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Supports and Barriers to Teacher Leadership: Reports of Teacher Leaders

author: Lynn F. Zinn
description: "While existing literature provides information about some of the conditions within the educational context that support or impede teacher leadership, it offers far more limited discussion of internal, intellectual and psycho-social factors and is nearly silent regarding conditions outside the educational context supporting or impeding teacher leadership. The purpose of this study, therefore, was develop a theoretical framework describing and categonzing key extemal and internal factors supporting and impeding teacher leadership. I began by categorizing sources of support and barriers within three distinct arenas: (a) conditions within the educational context; (b) conditions outside the educational context; and (c) intemal motivations. I used this categorization as basis for development of a theoretical framework."

Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association
Chicago, Illinois
March, 1997

Reproduced with permission from Lynn F. Zinn
Copyright 1997 Lynn F. Zinn
All Rights Reserved

published in: AERA (American Educational Research Association)
published: 1997
posted to site: 12/03/1998

Conclusions and Discussion

These case studies permitted categorization of key factors supporting and impeding teacher leadership and led to several conclusions based on these findings. I propose that supports and barriers to teacher leadership fall into the following four broad domains encompassing the major supports and barriers to teacher leadership: (a) people and interpersonal relationships; (b) institutional structures, (c) personal considerations and commitments; and (d) intellectual and psycho-social characteristics. These domains represent four themes describing the factors reported by these nine teacher leaders as supporting or impeding their leadership. I describe these as part of my discussion of the first conclusion. Concurrently, I reached four additional conclusions based on my increased understanding of key influences on teacher leadership. I came to understand that teacher leadership is a practical endeavor; therefore, language and descriptors in the categorization and the theoretical framework ought to reflect those used by these teacher leaders. For this reason, I grounded the language of both the categorization and the theoretical framework in the experiences of the participants and supported it with the language of existing theory, rather than the other way around. Also, supports and constraints perceived by these teacher leaders arise from all aspects of their lives, not simply from their professional lives. While the significance of personal contextual factors and internal intellectual and psycho-social characteristics has been largely ignored by earlier researchers, I saw these factors as important because of their importance to these participants. Therefore, I ensured that the theoretical framework reflected both teacher leaders' professional contexts and their non-school contexts and internal, intellectual and psycho-social factors, as well. In addition, individual factors can be both sources of support and barriers to teacher leadership. Frequently, a single factor which served as a support for teacher leadership in one situation existed as a barrier to leadership in another situation. Finally, teacher leaders have difficulty maintaining aufficient support to their leadership to offset barriers, and the balance between the various supports and constraints to teacher leadership shifts constantly. Combined supports must remain more influential than combined barriers, if teacher leaders are to continue in leadership. In the following subsections, I describe the four domains and the themes they represent and discuss the four additional conclusions.

Four Domains Representing Overarching Themes

In this section, I describe four domains I came to see as weaving throughout these teacher leaders' stories. Each domain encompasses both sources of support and barriers perceived by these teacher leaders and represents a key theme that weaved through participants' reports. The four domains and the themes they represent are as follows: (a) people and interpersonal relationships--people and interpersonal relationships are key influences on teacher leadership, both in terms of supporting that leadership and in terms of impeding it; (b) institutional structures--institutional factors within these teacher leaders' professional contexts affect leadership endeavors in both positive and negative ways; (c) personal considerations and commitments-leadership is but one part of teacher leaders' lives; and (d) intellectual and psycho-social characteristics-internal personality traits have powerful impact on teachers' interest and ability to engage in leadership endeavors. In the next sub-sections, I describe the messages for teacher leadership within each domain.

People and Interpersonal Relationships. This domain reminds us teacher leaders do not work in a vacuum. This domain represents a major theme underlying these teacher leaders' stories: interpersonal relationships are powerful influences, both positively and negatively, on teacher leadership. These teacher leaders confirmed the importance of interpersonal relationships by telling of many ways that people in both their work and personal environments affect their leadership. Attitudes and behaviors of others strongly influence teacher leadership, both positively or negatively. The success or failure of teacher leadership efforts depends in large part on the effectiveness of personal support systems, mutual respect and interdependency, team work, mentoring, and modeling. Katzenmeyer and Moller (1996) noted interpersonal relationships are key determinants of the success or failure of teacher leadership efforts. Donaldson and Marnik (1995) considered the impact of interpersonal relationships and incorporated them as one of the three major goal areas for participants in their Maine Academy for School Leaders. While a strong support network of' critical friends,' such as that described by Lieberman (1995), may be the backbone, mutually supportive working relationships with a broad base of colleagues are valuable in strengthening teacher leadership. Mutual interdependency, valued by participants, is based on truly collegial, rather than contrived or mandated, relationships (Hargreaves, 1994). Supportive interpersonal relationships also can include teacher leaderadministrator relationships. These teacher leaders described even stronger links between themselves and administrators, especially their principals, than do Blase and Blase (1994), for example. These teacher leaders reported collegial relationships with administrators often existed even at times when participants were not acting in leadership capacities. Mentoring and leadership models from peers or administration supported these teacher leaders, also.

On the other hand, people and interpersonal relationships can also impede teacher leadership. Schools continue to be bastions of egality. Teacher resentment and passive or active resistance to leadership from colleagues occurs when there is a perceived notion that one teacher has more influence or visibility than the norm These teacher leaders were concerned about teacher resentment. At times, their choices about leadership reflected their desire to maintain harmonious relationships with other teachers. Relationships with administrators were just as important as those with fellow teachers, and tense relationships with principals or other administrators impeded teacher leadership. Finally, even family members sometimes blocked teacher leadership through passive or active non- support. Other researchers have noted the influence of people and interpersonal relations on teacher leadership. Katzenmeyer and Moller (1996) wrote: "Maintaining effective relationships with colleagues can be more formidable than working with administrators. The egalitarian nature of teaching does not encourage a teacher to step out and take leadership roles" (p. 60). Teacher leadership effectively disrupts the status quo by inaugurating status differences, based on knowledge, skill, and initiative into a profession that has made no provisions for them" (Troen & Boles, 1994, p. 277). Principals, who were unaccustomed to sharing leadership or lacking in facilitative leadership skills themselves, became threatened by these teacher leaders, a factor noted also by Blase and Blase (1994) and Troen and Boles (1994). In Table 3 I present some of the main sources of support and barriers which fall within the domain of people and interpersonal relationships. I took the factors listed in this table, as well as those listed in the three subsequent tables, directly from the categorization completed earlier.

Table 3

People and Interpersonal Relationship

Supporting Factors Impeding Factors
Personal support systems ("critical friends")

Positive working relationship with principal and/or other administrators

Mentoring or modeling by respected colleagues

Mutual respect and interdependency of the staff

Encouragement of and support by family and friends

Resentment or tense relationships with other teachers

Lack of involvement or interest in leadership on the part of other teachers

Passive or active opposition by administrators

Family commitments

Spoken or unspoken disapproval by family or community members

Stereotypical or negative perceptions of teachers or women by family or friends

The message within the first domain, people and interpersonal relationships, is that other people's attitudes and actions influence teacher leadership in ways that either enhance leadership or diminish it. Teacher leaders and people in their environments must recognize the impact of interpersonal relationship and. if they wish to enhance teacher leadership, act in ways that consistently support that leadership.

Institutional Structures. The domain of institutional structures represents a second major theme relating to teacher leadership, reminding us formal and informal structures within the educational context can enhance and support teacher leadership or diminish and restrict teacher leadership. Institutional structures supportive of these teachers' leadership included, for example: opportunities for real leadership roles; training for carrying out those roles; a climate of collaboration and collegiality; and adequate resources to carry out leadership roles. These teacher leaders told of institutional structures such as job flexibility and opportunities to lead which were natural parts of their normal job responsibilities. In these teacher leaders' experience, structures were in place which anowed for, and even promoted, their professional growth. Both informal professional growth opportunities, resulting from work with informal networks, and formal ones were available on an ongoing basis. Recent literature substantiates the pivotal role played by supportive institutional structures. For example, Newmann (1993) found two underlying themes in schools where teacher empowerment and school restructuring were in progress: changes in the "professional lives of teachers" and changes in the ~ governance and management of schools" (p. 4). Both represent instances where institutional structures can affect teacher leadership.

In many cases, sources of support described by these teacher leaders were offset by formal and informal institutional structures impeding leadership, including two critical barriers: lack of time and isolating, restrictive, or stagnant institutional structures. Many of these teacher leaders told stories of written or unwritten institutional structures impeding their leadership either at present or in the past. One obvious form of institutional structures that restricts teacher leadership is the inflexibility of classroom teaching. As classroom teaching is presently conceived, a teacher has minimal opportunity to interact with colleagues, even on a superficial basis. Some of these teacher leaders had expenenced negative consequences when their leadership roles lacked clear role descriptions and guidelines. Restrictive institutional structures were described by Hargreaves (1994), Katzenmeyer and Moller (1996), Louis (1992), and Wasley (1992), for example. Another institutional structure, frequently unwritten, which persists is that teachers will be the recipients of top-down mandates and will have little input into those mandates (Troen & Boles, 1994). IIIdefined and overly broad definitions of leadership roles hamper teacher teachers from reaching their full potential (Wesley, 1991). Still other researchers, such as Yarger and Lee (1994), warned of the need to avoid managerial or quasi-administrative roles for teacher leaders. In Table 4, I display some of the key factors pertaining to institutional structures supporting or impeding teacher leadership. Again, I drew these factors from my final categorization.

Table 4

Institutional Structures

Supporting Factors Impeding Factors
Opportunities for authentic leadership roles and responsibilities

Ongoing opportunities for formal and informal leadership training

Climate of collaboration and collegiality

Provision of necessary resources (i.e. time, information, financing)

Insufficient time during the school day or year for collegial work

Lack of access to information or resources

Rigid definition of teachers' roles

Overly broad or ill-defined teacher leadership roles and responsibilities

Physical barriers

The message from the second domain, institutional structures, is that many written and unwritten structures within educational organization work for or against teacher leadership. These structures, which can include unwritten institutional norms and expectations as well as formal and informal policies and procedures, have considerable impact on teacher leadership. If educators wish to support teacher leadership, they must minimize structural barriers within the educational context and maximize existing structural factors that support teacher leadership.

Personal Considerations and Commitments. The theme represented by this domain is that leadership is just one part of teacher leaders' lives. One's family and other personal issues play pivotal roles in teacher leadership. These teacher leaders remind us of the need to recognize external contexts and conditions which influence all teachers, whether or not they are in leadership roles. These teacher leaders garnered support for their leadership endeavors from the important people in their personal lives. Families, especially, provide support in tangible ways. On the other hand, participants told of stressors in personal lives that have demanded their full attention and, consequently, required decreased engagement in leadership for a time. Once teachers' colleagues understand conditions within a teacher leader's personal contexts that are affecting work-related responsibilities, they can become more accepting of differing levels of commitment to work above and beyond minimum requirements of their jobs. Although intuitively it makes sense that conditions in one's personal life might affect a teacher's ability to engage in leadership, current literature on teacher leadership tends to ignore this cntical factor. The influence of personal context becomes clear, however, when one refers to literature on adult development and learning (Gilligan, 1982; Levine, 1989; Merriam & Caffarella, 1991) and teacher career stages (Fessler & Christensen, 1992). Again, I include a table highlighting some of the key influences on teacher leadership from this domain--personal considerations and commitments (Table 5).

Table 5

Personal Considerations and Commitments

Supporting Factors Impeding Factors
Support and encouragement of family members

Support and encouragement of friends

Family or other responsibilities which compete with leadership roles (i.e. crises, child rearing, single parenthood, aging or infirm parents, illness of one or more family members)

Personal health issues or concerns

Lack of family support for leadership effort

Cultural or religious values which discourage leadership

The message for teacher leadership from the third domain is that teachers are human beings who exist within a complex network of supporting and constraining factors both in their professional and in their personal lives. Educators who wish to support teacher leadership must recognize that sometimes either anticipated or unforeseen circumstances arise in teacher leaders' personal lives which necessitate reductions in time or energy spent on professional endeavors. If supported through difficult times, these professionals will be likely to return to leadership when they are able.

Intellectual and Psycho-social Characteristics. The fourth domain, intellectual and psycho-social characteristics, represents the final theme: individuals' intellectual and psycho-social characteristics are powerful influences on their willingness and ability to engage in leadership functions. These teacher leaders possess special qualities which make leadership a natural outlet. Key intellectual and psycho-social characteristics supporting their leadership include individuals' underlying belief and value systems, drive for excellence, and insatiable curiosity and need to know. In their model of teacher leadership, Yarger and Lee (1994) identified similar characteristics, including: willingness to take risks; willingness to be responsible for one's own actions. cognitive and affective flexibility, persistence and patience, an orientation toward working with adults; and a commitment to continuing professional growth. Supporting characteristics reported by these teacher leaders are offset by psycho-social characteristics which make leadership difficult or unrewarding, including: reticence, lack of self- confidence, stress, and burnout. Finding aufficient sources of support to outweigh these negative internal influences on leadership is a constant balancing act, at best. Fortunately, as these participants demonstrate, when external barriers seem greatest, their internal strengths come to the forefront. In Table 6, I include examples of supporting and impeding factors within the domain of intellectual and psycho-social characteristics.

Table 6

Intellectual and Psycho-social Characteristics

Supporting Factors Impeding Factors
Strong personal beliefs and values which demand excellence

Sense of obligation to get involved

Perception that one can make a difference in the lives of student and educators

Sense of connection with a set of ideas

Enjoyment of challenges and change; curiosity

Enjoyment of innovative or "big picture" issues

Intrinsically rewarded

Self-confidence which has developed over time and with leadership experience

Discomfort with leadership roles in general, or one role in particular

Feelings of discouragement or frustration

Feelings of exhaustion or burnout

Perception that one has insufficient expertise

Reluctance to let go of comfortable routines

The message from the fourth domain is that teacher leaders have substantial intellectual and psychosocial strengths which they bring to their leadership roles. On the other hand, they are human, and they also struggle with intrapersonal forces impeding their leadership. Increased self-understanding and interpersonal sensitivity, awareness, and support can help teacher leaders work through self-doubts and enhance selfassurance and feelings of efficacy, which will, in turn, enhance leadership.

These four domains and the themes they represent include both factors which support teacher leadership and factors which impede teacher leadership. Some of these factors are simple, visible, and easy to change. Others are complex, difficult to identify, and highly resistant to change. How educators choose to address those that are both easy to change and those that are difficult to change will have significant impact on teacher leadership. The remaining four conclusions are more general, relating in broad ways both to the theory and the practice of teacher leadership. Rather than sequencing them in order of importance, I have arranged them so that each new conclusion flows naturally from those discussed before.

Grounding Findings in Participants' Narratives

The stones these teacher leaders told were down-to-earth and personal. The stories themselves reflected these teacher leaders' practical orientation, so vocabulary used to tell their stones reflected this focus. For example, these teacher leaders spoke of actions taken by their colleagues to support them. They told of support received from family and friends. They described feelings of efficacy and increasing self-confidence which have come about as a result of involvement in leadership. As barriers to their leadership, for example, they described resentment of their efforts by colleagues and of obstructions set in place by some administrators. They also spoke of their feelings of responsibility to their families or of their own reluctance to alter comfortable routines as barriers to their leadership. They did not mention, as do other researchers for example, factors such as support for teacher leadership as a result of "national recommendations for professionalization of leaching" (Berry, 1995, Blase & Blase, 1994; Carnegie, 1986; Holmes Group, 1986; Maeroff 1994). Nor did they discuss, as barriers, factors like "pressure from teachers' unions to maintain the status quo," which is mentioned in existing research (Conley & Robles, 1995; Kowalski, 1994).

I elected to ground the language of the categorization and my proposed theoretical framework primarily in the language of participants, and the descriptors I included in the final framework do not include some of the broad ideas I had included in the a priori categorization of supports and barriers. I consciously attempted to portray a picture of supports and barriers to teacher leadership that would be realistic in the eyes of practitioners. I did not want to clutter that picture with factors that, although they may well be true, had no meaning for participants in this study.

I also grounded my work in the language of participants, because participants' stories elevated in importance both factors outside the educational context and internal, intellectual and psycho-social factors. I had incorporated all of the broad education-related factors that I had in the original version, the categorization and, ultimately, the theoretical framework would have overemphasized supports and barriers within that arena. Recognition of the importance of factors outside the educational context and intemal factors leads to the next major conclusion, which I discuss in the following section.

Significance of Personal Contexts and Internal Factors

Although participants mentioned many factors within the educational context that supported or impeded their leadership, they also related many stories describing influences from outside the educational context and intellectual and psycho-social influences on their leadership. As mentioned previously, because factors within these arenas were important to participants, I felt they were important to include in the final categonzation and framework. Especially in the case of barriers to leadership, participants in this study repeatedly emphasized factors unrelated to their professional contexts which influenced decisions about how to expend their energies in their professional roles. For example, when family pressures or personal problems, such as ill health, built up, they reprioritized use of their time. Repeatedly, these teacher leaders stressed that the emotional and physical health of their families has and will continue to take precedence over their taking on or continuing in leadership roles. For this reason, I chose to include strong references to personal contextual factors within both the categonzation and the framework. While other researchers (for example, Bredeson, 1995: Fay, 1991; Lieberman, Saxl, & Miles, 1988, Little, 1992; Wasley, 1991) have uncovered supporting and constraining factors within teacher leaders' professional contexts, they have not looked at factors outside teacher leaders' educational contexts. However, as noted earlier, factors from adults' personal contexts have been identified by researchers in the field of adult development and learning as influencing adult learning and development (Merriam & Caffarella, 1991, Merriam, 1993; Fessler & Christensen, 1992 Levine, 1989; Loughlin & Mott, 1992).

Internal, intellectual and psycho-social factors were also clearly evident throughout interviews with these teacher leaders. Participants reaped enjoyment and personal satisfaction from their leadership efforts, but their underlying belief systems and internal reward systems were equally important. As Mary Ellen described this, in the final analysis, she was her own greatest source of support. However as described previously, they struggled constantly to overcome obstacles within themselves. Internal, intellectual and psycho-social factors have been descnbed only to a limited degree in existing research (for example, Bennis, 1989; Cooper, 1993; Duke, 1994; Glickman, 1989; Goodwin, 1987; Lieberman, 1988a; Porter, 1986; Wasley, 1991), although, as mentioned previously, one relatively comprehensive description was proposed by Yarger and Lee (1994).

Factors within the educational context were important to these teacher leaders. However, factors outside the educational context and internal, intellectual and pyscho-social factors contnbute by providing a more complete and realistic picture of the complex network of supports and barriers perceived by these participants. Interestingly, l observed many similarities between factors that support and those that impede teacher leadership. This observation led to the next conclusion.

Mirroring of Supports and Barriers

Remarkable similarities exist between descriptors of supports and descriptors of barriers. In fact, as I continued to refine the categorization, I began to notice a kind of mirroring" from the support side of the matrix to the barrier side. I noticed certain factors supportive to one person or in one situation sometimes were reported as barriers in other situations or by other participants. For example, as mentioned earlier, time appeared as both a factor that bolstered teacher leadership, as well as one which impeded leadership. For those teacher leaders who had time for leadership functions built into their work days or who had some level of flexibility in their job descriptions, time to engage in leadership responsibilities was seen as sustaining their leadership. On the other hand, these teacher leaders seldom had sufficient time to completed allotted tasks, they did not have autonomy or flexibility in the use of their time, or they did not have time available when other teachers were also available. To give another example, families both supported and impeded these teachers' leadership. For instance, Maya's parents supported her leadership work at the same time as they reminded her of her primary responsibility to her husband and children. To give an example within the arena of ' internal factors," increased self-confidence as a result of successful leadership experiences encouraged these teacher leaders to expand their horizons in terms of leadership, but a number of them continue to struggle with self-esteem and self-confidence issues to the present. These are but a few of the many instances when factors appeared as both sources of support for and as barriers to teacher leadership. Other researchers studying teacher leadership have noticed this apparent contradiction (for example, Lieberrnan, 1988b. Wasley, 1991). Wasley (1991) described this paradox clearly:

Constraining factors hampered (teacher leaders') ability to improve instruction and to meet the goals of the leadership positions. Supporting factors enabled them to engage in collaborative relationships and to recognize the gains they did make. Ironically, in almost all cases, those conditions that provided support also were constraints. The provision of time and the lack of it is a case in point. Teacher leaders were given time to work with their colleagues - a tremendous support - but also agreed that the time allocated was inadequate... Collaboration provides another example. The teacher leaders loved the opportunity to collaborate with others, and yet felt lonely as their roles separated them from their colleagues. (p. 136-137)

Factors that support or constrain teacher leadership are prevalent in all aspects of teacher leaders' lives, and supporting factors are often mirrored in the list of constraining factors. It makes sense that teacher leaders would elect to engage in leadership functions only when sources of support outweigh barriers. Consideration of the relative strengths of supports and barriers led me to a final conclusion, which I discuss in the following section.

Counterbalancing Obstacles to Teacher Leadership

The final conclusion has to do with the combined forces supporting and impeding teacher leadership. Teacher leaders in this study help us understand the realities of teacher leadership. One critical reality is that the balance between factors supporting teacher leadership and those impeding that leadership is fragile. Teachers' willingness to engage in leadership rests on having aufficient support to offset constraints. Teacher leadership is not simply a matter of desinng leadership responsibilities and having them occur. Far too many institutional and other barriers exist. Neither does teacher leadership result simply from a district's mandates or a building administrator's expressions of support. Institutional support for teacher leadership cannot offset the many unwritten. unspoken barriers which exist in educational contexts, not to mention personal contexts or internal, intellectual or psycho-social factors. Even if teachers are strongly motivated and institutional supports are in place, teacher leaders may not succeed. Conditions entirely unrelated to the educational context and beyond the individual's or organization s control can interfere, suddenly and without warning. Other researchers, such as Wasley (1991), described the balance which must occur between factors which support and those which impede teacher leadership. Unfortunately, adjusting factors to maintain aufficient support to encourage teacher leadership is not always within the teacher leader's purview.

This delicate balance is probably best described by McCluskey's power-load-margin formula (as described in Main, 1979). In McCluskey's model, power -'consists of the 'resources' that a person can command in coping with load. Power consists of two sets of interacting variables': (a) external' resources such as physical health, social contacts, economic wealth, etc., and (b) 'internal' acquired skills and life experiences such as resiliency, coping skills, etc." (Main, 1979). Load, on the other hand represents the ' 'demands' made on a person by self and society.... [and] consists of two groups of interacting variables: (a) external'--the tasks involved in the usual requirements of living, [such as] family. work, [and] civic responsibilities... and (b) internal --the life expectancies set by the individual himself, [such as] selftolerance. goals, ideals, [and] values" (p. 22). Margin has to do with the balance of power and load. If a person's power sufficiently exceeds his or her load, then, as McCluskey saw it, that adult had: (a) necessary reserves of power to learn, and (b) sufficient reserves to meet unanticipated crises. As Main (1979) described the concept, if load exceeds power. a crisis can be expected. If load and power are approximately of equal strength. the individual will be 'hanging in there--barely." If. however, power aufficiently exceeds load, the individual will have ' space within which to maneuver."

McCluskey's notion of power, load, and margin, although originally used to describe adults' capacity for learning, has direct implications for teacher leadership. When these teacher leaders experienced combinations of factors supporting teacher leadership outweighing barriers, they were encouraged to engage in leadership functions. They were motivated, enthusiastic, and confident of their personal efficacy. However, when combined barriers outweighed supports, teachers were likely decline to take on leadership roles or withdraw from leadership activities in progress. These teacher leaders became discouraged, overwhelmed, and doubtful of their ability to lead effectively.

If individual factors acting as supports or barriers were easy to identify, offsetting barriers with aufficient supports would be considerably easier than it is. However, in reality, both supports and barriers change constantly, many are intangible, and most are difficult or impossible to measure accurately. Also, individual teacher leaders are likely to vary in their sensitivity to a given support or barrier, so they would react differently to those factors. Because managing supporting and conskaining factors is like "hitting a moving target," probably the best educators can do is maximize supportive factors and minimize impediments and then hope they have made enough of a difference to support teacher leadership overall.

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