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The Nature of Teacher Leadership: Lessons Learned from the California Subject Matter Projects

author: Inverness Research Associates
submitter: Mark St. John
description: This is one of three reports (Including The Contributions of Teacher Leaders and The Work of Teacher Leaders) wrriten by Inverness Associates on the California Subject Matter Projects (CSMP). "The CSMPs consist of nine Projects providing professional development in nine different 101 regional sites--all of which are designed to attract, develop, nurture, sustain, and promote teacher leadership."

This report primarily focuses "on understanding the realities of teacher leadership: what motivates teacher leaders' what sources of knowledge they draw upon in working with their colleagues; what supports they find most useful, what issues and barriers they face."

published in: Inverness Research Associates
published: 1999
posted to site: 01/14/1999


This report presents the findings of an intensive study of teacher leadership. Ordinarily, our work as evaluators of the California Subject Matter Projects is directed toward assessing the quality and impact of the professional development activities offered by the Projects. In this case, however, we shift more to a research focus, drawing upon the Subject Matter Projects (and other sources) to study the phenomenon of teacher leadership more closely. That is, this report is primarily focused on understanding the realities of teacher leadership: what motivates teacher leaders; what sources of knowledge they draw upon in working with their colleagues; what supports they find most useful; and what issues and barriers they face. Then, secondarily, this report is about the degree to which and the ways in which the CSMPs are supporting the development of teacher leaders. Finally, we explore implications for the design of the sites and activities of the CSMPs in light of this knowledge.

Teacher leadership is the raison d'être of the California Subject Matter Projects (CSMPs). Each year the institutes and other in-depth professional development programs offered by nearly one hundred CSMP sites are able to work directly with about five percent of the more than 200,000 teachers in the state. Consequently, one rationale for the state's investment in the CSMPs is their ability to produce "lead teachers" who are skilled in teaching specific disciplines and in sharing that expertise with other teachers. Developing teacher leadership, it is argued, can result in a "multiplier effect" and a way of "leveraging" relatively scarce professional development resources.

Given the centrality of teacher leadership to the goals and activities of the CSMPs, we felt it was important to understand its nature thoroughly. Accordingly, we designed a study of teacher leadership to test a fundamental (and deceptively simple) maxim of CSMP work: that teachers who participate in CSMP institutes and inservice programs are, in fact, finding ways to help other teachers improve their classroom practices. We also wanted to uncover the beliefs and implicit assumptions about the nature and practice of teacher leadership commonly held in the CSMP community, and to compare those assumptions with the actual experiences of teacher leaders.

Sources of Data

The foundation for our study of teacher leadership consists of in-depth case studies of twelve teacher leaders. Each of the teacher leaders we studied was nominated by other educational leaders and thus recognized as an effective and influential teacher leader; each brought a unique background and individual expertise to their work. We selected teachers who represented each of the teaching disciplines of the CSMPs, who worked in rural, urban and suburban settings, and who taught diverse students from elementary through high school.

To test our theories about the practice of teacher leadership that emerged from the case studies, we used the words and experiences of the case study teacher leaders to create a survey which we administered to over 200 teacher leaders in California (both associated with, and outside of the CSMP community). Most teachers included in our sample (182 out of 206) have been involved in the California Subject Matter Projects. In spite of the diversity of their backgrounds and teaching situations, they presented us with a shared and compelling vision for teacher leadership beyond what we had anticipated. On many issues, they seemed to speak with one voice.

The Nature of Teacher Leadership

The results of the survey further strengthened a conceptualization of teacher leadership put forward by the case study participants. This view of leadership differs strikingly from a stereotypical and largely instrumental view of teacher leaders (i.e. people who are trained to conduct workshops for other teachers). Traditional, and largely hierarchical notions of leadership do not adequately describe the complex and more collegial relationships we discovered in our study of actual teacher leaders.

Motivations For Assuming Teacher Leadership Roles

Perhaps because the teaching profession has traditionally suffered from low self-esteem, and perhaps because teachers are often viewed as tools for implementation rather than as authors of curriculum, teacher leaders are sensitive to approaches and language that fail to honor the dignity of their colleagues. Teacher leaders seek to "lead" their peers in collegial rather than hierarchical ways. They walk a fine line between respecting colleagues and persuading them to advance their own teaching practices or beliefs.

Ninety-nine percent of the teachers agreed that one of the motivations they had for leadership was seeking "a professional challenge beyond the routine of teaching." They also engaged in leadership work "to further develop their own teaching and subject matter expertise." They want to share a love they have for the discipline itself. More than four-fifths said they were motivated by a commitment to a particular teaching philosophy.

In addition to the nineteen possible "motivations" we provided on the survey, leaders voluntarily wrote in twenty additional motivations for their work, most often tied to students. Teachers told us they engaged in leadership work: for students -- "because the growth and development of young people is what matters;" for equity -- "to improve the education of ALL students;" and out of a sense of public service -- "to give back 'my truths.' I feel we must do something about our kids' problems."

Teacher Leadership That is Grounded in Classroom Practice

According to the teachers we interviewed and surveyed, teacher leadership is grounded in a vision for teaching the discipline to students. The primary source of this vision is not a framework or set of standards; rather, teacher leaders are much more practical and concrete as they create visions of good teaching and learning. They draw primarily from their own classrooms and teaching experiences. Such experiences alone, however, are not sufficient. It is within the context of CSMP institutes and workshops that teachers have the very rare opportunity to reflect upon and refine their classroom practices. It is the interaction with (and validation by) other teachers that connects the improvement of classroom practice with the development of teacher leadership.

If one thing clearly emerges from this study, it is that the origins of and the "content" for leadership work is the personal classroom teaching practice of the teacher leader. Ninety-nine percent of the leaders we surveyed told us that, "I lead by example and by sharing what I do [in my own classroom]." This disarmingly simple statement is very complex when made operational. Like other professionals, teachers derive their source of authority and the content of their leadership from their successful practices. When leadership stems from and refers back to successful classroom practice, a teacher leader has many options for assisting other teachers: by having a classroom that serves as a visible model to the school community, by sharing and mentoring, by engaging colleagues in discussions about issues of teaching the discipline, by experimenting with new curriculum or strategies and making the results known to the school community, and by engaging in the more formal (and visible) roles of lead teacher, mentor or workshop presenter. In a symbiotic way, leadership abilities that derive their authority from and are grounded in classroom practices become strengthened through involvement in the Subject Matter Projects. In turn, CSMP professional development activities are further made valid and relevant when they are informed by teachers' classroom realities.

The teachers we studied could be described as "strategic opportunists," actively asserting leadership on many fronts. Ninety-five percent of respondents stated that they exerted informal leadership by serving as resources to colleagues, by engaging them in conversations about issues of teaching and learning, and by sharing ideas and materials. Whether presenting a workshop or working one-on-one, they modeled their teaching practice for others. Their classrooms served as a visible expression of their philosophy, principles and goals.

The Contribution of the CSMPs

Teacher leaders report that the "model" that underlies the California Subject Matter is a sound one. Eighty-one percent of leaders we surveyed told us their involvement with a CSMP site was the major single contributor to promoting their leadership. Every remaining respondent stated that CSMP involvement had been an important contributor to their effectiveness as a leader. As an outgrowth of joining the CSMP community, leaders said "the CSMPs have helped arrange opportunities for me to exercise my leadership abilities."

Also, the CSMPs allow teacher leaders to become part of a professional network that transcends the geographical and cultural boundaries of the school. The CSMP network, we were told, allows teacher leaders to engage with colleagues in critical analysis of subject matter, in classroom experimentation and in collective reflection on issues of good teaching. Such a network also allows teacher leaders to situate their own knowledge with respect to a "bigger picture" -- that is, they can put their own knowledge and experiences alongside new ideas that are emerging out of the discipline and educational reform movements. Seventy percent of the survey respondents reported maintaining a strong and influential working relationship with other teachers through the local CSMP site and the California Subject Matter Project network.

Linkages With the Schools

The relationships that form between CSMP sites and local schools also has been mutually beneficial. Schools need leadership by teachers for the same reasons that the Projects do: teachers have critical knowledge about teaching and students. When we asked teacher leaders to judge their most effective sphere of influence, they told us they were most effective where the stakes were highest for them -- that is, in their local school communities. Eighty percent of teacher leaders reported being most influential when working with colleagues and administrators in their schools. While teacher leaders also reported filling a wide range of roles for regional, state and national educational reform efforts, the farther they were from school or CSMP-based leadership, the less effective they felt their efforts were.

Implications for the CSMPs


  • Sites select and support (but do not create) good teacher leaders.

  • Sites focus on the sharing and critical examination of real classroom practices.

  • Sites offer teachers many opportunities to teach each other the practice of teaching.

  • Sites offer teachers many opportunities to practice leadership in multiple ways.

  • Sites create a professional home for teachers that is based upon a culture of inquiry, experimentation and reflection.

Teacher leaders are teachers who have the ability to be articulate about their own classroom practices. They can describe its central features, provide examples, and share concrete lessons and approaches with other teachers. They can also provide a thoughtful rationale of why they are teaching in specific ways. They have the ability to assess the effectiveness of their teaching approaches. And they have a deep ability and willingness to work with their colleagues, so that working together, they collectively can improve the quality of their students' learning experiences.

The CSMPs, at their best, help teachers become more knowledgeable about the discipline, more thoughtful about pedagogy, and more skilled in working with their colleagues. Sites can be deliberately designed with the development and promotion of teacher leadership as a primary purpose. (Some of the design principles and critical components are suggested in more detail in this report.) However, a question remains about the degree to which sites are deliberate and purposeful in their efforts to promote teacher leadership. Are sites supporting teacher leadership as a largely unintentional by-product? Or is their support a result of intelligent design? Not every site, in every discipline, currently designs programs around those critical features teacher leaders identified in this study as being most supportive of teacher leadership. There is great variation across the Subject Matter Projects in terms of the degree to which sites select teacher leaders with existing strengths, focus on classroom practices, review reform documents critically in light of actual practice, and promote long-term professional development communities. If indeed the development and the promotion of teacher leadership is the primary mission of the CSMPs, then we strongly encourage Project sites to re-examine their programs in light of those experiences leaders have identified as most supportive of their own teacher leadership activities.

Teacher leadership is not an enigma cloaked in a mystery, but a logical, coherent vision for the professional educator that takes into account the culture of schools, a student clientele, advances in discipline-based knowledge and an under-rated profession. The relationship between practice and vision, the fluid and dynamic way in which leadership occurs, and the motivations, strategies and tensions leaders encounter are all implied by the coherent and compelling nature of what it means to lead others who are teachers of children. Because of the unique nature of their task, teachers are prone to act in ways that move communities, not individuals, forward. Hopefully, we may apply the evidence gained from the voices of the teachers in this study to supporting them in that task.


Participating in a culture of critical inquiry and reflection on teaching practices (76%)

  • Does the site seek and encourage a multiplicity of voices, concerns, and critical judgments about materials, methods, ideas, reform documents and student evidence for teaching the discipline?
  • Does the site provide a safe place for teachers to experiment with their craft?

Articulating a vision of teaching and learning in the discipline (85%)

  • Does the site provide opportunities for teachers to engage in the critical kinds of discussion and interaction necessary to articulate a vision for teaching the discipline?

Presenting a workshop to colleagues (82%)

  • Does the site provide time for sharing, reflecting on and critiquing of concrete teaching practices in the discipline?

Serving in a range of Project leadership roles, from facilitation or coordination to design of activities, policy making and site direction (75%)

  • Does the site select teachers with identifiable leadership traits for its selectional or invitational institutes?
  • Does the site rely on teachers to initiate, design and lead site activities?
  • Does the site provide roles and niches for leadership that are rotated among teachers and that are open to accomplished individuals who may be new to the Project community?

Mentoring or coaching other Project teachers (71%)

  • Does the site provide an ongoing professional community where teachers collaborate, support, share and learn from each other?

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