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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


Teacher leadership is the raison d'être of the California Subject Matter Projects (CSMPs). Since 1988, the California Subject Matter Projects (CSMPs) have been funded by the state of California to provide discipline-specific professional development for teachers in the subject areas required for high school graduation. Each year the institutes and other in-depth professional development programs, offered by nearly one hundred CSMP sites, are able to work directly with almost five percent of the more than 200,000 teachers in the state. A major purpose of these institutes is to foster the development of teacher leaders — individuals 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.

CSMP "teacher leaders" work with their colleagues in venues that range from their local classrooms to national conferences. The CSMP teacher leaders also assume a major role in designing and implementing the activities of CSMP sites, insuring that they remain responsive to the dynamic needs and challenges teachers confront in each discipline. Statistics gathered by Inverness Research Associates from CSMP sites have substantiated that through teacher leadership — i.e. a "teachers teaching teachers" model for professional development — the CSMP influence extends outward to reach 21 percent of the state's teaching force, or 46,720 teachers annually.1

Testing Some Underlying Assumptions About Teacher Leadership

While much is known about the professional development work that takes place at CSMP sites, little has been known or documented about the less tangible but nevertheless intriguing work of the teacher leaders who carry the work forward into the field. Given the centrality of teacher leadership to the goals and activities of the CSMPs, we felt it was important to understand its nature thoroughly. We asked teacher leaders in interviews and surveys the following kinds of questions:

  1. What does it mean to be a "teacher leader?" How does a teacher leader differ from an expert classroom teacher or a school administrator?
  2. What is the source of authority for your leadership?
  3. How is "teacher leadership" practiced or operationalized? What does it look like? What kinds of activities are you involved in? How much time do you spend on such activities?
  4. Are you able to impact other teachers in significant ways and how do you know that your work is effective? When and where (and why) do you believe you have the most influence and effect?
  5. What are the critical experiences that have nurtured, supported and furthered your ability to serve as a teacher leader? What kinds of supports are being provided to you by the California Subject Matter Projects?

We posed these questions to over 200 teacher leaders so that we could better understand the realities of teacher leadership as it is practiced in the field. We also wanted to use these understandings to check some of the assumptions that underlie the approach of the CSMPs. The CSMP model holds certain beliefs about the nature of teacher leadership and its role in the design of effective professional development2. The most relevant of these to a study of teacher leadership are:

  • "the best teacher of teachers is another teacher;"
  • teachers who engage in CSMP institutes and other intense experiences will go on to teach other teachers;
  • CSMP sites provide critical, unique (discipline-based) experiences that instill, shape, enhance or promote leadership in teachers; and
  • CSMP sites provide an ongoing network (and a professional home) for some of the state's most skilled and professional teachers.

These tenets form the basis for the work of the CSMPs. By presenting an "insider's" view of the practice of teacher leadership as it actually takes place in the field, we are implicitly testing the validity and utility of these basic CSMP tenets. We believe that the picture of teacher leadership that we gained through our interviews and surveys, and that we present in this report, can thus greatly inform the work of the CSMPs as well as other projects that seek to develop and support teacher leaders.

Sources of Data

We began our study with a statewide search for recognized teacher leaders. We asked CSMP site directors, as well as county office professional development staff and other educational leaders, to nominate teachers who represented for them good examples of teacher leadership. These nominations provided us with the names of over two hundred teacher leaders (both associated with, and outside of, the CSMP community).

From this pool we selected twelve teacher leaders and asked them to be "case studies" for our research. 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. We conducted several interviews with each teacher and created "profiles" of teacher leadership based on their experiences and perceptions. From the study of these twelve teachers, we were able to glean ideas about the motivation and goals teachers bring to their leadership activities, the realities of the day-to-day practice of teacher leadership, the typical problems or obstacles teacher leaders confront and the kinds of support teacher leaders are receiving through their connection with the CSMP community.

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 our pool of two hundred teacher leaders. The results of the survey verified, in an even more powerful and compelling way, a conceptualization of teacher leadership put forward by the case study participants. The view of leadership put forward by over 200 teachers differs strikingly from a stereotypical and largely instrumental view of teacher leaders (e.g. people who are trained to conduct workshops for other teachers). The 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.

Overview of This Report

Following this Introduction (Section I), we begin a presentation of our findings (Section II) in the same way that we began the study — by concentrating on the experience of individual teacher leaders. We present a profile of a single teacher leader in order to share with the reader the depth, richness and complexity that we encountered throughout this study3. In the same way that one can "see the world in a single grain of sand," we hope that the reader will then better understand the generalizations we draw in later parts of this report.

In Section III, we shift perspectives dramatically, moving from a focus on one individual teacher leader to a statewide policy perspective. We briefly review recent and historical perspectives about the professionalization of teachers and the role of teacher leadership within the educational policy context of California.

In Section IV we return to a mid-level perspective on teacher leadership. We briefly summarize what we learned from those educational leaders across the state who were involved in nominating teachers for the study. Their comments and criteria for selecting teacher leaders are highly illuminative about the ways in which administrators and those involved in professional development think about teacher leadership.

We then continue this section with our main discussion of the findings of our study, presenting the teacher leaders' views about the nature of and rationale for their leadership activities. We discuss the origins of their teacher leadership; the leadership roles they assume; and the arenas in which they work with other teachers. We talk extensively about the relationship between the classroom practices of teacher leaders and the ideas they bring to their leadership activities. Finally, we identify key barriers and issues they face in seeking to work with their colleagues.

In Section V we extrapolate from our findings to draw some implications for the design and work of CSMP sites. The themes that emerge from our interviews and survey data clearly suggest that such issues as selecting participants, connecting professional development to classroom practice, providing multiple opportunities for leadership and establishing an overall culture of inquiry and reflection are key in determining how effectively each CSMP site is in developing and supporting teacher leadership.


1 The state's investment in the CSMPs each year represents approximately .0005% of the 24.4 billion budget for K-12 education; $64 per teacher; $2.70 per California student: $305 for each CSMP teacher participant and $9 per participant contact hour. Source: 1994-95 Annual Site Survey, Inverness Research Associates.

2 Although there is great variation from Subject Matter Project to Project and from site to site, these principles are well-articulated by the University of California Office of the President (UCOP) administration. See "The California Subject Matter Projects: Professional Development By and For Teachers." Oakland: Office of the President, University of California, Spring 1994.

3 We also present two other similar profiles in Appendix A.

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