. Ashley states her preference for broad-based issues:
In fact, many of these teacher leaders admit they prefer leading to following, at least when it comes to issues dear to them.
They find much of their motivation for leadership comes from within. Because they seldom receive accolades from others, intrinsic rewards must carry them through difficult periods. Mary Ellen's comments typify those of other participants:
They know they have expertise to share. They feel increasing self-confidence as one consequence of their past successes. Madison expresses this growth as follows:
Participants like feeling appreciated for their efforts, and, when it occurs, they view themselves as professionals. Lea gives one example:
Intrapersonal barriers to leadership. Unfortunately, intrapersonal barriers to leadership also exist. As Maya points out, she is her own worst enemy when it comes to getting involved. All have experienced internal struggles. At times, some have felt uncomfortable with leadership, in general, or one leadership role, in particular. They experience discouragement and frustration. They feel stress. Other internal barriers were mentioned, as well. These include: the feeling that they are unqualified to lead, desire to maintain the status quo, or even a desire to move on to new challenges.
One of the internal barriers to leadership for these teacher leaders is discomfort with leadership roles. Sometimes, they are uncomfortable with being the ''boss." At other times, they do not step forward or speak their minds, because they are worried about stepping on other teachers' toes. In several cases, this reluctance comes from early training and modeling not to lead. This occurred in both Anne's and Ashley s cases, in particular. Although Anne feels stronger than she used to be, she says she still tends to ' retreat." As she describes it, "I won't stand and fight to the death for anything. So some of that old personality is still there. The old fear. And maybe lack of confidence." Jo deals with sensitivity to criticism. Sonny tells of the barriers to leadership caused by his shyness:
At times, they experience discouragement and frustration. They often sense they are alone out in front. They perceive lack of support from others. They feel their work is not valued. Jo expresses her sense of sadness, disappointment, and frustration, as a result of ongoing tensions with colleagues and changes in district priorities. She senses her defeatism may have to do with her age or her career stage. As she notes, she is beginning to lose her enthusiasm for being a pioneer. At times, discouragement threatens to outweigh sources of support perceived by these teacher leaders.
Combined with feelings of discouragement are exhaustion and stress. When Madison began working as a consulting teacher in different elementary schools, she did not know how to set boundaries for herself. Because the district gave little direction, her stress level skyrocketed. Although she has improved in her ability to say no, often she feels overworked. Several describe generalized burnout that has occurred at one time or another during the course of their careers. When Maya realized how much she was dreading the start of each school year, she actually began researching other career possibilities. For years, Sonny experienced little enthusiasm for work and simply met minimal requirements of his job.
Participants described several additional impediments, as well. At times, some participants felt they lacked expertise. For a long time, Sonny did not think he had the qualifications to facilitate study and work groups or present to groups. Some, like Madison and Lea, were once reluctant to let go of comfortable routines. In a different vein, Madison described her need to be continually learning. When a role gets too comfortable, she wants to move on to new challenges.