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Assessing the Prospects for Teacher Leadership

author: Judith Warren Little
description: Judith Warren Little begins with the premise that "it is increasingly implausible that we could improve the performance of schools...without promoting leadership in teaching by teachers." Little then goes on present a collection of studies that "reveal some of the conditions required to promote and sustain rigorous professional relations among teachers that yield benefits for students."

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. 78-106.

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


Much has been made of teachers' probable (and sometimes demonstrated) opposition to any large-scale change in the occupation or the organization of schools that would introduce status differences among teachers based on demonstrated knowledge and skill. And recently, administrators have made the news with their own opposition to leadership schemes that they believe will usurp site administrators' authority to conduct personnel and program evaluation.

In the past, studies of teacher leadership experiments at the school or district level have produced mixed results and limited practical guidance. One study of organized teacher teams in open-space schools documented teachers' ambivalence about team leaders assigned by building principals (Arikado, 1976), while other studies have attributed the vigor of a school program to the work of teacher-led teams in which the leaders were also designated by the principal (Lipsitz, 1983). There are more skeptics than enthusiasts represented in the literature, but it would be too strong an indictment to say it has been tried and did not work. There have been few serious trials.

This section examines the support for teacher leadership in the day-to-day social organization of schools. One can gauge the prospects for teacher leadership on a school-by-school basis in light of teachers' responses to two possibilities.

First, the prospects for leadership can be judged in part by whether teachers have developed, or are prepared to develop, a close working knowledge of one another's teaching, based on observation and in-depth discussion. To assess the prospects for leadership in a school, then, one might ask: Is the very act of teaching public enough (or might it become so) to support classroom practices?

Classroom observation among teachers serves as a bellwether practice: of all the possible interactions among teachers, it is perhaps the clearest signal that the traditional norm of privacy may have been displaced. A school's culture is conducive to leadership by teachers when teachers are in one another's classrooms for purposes of seeing, learning from, commenting on, and planning for one another's work with students.

Second, the prospects for teacher leadership can be judged by teachers' acceptance of initiative by specially designated leaders in their midst. Here, we examine the possibility that teachers who are recognized as leaders by some special title ("master teachers," "mentors," "teacher advisors") would, by word and deed, attempt to influence improvements in curriculum and instruction and thus influence the day-to-day classroom work of other teachers. A school's culture is conducive to leadership by teachers when such initiative is acceptable. To assess the prospects for leadership in a school, then, one might ask: What latitude will teachers accord a colleague who is clearly recognized as a "master teacher"?

Teachers' attitudes toward classroom observation, and their attitudes toward leadership initiative by specially selected teacher leaders, are not the only grounds on which one might assess prospects for leadership, but they are crucial ones. Teachers' acceptance of and participation in regular classroom observation reveals their fundamental orientation toward teaching as a private or public activity. Teachers' acceptance of initiative regarding curriculum and instruction reveals their orientation to the very idea of leadership, that is to the rights and obligations that teachers inherit by virtue of membership in the profession.

Making Teaching Public

Teaching has long been described as a private activity, both in planning and execution. Veteran teachers report having worked 30 years with no other adult in the classroom except on incidental business. Yet schools that are discovered to be vital, adaptable institutions have been consistently found to support vigorous professional exchanges among teachers. Teachers in these schools talk in depth about teaching and about students' progress, plan for teaching together, observe one another's work in classrooms, and learn from one another. They eschew oversimplified war stories that defy analysis, concentrating instead on straightforward assessments that reveal the true complexities of a situation and yield new options (see Rosenholtz & Kyle, 1984).

While classroom observation is clearly not the only route to a more public, collective version of teaching, we anticipate that the rate and rigor with which teachers watch and discuss one another's classroom work with students are important indicators of teachers' acceptance of teacher leadership.

The significance of leadership close to the classroom. We consider the classroom observation data to be significant in principle for three reasons. First, structured classroom observations have been promoted as one of the most prominent and potentially powerful vehicles for instructional leadership. Second, classroom observation directly and literally tackles the main consequences of the closed classroom door. The closed door isolates students and fragments their learning; the closed door offers teachers only a truncated, impoverished understanding of one another's abilities and activities. Third, teachers argue that leaders must demonstrate that they have something to offer that is worth following–and that the demonstration will not be persuasive unless it is credible in the classroom. Teachers who aspire to lead must be able to display their own mastery of classroom challenges. They must be able to grasp and describe other teachers' intentions and accomplishments. And they must be willing and able to recognize and act on opportunities to improve their own and others' work with students. In the end, teachers are unlikely to accept leadership at too great a distance from the classroom.

Do good colleagues stop at the classroom door? An exploratory study of interactions among teachers tells of Jim and Bill, whose close personal and professional relationship almost dissolved after Jim's first foray into Bill's classroom (Zahorik, 1987, p. 391). The study concludes that collegiality may stop at the classroom door. Others, too, have observed that what passes for collegiality may not add up to much (Hargreaves, 1984; Little, 1987; Rosenholtz & Kyle, 1984) and that access to classrooms is problematic (Little, 1985).

Across the country, schools are experimenting with peer observation, peer coaching, and other programs designed to get teachers into one another's classrooms. For teachers in many schools, the idea of classroom visitation has strong appeal. For an even larger number, I suspect, the idea is met with skepticism, indifference, or outright opposition. One might ask what prior experience those teachers have encountered that would lead them to respond in any other way.

In eight secondary schools, we examined teachers' assessment of the observation practices they typically encountered in their schools, and we asked teachers to indicate their relative approval or disapproval of specific classroom observation practices by department heads and by peers. Nearly 500 teachers in eight middle and high schools recorded their preferences and their actual experiences with regard to nine aspects of observation, including frequency and duration, methods of observation, arrangements for feedback or consultation, the nature of follow-up, approaches to praise and criticism, and the qualifications of the observer.4

The picture that emerges from the findings belies the stereotype of the closed classroom door. The door opens, it appears, to colleagues and other observers who will neither waste the teacher's time nor insult the teacher's intelligence. The door remains open when full professional reciprocity is established–when observers work as hard to understand and describe classroom events as teachers are working to plan and conduct them.

The precedent set by administrators. When teachers consider observation by other teachers or by department heads, they look first to the precedent set by those who have observed them before. In most instances, the precedent has been set by administrators. For good or ill, the perspectives and practices of administrators carry substantial weight in teachers' estimates of the potential usefulness of observation by colleagues.

Among the eight schools in the instructional leadership study, the greatest support for observation of teachers by teachers came in two junior high schools in which administrators had worked hard to establish a record of thoughtful, thorough, well-informed classroom observation over a period of years. In contrast, teachers in the three urban high schools were generally unimpressed by any form of administrator observation they had had and were correspondingly unenthusiastic about observation by chairs or teachers.

Observers, whether administrators or teachers, have more latitude than they usually exploit. For almost every aspect of classroom observation, from how often it occurs to the nature of its link to formal evaluation, teachers approve a more rigorous scrutiny of room teaching than they typically encounter. In six of the eight schools surveyed, the greatest latitude is accorded to administrators; in two large suburban schools, department heads bear substantial responsibility for instructional leadership and supervision, and teachers reserved their highest expectations and most generous observation options for them. This pattern suggests that the greatest approval attaches to the role with formal and legitimate authority for observation; the preference for administrator over teacher as observer may well be an artifact of prevailing authority relations in schools, subject to systematic experimentation.

Does Classroom Observation Change Classroom Teaching?

Teachers find that spending productive time in others' classrooms is a labor-intensive business, one that is rarely accommodated well by the school's master schedule. Does spending time in others' classrooms yield enough benefits to compete well with other demands on teachers' time? How powerful is an observer's commentary as an influence on a teacher's planning and performance? Consider the following item as one measure of the relative salience of commentary on teaching: "In my school, teachers ignore feedback on their teaching."

In three urban high schools with no strong tradition of close involvement in classrooms (or, put another way, a longstanding tradition of independent/isolated work in classrooms), teachers and administrators are uncertain whether teachers take feedback seriously but are inclined to believe they do not. (In at least one of the urban high schools, administrators and department chairs are fairly certain that teachers do ignore feedback.) Observation is a ritual event, conducted only by administrators and associated almost exclusively with the triennial teacher evaluation.

Casual or infrequent classroom visitation, it appears, offers weak support for teacher leadership. (Indeed, there is some evidence that classroom observation of this sort may serve as a disincentive for teacher leadership, since it convinces teachers that they have little to gain from the occasions when teachers or administrators enter their classroom or presume to talk to them about their work with students.) A strong contrast is provided by three small city schools, where secondary administrators (as part of an informal study group) have worked to make teaching "public" through frequent observation and discussion. Teachers in these schools firmly deny that teachers ignore feedback on teaching. The survey findings for these schools are consistent with case-study observation, and have led us to draw the following conclusion:

In one of five [case-study] schools, classroom observation is so frequent, so intellectually lively and intense, so thoroughly integrated into the daily work, and so associated with accomplishments for all who participate, that it is difficult to see how the practices could fail to improve teaching. In still another school, the observation practices approach this standard. In three of the five schools, however, the observation of classroom life is so cursory, so infrequent, so shapeless and tentative that if it were found to affect instruction favorably we would be hard-pressed to construct a plausible explanation. (Little & Bird, 1986, p. 122)

Teachers who are newly selected in potential leadership roles–mentors, teacher advisors, resource teachers, and others–understand that the test of their worth will be in the classroom. But these emerging leadership roles have been ambiguous, particularly with regard to the expectations for entering other teachers' classrooms or becoming involved in any way with another teacher's work. (Mentors in California have been described as enacting a play for which there is no script.) Some districts have a long history of special-assignment positions that serve as an admirable precedent for the new generation of leadership roles. Some districts have developed the position of grade-level chair or department head as a good role model for successful leadership on curriculum, instruction, and classroom organization; more often, they do not. Individuals have been left to carve out identities and build support from teachers or administrators on a case-by-case basis.

In the absence of some commonly understood, affirmative ground for working with other teachers on matters affecting the classroom most new leaders are hesitant to move toward another teacher's classroom unless invited, or to offer more than the most modest invitation to other teachers to observe them in their own classrooms. Teachers, meanwhile, refrain from making any request of the leader until they are certain of how it will be received and how it will be interpreted by others. In the absence of traditions for mutual work in classrooms, what transpires might be coined the "teachers' lounge waltz."

Teachers have more latitude than they have acted on to enter one another's classrooms. In any of the eight schools surveyed, teachers could enter one another's classrooms by satisfying stringent but quite practical conditions. These conditions establish professional reciprocity between observer and observed. For example, teachers who were observed wanted to be able to comment on the quality of the observation, in the same manner and spirit in which the observers would comment upon the teaching they witnessed.

Returning to the tale of "Jim" and "Bill" in Zahorik's recent study, I am led to underscore the importance of the ground rules and other preparations that make it acceptable to watch others at work. One might have concluded that collegiality need not have stopped at the classroom door, but that Jim and Bill's relationship–alleged to be a sturdy one–was barely sturdy enough to survive a clumsy first attempt at moving the action into the classroom.

In some schools, the entrance to the classroom is well trafficked. In one junior high school, for example, teachers reported that their high expectations for observation were in fact being met by colleagues who observe them. Teachers tended to observe one another in the course of work they were doing jointly to refine the curriculum–an endeavor that had already paid off handsomely in the form of increased test scores, improved daily classroom performance, and a virtual elimination of discipline problems. When participating in structured observations for one another (a kind of professional service), teachers took for granted that they would provide a written record of what transpired; they would take the time to engage in a properly thorough and deferential discussion afterward, concentrating on the response elicited from students. In order to see a set of related lessons unfold, they would devote at least 20 minutes to the observation and would try to observe for two or more days in a row. Further, teachers in this school have been known to observe and critique one another not only in classrooms, but also in conducting inservice workshops.

Teachers in all the surveyed schools shared high but reachable expectations when their colleagues observe. Teachers expect that:

  • Observers will describe what they've seen and invite the teacher's commentary.
  • Observers who find something to admire or praise will say so directly.
  • Observers who have suggestions to make will help teachers to act on them by providing demonstrations or by joint planning.
  • Teachers who observe will request feedback on their observation practices (reciprocity).

In follow-up videotape study of observation in action, we detected some of the moment-by-moment interactions among teachers that enabled leadership "close to the classroom" to emerge. This study of ten teacher advisors at work with teachers showed (1) how explicit ground rules built tolerance and trust and (2) how payoff escalated as teachers became "skillful pairs" with a common language and organized set of routines for describing, analyzing, and planning for teaching.

Taken alone, classroom observation (even at its most frequent and intense) is not an adequate avenue by which to expand a school's influence on teaching. Its most fruitful ground is the entire pattern of shared responsibility among teachers and the pattern of shared professional tasks, which give larger purpose to time spent in classrooms. Teachers' support for arrangements that bring them sensibly into contact with others, under conditions that they can reasonably accept, has been demonstrated in the data. Most responded that they "definitely would" agree to work with one or more colleagues under these conditions: "You and another member of your faculty have been asked to share your ideas and methods for teaching, to assemble the best methods that the two of you can come up with, and to use those methods and techniques well in your work. You will have some choice about the person with whom you are to work."

Acts of Leadership: Initiative by "Master Teachers"

A long-standing element of the culture of teaching is the maxim: "you don't interfere with another teacher's teaching." Teachers may offer their assistance to others under special circumstances and with special care. To a new teacher, it is widely acceptable to say, "Ask me if you need anything," but less so to say, "It's important to the school and to you that you get off to a good start here. I propose that we work together pretty closely for the first semester." In few schools would one teacher say to others, as a matter of course, "I've been studying some ways to help our kids with their writing, and I want to propose that we try some of them this year." In fewer still, "I've noticed that you've really been struggling with that class. Let me help." In the culture that prevails, "don't interfere" and "ask if you need help" bound teachers' initiative toward one another. Teacher autonomy, in this view, is interpreted as freedom from scrutiny and the right of each individual teacher to make independent judgments about classroom practice.

Missing from this scenario is an affirmative construction of professional obligations that is other than intrusive ("interference") or loosely invitational ("ask if you want"). The prospects for school-based teacher leadership rest on displacing the privacy norm with another that might be expressed this way: "It's part of your job to ensure that all the teaching here is good teaching." Teacher autonomy in this view, is interpreted as the right of the teaching profession to construct and uphold standards of good teaching (Sykes, 1983) and the obligation of individual teachers to examine closely their own and others' professional judgments. In schools, teachers would in fact expect to be their brothers' keepers.

To examine the possibilities for a norm favoring closer mutual examination of teaching by teachers, this chapter stresses the central problem of initiative by teachers on matters of curriculum and instruction. Initiative among teachers is construed here not as a problem of individuals' character, energy, and knowledge (though certainly they matter), but as an institutional problem of teachers' obligations, rights, opportunities, and rewards. Data from the two-year study of instructional leadership in secondary schools provide our first systematic test of teachers' acceptance of initiative by colleagues.

Teachers were confronted with the following statement, and then asked to judge a set of options for action "In every school there are teachers who are known to be highly informed, creative, and skillful. These 'master teachers' routinely produce unusually good results. How should they and how do they interact with other teachers?"

Of the nine options that teachers were presented, the two most conservative options required almost no initiative on the part of the master teacher. They required at most that teachers recognize that some teachers in their midst might deserve the reputation of master teacher and that the master teacher "respond when asked by another teacher for suggestions, but otherwise not offer advice." Somewhat more initiative is envisioned by the options that place the master teacher at work with beginning teachers and then with experienced teachers, both at the behest of the principal. The most assertive options call for the master teacher to circulate materials, organize and lead inservices, and offer help independently to a teacher having difficulty.

Teachers in six schools (N = 282) recorded their relative approval or disapproval of each of the specific options and indicated the extent to which they encountered such behavior in their own school.5

A pattern of hesitant approval. Teachers in five of the six schools did not flinch from the prospect that masterful teaching would be publicly recognized or that an acknowledged master teacher would be assertive in dealings with others. All but one of the nine options generated mean ratings from the group at large that were well into the "approval'' range (+ 1 to +3). Nonetheless, the findings are best summed up as a pattern of hesitant approval. Teachers did not vigorously or uniformly embrace any of the options (none of the overall means exceeds 2.0, and the range of individual responses its considerable).

Judging by the three schools that offer both case-study and survey data, teachers' responses to others' leadership may correspond closely to their day-by-day experience as colleagues. The most confident endorsements of teacher-to-teacher initiative came from teachers in a junior high school that boasted a seven-year history of vigorous collaborative work among teachers. Elsewhere in the survey findings, teachers in this school were distinguished with regard to other professional practices: more than teachers in other schools, teachers here reported (1) two teachers getting together for a few minutes each day to share teaching plans for the day, (2) teachers negotiating ground rules to guide their work together, (3) teachers commenting on each other's course materials and tests, (4) exchanges of advice among experienced teachers, and (5) teachers praising one another's work. The most skeptical response came from an urban high school in which a variety of work conditions induced more competition than cooperation and in which teachers were formally observed only every three years.

Overall, teachers more readily gave their approval to those options that acknowledged a master teacher's skills and talents but did not anticipate truly assertive behavior toward other teachers. Offering help when asked, therefore, received uniformly high teacher approvals, while offering help without being asked drew the same level of approval from teachers in only two of the six schools.

Support for beginning teachers is one arena in which teachers have found status differences based on knowledge and skill to be defensible and leadership roles therefore sensible; these data are consistent with other case-study findings that support mentoring relationships directed at induction-year assistance. Thus teachers at five of the six schools registered solid support for the master teacher who helps a new teacher get off to a good start, while only two schools granted that same level of support for work to improve the performance of an experienced teacher.

As predicted, the school with the greatest shared responsibility for students, curriculum, and instruction (as determined by case-study findings) also showed the greatest involvement in leadership by teachers. In that school, teachers accept the principal's action in asking skilled teachers to present faculty inservice and said it happens often. Teachers give their approval to peers who circulate professional articles they have found useful. Teachers approve when some of their number are invited to provide inservice at other schools and believe that it happens reasonably often.

Yet even at this school, some doubt or hesitation remains about the possibility of the principal's asking a master teacher to meet regularly with an experienced colleague to help improve the other teacher's work; it almost never happens. The master teacher who offers help without being asked receives less approbation than the teacher who waits to be invited. And the master teacher who distributes copies of his or her own successful lesson plans may be looked at askance, although other professional materials a teacher has found useful or informative are welcomed.

Building on precedent: the department head. When principals were recently encouraged to find ways of sharing their leadership with teachers (Acheson & Smith, 1986), one prominent suggestion was to capitalize on school-level positions that–at least in name, if not always in practice–already present opportunities for teacher leadership. Department heads, resource teachers, project directors, and grade-level chairs are among the examples of positions that may permit special recognition of talent and experience and that may have the requisite discretionary resources attached to them.

All six of the six secondary schools surveyed in the instructional leadership study gave some role to formal department heads, but only the two large suburban high schools emphasized the role of the department head as a leader in curriculum development and instructional supervision. In these two schools, department heads stood out as a distinctive reference group, more ready than teachers to approve of high initiative but still less cautious than the administrators. (In other schools, department heads' responses were virtually indistinguishable from those of other teachers.)

Asked about the possibility of giving assistance to an experienced teacher, department heads were more closely aligned with administrators than with teachers; judging by the responses, chairs were likely to overestimate the support they would receive from teachers for agreeing to work with a teacher in difficulty.

In questions targeted precisely to the department head's role, teachers were asked to review six options for behavior. Like the options regarding new leadership roles for classroom teachers, these reflect varying degrees of initiative. The most conservative (or lowest initiative) option called for the department head to act as a buffer, dealing with administration so that teachers can get on with teaching. Department heads were also depicted as encouraging participation in conferences or workshops, suggesting specific improvements to individual teachers, organizing teachers in small groups to study new options for teaching, arranging for a district supervisor to work with a department member, and using a department meeting to deliver a workshop.

The most aggressive profile of the department head came from one of the two suburban schools with a long history of using department heads to carry the weight of instructional leadership. Even in that school, however, support fell off when the chair was depicted as moving from one-on-one consultation to the leadership of the group as a whole. The lowest level of support for the department head came from the high school where that position rotates among teachers and is regarded as a "paperwork position."

When the options required group leadership (as in assembling a study group or conducting a workshop), schools with a strong recent history of teacher-to-teacher collaboration (but no particular emphasis on the department head position) stood out in their level of support; it appears that the collaborative history had established an environment in which the head's position could be invested with greater responsibility and latitude than it had enjoyed to date.


4. The survey was completed by 476 teachers and 22 administrators in eight schools. Return rates varied from 50% to 100%. (Six of the eight schools had return rates of 77% or above; in three schools, all teachers completed the survey).

5. The results that follow were obtained in a second survey in six schools. The survey was completed by 282 teachers and 14 administrators; return rates were above 70% in each of four schools, and 44% and 65% in the remaining two schools.

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