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Teacher Leadership: Ideology and Practice

author: A. Lieberman, E. R. Saxl, M. B. Miles
description: This article, based on their research with successful teacher leaders, describes their work and the dynamics of their interactions in an attempt to begin to understand these new roles for teachers and how teachers-leaders can help other teachers. They argue that being a teacher-leader is not only the accumulation of a certain set of skills, "but a way of thinking and acting that is sensitive to teachers, to teaching, and to the school culture."

Reprinted by permission of the publisher for Lieberman, A. (Ed.), BUILDING A PROFESSIONAL CULTURE IN SCHOOLS (New York: Teachers College Press, ©1988 by Teachers College, Columbia University. All rights reserved.), pp. 148-166.

published in: from "Building a Professional Culture in Schools," Teachers College
published: 1988
posted to site: 12/17/1998

The "second wave" of school reform has been characterized by much talk of restructuring schools and professionalizing teaching. Commission reports from business, education, and statewide policy groups are calling for major changes in the ways schools go about their work and the ways teachers are involved in their decision-making structure (Darling-Hammond, 1987). There is clearly an attempt to change the organizational culture of schools from one that fosters privatism and adversarial relationships between and among teachers and principals to one that encourages collegiality and commitment (Lieberman & Miller, 1984; Little, 1986; Lortie, 1975; Rosenholtz, in press). On the political level, some states and school districts are creating new roles and new structures in an attempt to change the social relations of the people who do the work at the school level. The leap from report to reality, however, is a difficult one, for there are few precedents, few models, and no guidelines. We are literally learning by doing. What is needed, then, is a beginning description of this work and some understanding of the people involved–what they know and do, what the dynamics of their interactions look like–as these new forms come into being. What are these new structures? What can we learn about the meaning of these new roles for teachers? What is teacher leadership? What actually happens when teacher-leaders help other teachers? Our purpose here is to understand some of these new roles and begin to answer some of the questions now being raised as we look at a particular group of successful teacher-leaders in a major metropolitan area. We consciously use the term teacher-leaders to suggest that there is not only a set of skills that are teacherlike, but a way of thinking and acting that is sensitive to teachers, to teaching, and to the school culture.


From 1983 to 1985 we had a unique opportunity to study 17 former teachers who played leadership roles in a variety of schools in a large eastern city (see Miles, Saxl, & Lieberman, in press). (We have continued to work with some of them for an additional two years.) Within that time, we were able to collect a great deal of information about who these people were, what they had learned in their new roles, what they did in the context of their school, and even, in their own words, their view of being teacher-leaders. The 17 teacher-leaders worked in three different programs, and all were considered successful in the work they did within their schools. The criteria for success varied, depending on the context, all the way from creating a healthy climate, to making organizational change, to raising achievement scores.

The programs represented three different approaches to working with school people. The first was based on the "effective schools research," the second had as its major strategy the formation of a large school site committee with a broad constituent group, and the third utilized an organic approach to working with teachers on a one-to-one as well as a group basis–providing support and expanded leadership roles for teachers. Despite the differences in strategy, we looked to see if there was a core of skills that was common to these people in their roles as teacher-leaders. (Skills to us meant knowing how to do something rather than knowing that something was appropriate to do. Our focus was on the capabilities of these people to activate strategies for change.) We reasoned that, as leaders, these people had to have or develop both process and content skills and that they had to be able to adapt to different contexts and different situations. It is important to note that although these people were very experienced, they learned from both their new role and the context of their particular program.

First, it was necessary to separate out what these teacher-leaders knew when they came to the job from what they had learned while on the job. This gave us not only a sense of the possible criteria that were used in choosing these leaders, but what their new [earnings had been as they worked to create these new roles and structures. Ultimately, we were looking for what skills would be teachable to new teacher-leaders in the future.

Entry Characteristics

We found that these leaders had a broad range of skills, abilities, and experience, which included teaching children at several grade levels as well as adults. They were truly "master teachers." In addition, many had been involved in curriculum development in the past, as well as having held positions that enabled them to teach new curriculum to others. Their enthusiasm for learning was made manifest by an impressive array of academic pursuits and accomplishments. They held many academic degrees, as well as having attended a broad spectrum of courses, conferences, and workshops on topics as diverse as conflict resolution, teacher effectiveness, and adult development. They came to their work knowledgeable about schools, the change process, and how to work with adults. Most had held positions in which they had gained experience in administrative and organizational skills and had learned something about the complexity of school cultures. They were knowledgeable about community concerns as well as schools, some having served as school board members, community organizers, and in a variety of support positions in schools.

These leaders were risktakers, willing to promote new ideas that might seem difficult or threatening to their colleagues. Their interpersonal skills–they knew how to be strong, yet caring and compassionate–helped them legitimate their positions in their schools amidst often hostile and resistant staffs.

On-the-Job Learning

In spite of this impressive array of skills and abilities, it was significant that these leaders had so much to learn to cope with their new positions. Where before, working in a variety of roles, they had been sensitive to individual personalities and perspectives, now they had to be aware of the interests of teachers, principals, and the community as a whole. These new conditions made it necessary for them to seek new ways of working, which, in turn, led them to find new sets of learnings. They found that what had worked in more narrowly defined positions would not work in the pursuit of a larger, common vision.

Learning about the school culture. Without exception, these leaders learned about the school culture as if it were a new experience for them. They saw how isolated teachers were in their classrooms and what this isolation did to them. They realized how hard it would be to create a structure to involve them, to build trust within the staff, and to cut through the dailiness of their work lives. They were confronted with the egalitarian ethic held by most teachers–the belief that teachers are all alike, differing only in length of service, age, grade level, or subject matter, rather than function, skill, advanced knowledge, role, or responsibility (Lortie, 1975). They saw that, while some principals understood the need for teacher involvement in their own growth and for allocating time during the school day for reflection and adult interaction, other principals pressed for "outcomes"– with or without a structure or process for teachers to learn being in place. In some schools, they saw literally no one supporting anyone. It came as no surprise then that some of these leaders said that the school climate and the administrator's style were the two most critical components of the school culture.

New skills and abilities. All of these leaders learned a variety of techniques for gaining acceptance by teachers and principals. They learned to break into the everyday activities and provide hands-on experiences to get teachers interested. They provided new environments and activities in which people could communicate with one another and learned how to facilitate both group and individual learning and involvement. They learned to be part of the system, but not get co-opted by it–a difficult but essential ability. They struggled with the collegial/expert dichotomy, one that clearly contradicts the egalitarian ethic that was being disrupted. In working with adults, they tried hard to listen more and suggest less and to resist jumping in with too many solutions. In spite of a high self-regard, several reported that they had not realized how much they did not know (Goodwill & Lieberman, 1986).

These new leadership roles tend to expose the powerful infantalizing effects on teachers of the existing structure of most schools. It is not that no one is in charge, or that people are inherently distrustful, but that the structure itself makes it difficult for adults to behave as adults. Rather than work collectively on their problems, everyone must struggle alone. This ubiquitous isolation dramatizes what "restructuring schools" means. New organizational forms enabling people to work together are certainly necessary, but in order for them to be established, the teachers must be organized, mobilized, led, and nurtured, with the principal's support, participation, and concern and the support and concern of all who share in the life of the school.

Self-learning. In addition to the techniques, skills, abilities, and new understandings that these leaders learned in their schools, they strongly expressed the feeling that they had learned a great deal about themselves as well. Many spoke of a new confidence that they felt in their own abilities. Some thought that they had acquired a more complex view of how to work with people. One said, "I can't believe I have learned to motivate, to lead, to inspire, to encourage, to support, and yes, even to manipulate." Assuming leadership in schools, then, may provide the means for greatly expanding one's own repertoire. Providing and facilitating for other people in the school offers opportunities for learning how to work with others, how to channel one's time, how to develop one's own abilities–to stretch both intellectually and personally.

It is paradoxical that, although teachers spend most of their time facilitating for student learning, they themselves have few people facilitating for them and understanding their needs to be recognized, encouraged, helped, supported, and engaged in professional learning. Perhaps this is what we mean by "professionalizing" teaching and "restructuring the work environment" of teachers. Maybe the opportunities for participating in the leadership of schools, and the structures created as a result, are the means to break the isolation of teachers and engage them in collective efforts to deal with what surely are large and complex problems.


Researchers have found the building of collegiality to be essential to the creation of a more professional culture in schools (Little, 1986; Rosenholtz, in press). They have also documented that norms of collaboration are built through the interactions created by the principal's facilitation of collegial work. In Little's now-classic study, she describes how these norms were built as daily routines of isolation were replaced by talking, critiquing, and working together. In Rosenholtz's study, schools were differentiated as being of two kinds–"collaborative" or "isolated." In "collaborative settings" teachers perceived the principal to be supportive, concerned with treating any problems as collective schoolwide opportunities for learning; in "isolated settings" teachers and principals were alienated, with teachers feeling that any requests they made threatened the Principal's feelings of self-esteem.

Since our study focused on the introduction of a new role that expanded the structure of leadership in a school, we were looking for the kinds of skills, abilities, and approaches that these leaders utilized in building collegiality in schools. In our search to understand how these teacher-leaders worked, we created sets of clusters, each cluster representing different skills, abilities, and approaches to building collegiality among the faculty. Although their contexts and styles were different, the similarity of the ways these leaders worked has added to our understanding of the complexities involved in changing a school culture when the leadership team is expanded beyond the principal.

The clusters were drawn from 18 different skills that were manifested by these leaders (Saxl, Miles, & Lieberman, in press). They include:

Building trust and rapport
Organizational diagnosis
Dealing with the process
Using resources
Managing the work
Building skill and confidence in others

Building Trust and Rapport

A very important cluster, this set of skills appears early in the development of the work of all teacher-leaders. We found that these leaders did a variety of things to gain the trust of the people in their buildings and that, even when the person was previously known to all the teachers, the same kind of work was still necessary. Because these leaders, in every case, did not have a teaching load, they were immediately suspect: "How come this person doesn't have a class load like me? What are they supposed to be doing anyhow?" Thus the first problem to be faced was how to clarify the expectations of their role for the teachers in the school.

To begin with, the leaders had to figure out for themselves what they could realistically do in the school. Then, they tried to explain to the teachers what they were going to do, describing in a broad way why they were there and what might be the effects of their work. In some ways, perhaps, it is like the beginning of school, where the students want to know what kind of teacher this is, what will be expected of them, and what will go on in the classroom. The relationship here is similar, in that these expectations are negotiated over time, but different, in that the adult culture in schools is not kind to newcomers, especially those of their own rank. The image and the reality of a new role (a teacher without a class) is not the norm, and it is often easier to use a new person as the source of one's frustrations rather than to accept her or him as a helper, go-between, or leader of a different kind.

Just as in the teacher/class relationship, the leader must come to be seen by the teachers as legitimate and credible. They try to accomplish this by finding various ways to demonstrate their expertise and value to the teachers. For some, it is giving a make-or-break workshop–one that they know will either give them immediate credibility if it is successful or set them back for months if it fails. For others, it means becoming a "gofer" and providing resources: going to the library, bringing new materials, keeping the coffee pot going and the cookie jar filled. Somehow they have to do enough to show the staff that they are "good"–experts and helpers, important enough to belong in "their" school. It is at this point that these leaders must learn to deal with addressing resistance, for they are coming into a social system with well-developed formal and informal ties. Sometimes this resistance is based on old disappointments and unfulfilled promises from past years. Other times a newcomer takes the brunt of all kinds of existing tensions in a school, caused by everything from lack of adequate communication to complaints about space, resources, time, and so forth.

Engaging in open supportive communication is part of building trust. These leaders found ways of working with teachers and proving to them that they were capable of being open without betraying trust–that they were there for the staff in a helping, nonevaluative way. As they worked with the teachers, they began to build a support group, people who came to see that they could work together, struggle collectively, and feel comfortable working as a group rather than alone. For many leaders this meant finding teachers who could be experts in their own right, teachers who could teach other teachers things that they had learned. In the process of facilitating for others, the leaders began to develop shared influence and shared leadership. The idea that there are problems common to teachers and problems in a school that can be addressed collectively began to take hold, and teacher-leaders began to build a set of productive working relationships.

The abilities mentioned above appear to be necessary to the building of trust and rapport, which are the foundation for building collegiality in a school. Regardless of the size or complexity of the school, the age or experience of the staff, or the differences in the programmatic thrust, the same kinds of skills were used to legitimate the leadership role.

Organizational Diagnosis

This set of skills–an understanding of the school culture and the ability to diagnose it–is crucial if a leader is to have the basis for knowing how and where to intervene to mobilize people to take action and begin to work together. Leaders did this in very different ways. Some people had an intuitive awareness of the formal and informal relationships in a school, while others consciously worked out strategies to help them collect data to help them better understand the school social system.

Depending on the specifics of the program, the methods of collection ranged from a formal needs assessment that asked teachers what they would find useful, to an informal collection of information about the principal, curriculum, resources, and so on. However it was accomplished, some initial data collection gave teacher-leaders a beginning awareness of the school environment. All were involved in picking up cues from staff, bulletin boards, teachers rooms, principals, parents–anyone who could provide information.

In the beginning . . . I had to overcome my own personality--the tendency to move too quickly and speak out.

When you are a teacher, you only know your classroom problems. Now I look at the whole system.... When I was in the classroom, I controlled it; the higher you go, the less control you have.

As we can see, collecting information while being conscious of one's self within the larger system was a strategic part of the teacher-leaders' way of working. Either as an insider or as one who came to a school with a leadership role, these people came to form some kind of a conceptual scheme in their minds–a map of what the school looked like, who one might work with, where the trouble spots were, who was open to thinking about working on schoolwide problems. As they collected information about the school by being there, hanging around, talking to people, and so on, they began to get enough information to make a diagnosis.

If action and change were what their diagnosis called for, these leaders had to find ways to engage key school people with their observations, to share the diagnosis with them to see if it was theirs well. This series of steps, not always consciously thought out, formed the basis for action plans for the school. We begin to see a process: understanding the school, collecting information about the people and how they work, constructing a valid picture of the organization, sharing the picture with others and planning a strategy for action

Dealing with the Process

Critical to the work of teacher-leaders were their understanding of and skill in managing the change process. Since this meant, among other things, promoting collaborative relationships in schools where people had little experience in working together, it involved the use of conflict mediation and confrontation skills. They soon learned from the realities of their work that, when one tries to get people to work together where they have previously worked alone, conflicts arise, and that their job was to find the means to deal with them. As they worked in their schools, building and modeling collaborative work, they were called upon to weave their way through the strands of the school culture. This involved many types of interactions with teachers, staff members, and administrators.

The relations with the principal varied according to the style of the principal and the structures for collaboration that were being created. When the structure called for working as a team and the principal had been used to working alone, the teacher-leader had to show the principal the benefits to the school of shared decision making. Where a teacher center had been created, the principal had to learn to give support for teachers to work independently without feeling that the existence of this room threatened her or his perceived role as "instructional leader." The tact, skill, and understanding of the teacher-leader was crucial to the involvement of the principal in supporting these new modes of collaboration.

Sometimes the school was in conflict from the start: "The first mission was to bring teachers together to talk to each other. There was a general distrust of the administration by the teachers." Sometimes the job entailed helping the faculty work through conflicts. "At committee meetings, many conflicts come up. He helps us talk them out.... We ventilate and direct our energy in a specific way."

Collaboration does not come as a natural consequence of working in a school. It must be taught, learned, nurtured, and supported until it replaces working privately. There were times when these teacher-leaders were the ones who had to confront negative information and give feedback where it was appropriate. Where conflicts appeared as a result of personal incompatibilities or differing interests, their job was not merely to smooth them over, as had often been the case in the past, but to find areas of agreement based on a larger view of the school and its problems.

They worked hard to solve these problems by making decisions collaboratively. This was a key skill: Who will do what, how will we do it, when will we make it happen, and how will we come to agree? They found that it took more than a vote to build consensus. It was always necessary to be alert to discontent and to practice and work on being open, communicating together, and finding ways to bring people, as individuals, to think of themselves as part of the group with group concerns.

Using Resources

The fourth cluster of skills involved the use of resources. This refers to people, ideas, materials, and equipment–all part of the school, but often not utilized in the pursuit of collective goals. The teacher-leaders found themselves engaged in providing material things for teachers that helped to link them to the outside world.

I'm a reader. I need follow-up materials from the literature to find out about good ideas.

They needed a lot of resources.

I would attend conventions, day and weekend seminars and collect handouts.

I keep on tops of things. What texts are good?

They did workshops for teachers, demonstrated techniques, and provided follow-up. They also looked inside the school to plug people in to what was already there and, where appropriate, to link people together.

In the process of finding resources and using existing staff to help, these teacher-leaders also began to build a resource network, which included developing active linkages between teachers and other members of the school community. It was not just knowing where or who to go to for help, but choosing the right person or right thing at the right time. Matching local needs and capabilities became the key skill.

Finally, it was necessary to help people make good use of the resources. Just getting the "stuff' there was not enough. The leaders had to perform a brokerage function and then follow-up to see that the resources were being used. As we observed, this cluster of skills is part of a complicated process: from finding people and materials, both inside and outside the school, to building networks with these resources, to seeing that whoever, whatever, and wherever they were, they were available and utilized.

Managing the Work

The teacher-leaders worked hard to maintain a balance between the process of getting people to work on collective problems and providing the content or substance around which they worked. Managing this work required a subtle blend of skills, including managing time, setting priorities for work, delegating tasks and authority, taking initiative, monitoring progress, and coordinating the many strands of work taking place in their schools. (It should be noted that these leaders differed in the amount of time they spent in a school. Some spent four days a week in one school, while others spent one day a week in four schools.)

Administrative/organizational skills, although part of their qualifications, were far more complex in these roles than the teacher-leaders had faced before. Time was a persistent problem. How much time does one spend with people having difficulties, or getting resources, or making arrangements for workshops, or demonstrating, or troubleshooting? This proved to be a formidable task, with the successful teacher-leaders we studied gaining great skill in allocating their time as they became experienced in their role.

Managing and controlling skills were needed to organize and manage the work. The teacher-leaders had to learn to move from thought to action. Some used charts to keep track of their activities; some did not. But all of them had to learn how to mobilize the staff and coordinate the many activities, while walking the fine line between exerting influence and "overmanaging" the process of change.

Although contexts differed, these leaders shared the skill of being proactive, that is, having a bias for action. This included modeling specific new techniques as well as promoting a general vision of more productive ways of working. Maintaining momentum in their work, without usurping the authority or the prerogatives of other leadership in the school, required them to take initiative while negotiating their way through the delicate yet tough relationships between and among teachers and principal.

Building Skill and Confidence in Others

The last cluster of skills involved the continuous monitoring and individual diagnosis of teachers' communication needs and concerns, while attending to the general organizational health of the school. Working for several years in the same schools, these leaders tried to make normative the notions that it was both legitimate to have technical assistance and necessary to have in place some structure for problem solving. They were attempting to socialize a whole staff to have individual teachers look at themselves critically and take action on their own behalf, while continuing to build supportive structures to better carry out the work as a whole.

They tried to involve as many people as possible in leadership roles by institutionalizing a process or mechanism for dealing with improvement goals, at the same time trying to make sure that constructive changes occurred that would be visible to the whole school. They were concerned with building a support network for the school community, based on commitment and involvement, that was sensitive to individual teachers and other members of the community and, at the same time, promoted organizational change. This required constant vigilance: building networks for support, continuously recognizing and rewarding positive individual efforts that improved the school, helping to create short-term goals, and always working to institutionalize individual and collective efforts at improvement so that they would become "built into the walls."

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