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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

Limitations of the Study

This study has several limitations affect the credibility of the research. These limitations relate to: (a) trustworthiness of interview data. (b) the relatively small sample size and restricted nature of the population studied; and (c) generalizability of qualitative research. As I discuss each in turn, I report on ways in which I attempted to minimize each limitation's potentially negative effect on the credibility of the research.

The first possible limitation to the credibility of this study has to do with the nature of interview data. Three major problems with these interview data exist. First, bias exists on the part of participants and the researcher. I based my analyses on interviews, and statements by interviewees are colored by their biases. My subsequent analyses of interview data compounded the problem, by adding a second layer of bias. I attempted to minimize distortions by offering participants the opportunity to read and react to key segments of analysisrelating to their own interviews. The second problem with interview data has to do with the retrospective nature of these interviews. Data informing this study were based in large part on participants' recollection of past events, but memories of earlier events and motivations are always distorted by the passage of time. To counteract this problem, I asked participants to review and correct their own interview transcripts, and I interviewed each participant at least twice. A final potential difficulty with interview data relates to the truthfulness of participant responses. Analyses of data were based on that which participants said was true. I attempted no investigation of the truth value of participants' narratives. However, by interviewing nine teacher leaders, each more than once, I feel I would have been able to pick up on any obvious aberrations in their stories.

A second limitation of the study is the relatively small sample size and restricted nature of the population studied. I made no attempt to ensure diversity among study participants, selected participants based on peer nomination. However, I selected potential school sites only after they had been recommended by two or more central of fice administrators polled independent of one another, and I selected participants based solely on weighted nominations of their colleagues. Thus, I did not contrive to alter the sample as it was presented to me. Possible problems with the sample, such as inclusion of only highly experienced teacher leaders, inclusion of only one male in the study group, or concentrating solely on elementary school teachers, are a direct and natural result of narrowing the focus of the study and conducting an interview-based, qualitative study around these nine teacher leaders.

A final limitation of the study relates to qualitative research in general. Because findings of qualitative research are not typically generalizable to a larger population, one cannot assume findings from this research may be transferrable to a larger population. I took a number of steps to counteract this limitation. First, I made an effort to include teacher leaders from three separate school districts. Second, I used a multiple-stage, case-study design building in both literal and theoretical replication to increase the level of credibility of findings (Yin, 1991). Third, I undertook multiple forms of data analyses to increase the study's credibility (Mishler, 1995). For example, I analyzed data in two ways--narrative analysis and analyses of narratives (Polkinghorne, 1995). In conclusion, while I recognize limitations of this study, I took active steps to counteract those limitations, thereby strengthening the credibility of the research.

Implications for Research

In this study, I synthesized analyses of interview data and existing research into a categorization and theoretical framework describing key factors supporting and impeding teacher leadership. Further research needs to be conducted in order to: (a) test the generalizability to broader or larger populations of teacher leaders, and (b) assess the validity of the theoretical framework and other conclusions.

Researchers need to test the generalizability of these findings by including different populations of teacher leaders and by enlarging the population studied . First, the categorization, theoretical framework, and remaining conclusions must be tested with different populations of teacher leaders to further refine this organizing scheme for describing supports and barriers to teacher leadership. Teacher leaders at different levels, such as middle or junior high school and high school levels, or those with less experience may offer different perspectives. Subsequent research also needs to include perspectives of more males. Finally, more diverse populations may yield different results. Next, the categorization, the framework, and other conclusions need to be tested with larger populations of teacher leaders. Quantitative studies should be useful in extending this research using larger samples.

Content validity of the categorization and major conclusions should be tested through further research. First, testing of the categorization needs to occur. Individual descriptors may require revision based on findings from research on other populations. Once the categorization has been tested for completeness and accuracy, research can talce place relating to content validity of the proposed theoretical framework. Such mav prove valuable to determine if, in fact, these domains encompass all key supports and barriers to teacher leadership. The other mayor conclusions may be tested, as well. By conducting additional research with different populations and different research methodologies and by testing the content validity of findings and conclusions, further research could enhance and extend this study. The study has implications for practice as well. I discuss these in the following section.

Implications for Practice

This study has several implications for teacher leadership in schools. First, information from this study might help formal leaders foster potential teacher leaders. School pnncipals and other administrators are overburdened, partly as a result of shrinking financial and human resources and partly because of demands placed on them from their superiors. Many current teacher leaders are nearing retirement age. Therefore, we must encourage the development of a new generation of teacher leaders. Formal leaders can better nurture teacher leadership through deeper understanding of motivations and support systems of existing teacher leaders, as well as recognition of barriers which they face. Second, at a time when attracting and retaining quality teachers is difficult, this study may provide formal leaders with suggestions for attractive roles for teachers which allow teachers greater autonomy and influence. If formal leaders were to understand more about factors that influence teacher leadership, they would be in better positions to: (a) provide appropriate vehicles for teacher leadership; (b) avoid placing teachers in leadership roles that are likely to meet substantial resistance; and (c) creatively alter existing institutional structures (such as use of time) to allow teachers wishing to remain in classroom positions to engage more readily in leadership functions. Third, these findings serve to remind educators of the importance of recognizing and honoring competing commitments which force teachers to lessen their commitment to school-wide or district-wide improvement efforts. By offering teachers diverse options which allow for varying levels of commitment to school-wide or district-wide initiatives, formal leaders can demonstrate that, not only do they value teachers' expertise, but they understand that each individual teacher has many competing priorities in his or her life.

Fourth, and finally, educators could use either the categorization or the theoretical framework of four domains as tools for organizing self-studies prior to effecting changes. In order to maximize success of teacher leaders in their own schools, staffs could: (a) provide for interpersonal support systems; (b) identify and adjust contextual supports and barriers; (c) recognize and validate personal contextual factors; and (d) nurture personal intellectual and psycho-social factors that provide support and recognize internal factors making a teacher disinclined toward leadership. Practitioners might wish to ask questions allowing them to compare their present realities to their desired futures. Using a framework, such as the one I have just presented, they might then take action with the express purpose of enhancing supports to teacher leadership and reducing, as much as possible, existing barriers to that leadership.

Closing Observations

In this study, I explored perceptions of nine elementary school teacher leaders as to supports and barriers to their leadership. Based on my data and supported by existing research, I developed a theoretical framework represented by four domains encompassing both sources of support and bamers to teacher leadership. The four overarching domains and their related themes 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--intemal personality traits have powerful impact on teachers' interest and ability to engage in leadership endeavors. I suggested four additional conclusions which relate both to the categonzation used to develop the framework and the framework, itself. First, teacher leadership is a practical endeavor, so language used in the theoretical framework should reflect language used by teacher leaders. Second, supports and constraints perceived by these teacher leaders arise from all facets of their lives, so the theoretical framework needs to reflect supports and barriers from all three arenas: conditions within the educational context; conditions outside the educational context; and internal, intellectual and psycho-social factors. Third, individual factors can be both sources of support and barriers in different situations, at different times, or for different individuals. Finally, maintaining aufficient supports to offset barriers is essential.

Barth (1988b) believed schools should be places where there are many leaders. He compared schools to flocks of geese in V-formation. In schools, as with geese, group members need to rotate leadership, so that no one person bears the brunt of leadership. Sirotnik (1995) added a cynical note to this image. In Sirotnik's version, the lead goose "has smashed against the spire of a tall building... The caption reads: 'The hazards of leadership."' (p. 239) I would contribute yet another image. In my visualization, I propose including a number of geese in the flock who are aiming slingshots at the lead goose. Also, I would envision the lead goose s family crying out for help from below. This is the downside of teacher leadership.

However, it would be unfair to conclude on such a negative note. These teacher leaders have in common strength of values and desire to impact students education in positive ways. Overall, the teacher leaders in this study relish their involvement in leadership. They revel in leadership's challenges. They actively seek opportunities for professional growth which come with leadership. In general, they perceive support from fellow teachers and administrators, as well as from family and friends. Although these teacher leaders all have experienced times in their careers when barriers seemed overwhelming, during these penods, they have relied on the strength of their belief systems. their desire for excellence, and sense of obligation to contribute to sustain them. Aside from internal factors supporting them through adverse circumstances, they have received substantial support from other people, especially close networks of' "critical friends" and principals or other administrators with whom they worked. In addition, they have received support from institutional structures promoting teacher leadership, including leadership opportunities, training programs, and flexible scheduling. These teacher leaders have been successful in counterbalancing the barriers to leadership with factors supporting teacher leadership.

This study brings to light some of the day-to-day realities of teacher leadership. By highlighting conditions enhancing and obstructing teacher leadership, I hope to support teacher leadership. I hope these teacher leaders' voices will encourage school personnel to recognize and enhance supportive conditions, while they work to diminish obstructing ones. Administrators especially have powerful roles to play in the future of teacher leadership. Teacher leadership has tremendous potential to change the look of schools. All educators can contribute to realizing this potential. They can begin by increasing their understanding of factors which support or impede leadership in practicing teacher leaders. Researchers and practitioners still have much to learn about teacher leadership. More research must be conducted to understand the interplay of factors that support or impede teacher leadership. Although understanding of factors affecting teacher leadership is growing, in practice, educators have much to learn about providing support for teachers engaging in leadership functions.

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