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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


Gary Tsuruda
Jordon Middle School
Palo Alto, California

"For me, a teacher leader is someone who is more than just a successful classroom teacher…a leader is someone who has a vision of what a school does and a theory about how learning takes place. They have achieved a philosophical perspective."

Gary Tsuruda, a math teacher in a middle school in Menlo Park, California, has such a vision. A math major in college, Tsuruda initially planned to channel his talents into a career in engineering or computer science. He had "never once considered teaching," when, as a college senior, he agreed to tutor a young math student from a local junior high school.

"I went into it with the idea of conveying to him my love of mathematics — the sheer beauty of mathematics. But we were doing 7th grade remedial arithmetic, so that opportunity never presented itself." What did present itself, however, was the opportunity to understand the young man's struggles with math, and more broadly, with life. The experience became, "a more personal thing" than just teaching math. "I wanted to get to know him and to help him become a better person, [one] able to succeed. That was the attraction then, and remains the attraction. I still love the beauty of mathematics, but I don't teach math, I teach kids."

Over the course of a twenty-five year career as a math teacher to middle school students, Tsuruda has accomplished both. He currently teaches four periods of "7 pi" math daily to 7th graders, students of the same age as his first young pupil. Gary created and designed the "7 pi" course particularly to address the challenge of teaching mathematics to heterogeneously grouped students, i.e., students with widely varying abilities (and interests) in math. The course became known as "7 pi" in its first year when the word pilot was abbreviated. Because "pi" is a math term, the name stuck. After the initial pilot year, "the course was so successful that I got a lot of positive feedback from parents and from kids. Suddenly the other 7th grade math teachers wanted to teach it." Gary's experimental course is now taught to the majority of seventh graders (with the exception of two sections of pre-algebra) at his middle school. A similar course at the other middle school in his district has been developed by a colleague. The demand created by actively supportive parents who were impressed by their children's benefit from the 7 pi curriculum also has led to the development of a similar course at the 8th grade level.

Motivation for Leadership Beyond the Classroom

The vision Tsuruda has for the quality of the learning experience he wants for his students has propelled him, sometimes reluctantly, to take on leadership roles beyond his classroom. "To be honest, I have more than I can handle just within the confines of these four walls, but, as teachers, we never work in isolation, and if we think we do, we are kidding ourselves. I have to exist in the sea of whatever else is happening in my school. My kids have to go to other classes here and on to high school. It will be better if those other experiences are consistent, philosophically, with what I am providing for them."

District-based Leadership

After teaching for ten years, Gary spent five years as a district math consultant before returning to the classroom, an experience that provided him with a perspective on mathematics education that went beyond the classroom. Gary's work as a consultant became a significant contributor to his development as a teacher-leader because it forced him to articulate what he believed about the teaching of mathematics; and the work familiarized him with the broad issues in mathematics education.

Through my role as a consultant I was able to get into the issues surrounding math education that you just don't have time to as a teacher. The philosophical debates, the issues about the use of calculators, the issues about manipulative use — I had to address all of those as a consultant. I had to create policy statements on certain things, purchase manipulatives, and give inservice workshops for teachers on how to use them. I had to get into the philosophy of all that. As a classroom teacher, you are so immersed in what you are doing, you don't have time to stay aware of what is happening in your profession.

In his role as a district consultant, Gary realized early on that "I wouldn't be effective if I didn't maintain my perspective as a classroom teacher. For two of those five years, I taught one class a day." Nevertheless, Gary became increasingly impatient with being once removed from the real action of teaching. "I found myself more interested in the one period that I spent in the morning that I did in the rest of the day, and that was a tip off to me about where I really wanted to be."

While Gary felt good about the work he was able to do with and for teachers in his district, much of the administrative work required by the position was not directly related to supporting teachers. "People thought it was a step down when I went back to the classroom. I didn't see it that way. I think teaching is the most important job in education by far. There isn't even a close second. Most people in education don't realize how important teachers are and don't give teachers the credit. If you were to look at an organizational scheme of education, the teachers would appear at the bottom when in importance, the teachers are at the top. It is commonly perceived the opposite way."

Over the course of his career, Gary has served in many other recognizable leadership capacities: briefly as instructional supervisor for his department (until he "became impatient with deciding such trivial questions as where the band should practice"), as a workshop presenter, as a math course designer and most recently, as author of a book about his teaching program and philosophy. In general, the more formal the role, the more reluctant Gary has been to assume it. It is the informal work-a-day teacher interaction and dialogue that Gary believes to be the most effective means to achieving curricular improvement and reform. For that reason, Tsuruda has worked in interdisciplinary or team teaching situations with colleagues throughout his career, and joined regional math teacher networks. "If I could redo the script for the world," he states, "I would create schools where there was time for collegial interaction and require that as part of teaching. That is clearly what is missing in the schools now."

Early Professional Development Experiences

Gary gives credit to collegial interaction over the course of his career for the growth and development of his own teaching practice. He feels he has profited greatly from his work with team-teaching colleagues in his own school, from his participation each fall in the California Math Conference at Asilomar, from attending high quality professional development programs that target specific issues in teaching math (such as the Lawrence Hall of Science's program, Equals), and from a twelve-year involvement with the Bay Area Math Project.

Gary was a participant in the first summer institute hosted by the Bay Area Math Project (BAMP) in 1983. "I was thinking on the level of good ideas," Gary reflects back, "I didn't have the big picture or a sense that this was going to be as powerful as it became." That first year, Gary felt that leaders and participants alike were figuring it out as they went along. "We were able to change some of the things they [the leadership] did." After some misgivings during the first week about his month long commitment, Gary and others were successful in petitioning the leadership for more time to meet as a middle school group, specifically to share teaching experiences and ideas. Early in the second week, participants were asked to contribute teaching ideas on the subject of probability. Gary and others did so. "It was smart of them, I think, because I don't know if I would have stayed as interested if I had remained a participant listening to [the leadership] present. I don't know if I could do that for four weeks, and I wonder if anyone can." For Gary, the institute gained value when it became a place where teachers like himself could contribute teaching ideas and engage in a deeper discussion about issues of teaching mathematics.

The Bay Area Math Project experience differed for Gary from the California Math Conference at Asilomar and other the professional development offerings he had attended because, "it wasn't just a forty-five minute shot. It was a group of people learning together over a period of time." BAMP provided, "the network of people who you can then talk to" about mathematics.

"Typically, the classroom teacher will have a certain group of friends in the profession, many of whom are not math teachers. Most of the people who I am friends with at my school are not math teachers. We get together at math department meetings, but there is never a chance to share ideas. So, the chances for math teachers to share and interact about real, exciting ideas in teaching are almost nil. Having the [BAMP] network of people who are of like mind, who are motivated, that you could call up and share ideas with, send things to, was really valuable."

Most Effective Arena for Leadership Work

Gary believes informal and in-depth work with colleagues is more effective than seeing a specific workshop presentation in any context. Although, over his career, he has learned a great deal from participating each fall in the "wonderful wealth of ideas" offered at the California Math Conference at Asilomar, Gary sees that experience as having made a slow impact on him over the course of twenty years. "It takes too long," he says. To explain, Gary makes a distinction between the teaching "idea" as presented in a workshop, and the deeper discussion of teaching principles underlying the successful idea. Through BAMP, "we try ideas in the classroom and then come back and say, 'I tried this and it didn't work; what do you do differently?' Or, 'I made this modification on your idea and this happened and I thought that was great,' so the other person can grow from that. It is the interactive discussion of our use of teaching ideas, more than just the idea," that is important. This crucial distinction between the "form" of teaching — a strategy or tool, a worksheet or handout — and a deeper understanding of the spirit of what is attempted by the lesson, lies at the heart of Gary's philosophy for working with students, and for working with other teachers.

"When I have worked with teachers, it has been on two levels. One level is just sharing with them some ideas I have developed about teaching powers or probability in mathematics, or about using writing or about portfolios — sharing ideas that they could take back and use. But there is another and more important level involved in our work together. That is understanding the underlying philosophy of why I am doing this stuff."

Tsuruda's own teaching practice has evolved gradually. Both for himself, and in his work with other teachers, Gary is an advocate of gradual, thoughtful change in teaching practice. "I don't know of one thing I just came back and changed the next year [after the 1983 Bay Area Math Project Institute]. A lot of what resulted from my deep discussions with other teachers was that kernels of ideas were planted which lead to more discussion. The things I began to do [after BAMP] seemed like small things, but they were part of an evolving, changing philosophy of how kids learn and what teaching is about. A teacher has to feel comfortable with a teaching idea to accept it, and it is yet another step to try it out and take the risk of not doing well. By all measure, by all feedback that I had received, everything was going well [with my practice in 1983] and I was a good teacher. The kids were learning, kids were happy, I was happy — but I wanted to try new ideas. I thought those ideas would be better but it was still a risk, because if students were doing well then, what would happen if they didn't do as well when I tried something else?"

Classroom-based Leadership

Tsuruda's students did not only do as well, instead they exceeded his expectations. "When I share [the way I teach] in an inservice, I use lots of student examples. The student work I get is really wonderful. I started using writing and portfolios in math. I would never have guessed that people of this [7th grade] level had this talent. I know when I was growing up none of us could have done what these kids are doing. There are so many things I come across in a day that I wish I could share with the whole world. I suspected as much before when I taught in a traditional way. Somebody would get a 100% on a test and I would think, big deal. But the kind of creative work that kids can do now, which I am sure they could have done then but I never asked them to — this is a whole level above what you can get from traditional teaching."

In retrospect, Gary says that he used to have a very "teacher dominated" classroom. "Even though my students used manipulatives and calculators and we did a lot of activities, it was still very teacher-dominated. I had the sense that the kids would learn what I told them. If I told them very clearly and repeated it enough times, they would learn it. I would frame it in some motivational garb and make it exciting for them but I still went through that process."

Fearing that his students were going through the motions of "form" without deeply understanding the "spirit" or substance of mathematics, Gary began to devise a curriculum that would set higher goals for his students. "I want my students to be able to think mathematically, to express themselves mathematically. The way I achieve that is by allowing them to internalize or construct their own understanding. I allow that by creating activities and experiences for them which are open-ended enough for them to get into and experiment with, to hypothesize and conjecture about, to try things out, to fail, to get up and try something else and feel like that is okay. I give them opportunities to write about mathematics, to express themselves mathematically, to feel positive about mathematics."

Gary's curriculum, which eventually became the current 7 pi course, had to address the problem of combining students with varying abilities in math in the same classroom. The "tracking" of students into levels of courses based on their perceived ability is something that reform movements in many disciplines have questioned because of detrimental long-term effects on students who are assigned, for one reason or another, to lower level courses. Tracking too often becomes tangled up with issues of socio-economic level, parental support, cultural or linguistic difference and may result in racial or ethnic imbalances that perpetuate a multi-tiered society, where poverty and race dictate who ends up at the bottom. Gary has observed that, in his suburban and largely upper middle class student body, what made him and others favor heterogeneous grouping was that "when you walked into certain math classes you could tell you were in a lower level class. There were more darker-skinned people in those classes."

Equity Issues in Mathematics Education

Traditional systems of mathematics tracking, based as they are on requirements for college going students, present a particularly daunting challenge to those who would seek to group students heterogeneously. Grouping students with varying abilities together is not something that Tsuruda has always supported or even believed possible. "There had always been some kind of grouping of math students. There were different names for the groups of kids, but it always translated into a low, medium and a high. It was always algebra for the top students at the 8th grade. I was a strong proponent of that. I couldn't imagine teaching math unless the range of ability or the range of achievement was reduced somewhat. It wasn't until about four or five years ago that I started to change my ideas on that."

One of the main ideas that came out of Gary's interaction with other teachers through BAMP, "was the idea of heterogeneous grouping and what that does for kids. In the back of my mind I always knew it would be beneficial, but I didn't have an answer for how to deal with it. People were saying they were doing it, and I remember, about two years after the institute, I finally got the nerve to try combining two different groups of kids into a single class at school and it was successful. That led me to what I am doing now (7 pi), which includes every student except those in two sections of pre-algebra."

The 7 pi curriculum includes problems Tsuruda and others have created that allow students to arrive at the solution in a variety of ways. "A good problem is one which all the kids can solve, even the kids that are struggling in math. Some might solve it with brute force (by completing a table) or they might solve it by guess and check. Other kids may solve the same thing by writing it out. The problem has to have multiple solutions, which will allow a wide range of kids to gain something from it. It has to be engaging." While some of the better problems Gary uses with his students link to situations in real life (the geometry of fruits or the volume of cans in the supermarket), he has also designed problems to go with interdisciplinary teaching situations such as a scene in Tom Sawyer, a study of the Egyptian pyramids, or the design of a space station.

Gary's awareness of how and why he has grown as a teacher has helped him work more effectively with colleagues. "I didn't begin to use heterogeneous grouping because the idea was presented to me in a workshop — I had heard presentations about heterogeneous grouping for years. What made it real for me was talking to other math teachers about it and having teachers share what they were doing and what was working. That was the value of BAMP. Heterogeneous grouping is one example, but the principle is true of almost every area you would consider in terms of growing professionally. Interaction with colleagues whom you respect and can share real ideas with is what makes all the difference, not just hearing presentations."

Symmetry between Classroom Instruction and Professional Development

For Gary, the ways in which teachers learn effectively from each other mirrors the way in which students learn effectively in the classroom. "It is the same as when students sit in my classroom They can sit and listen to someone lecture or they can have a chance to interact with each other about a topic. If you observe in my classroom today, you'll see that I very seldom stand up in the front and lecture. I almost never tell them anything. I almost always present them with a question or an idea and they talk about it in their groups. I think I have evolved to using that model because I realized that is the only thing that makes sense to me, as both a teacher and a learner. I know from past experiences that when I stand up and tell them, half of them, even though they are great kids and they are motivated, half of them still aren't going to get it the way I want them to get it. They may memorize the words but they won't really understand the problem unless they interact with it and make it their own. It is "constructivism" in both instances: with teachers working together, and with students problem-solving. The constructivist way of learning about teaching is what the math projects do by allowing math teachers to share why and how they teach math."

Tsuruda attempts to give teachers a chance to "construct" their understanding of how the problems he designs can work for students of differing abilities in workshops. "If I have time, I ask teachers to play the role of students and do a problem. I have one especially good problem that math teachers have a lot of trouble with but 7th grade students can solve. Then I show them the solutions kids create and student write-ups of the problems. I like to share with them some of the real joy of seeing the caliber of student work that comes from that kind of opportunity. It helps explain why more traditional methods of teaching can be less effective, even when they appear to be working."

Professional development, for Gary Tsuruda, is not about handing pre-packaged curriculum materials from one teacher to another. The process whereby an idea or curricular approach devised by one teacher emerges in another teacher's practice is not a straight-forward one. While Gary constantly gains ideas as well as insight from other teachers, he works through a process of customizing any material he has acquired. The process helps him to achieve a deeper, more personal understanding of the goals of the lesson and gives him the opportunity to make the wording of the lesson more relevant for his own students.

By the same token, he feels uncomfortable handing teachers problems in workshops that they may use verbatim. "So much of an individual's personality is involved in teaching that if it is someone else's stuff, I don't think it works. When I create a problem, I make the circumstances relate to my students so that they will identify with the problem. I may put some of my student's names in it. What concerns me is that teachers may take the problems that I have written for my particular kids, run them off and use them as is. They can't be as effective that way."

Tsuruda believes that the issue of the passing along ready-made, teacher-proof materials is a misguided direction of energy in teacher leadership work. "Teachers who go to conferences to get ideas to use as they are miss the point. The point is, you get inspired to do something from an idea that is generated at a conference, and then you make that idea your own by formatting it in your own way, putting it in your own words and presenting it to kids in your own style."

What about the fact that Gary has designed a (7 pi) curriculum that is now used by other teachers in his school, and been the inspiration for a course taught at the eighth grade level? "I worry that the curriculum may be taught in a way that will not be as thoughtful, and so not as successful. I am worried that will have an effect on how the curriculum is perceived." Just as there isn't a short cut or mechanical process to understanding mathematical principles, neither is there one for teaching mathematics well. The process of dialogue and questioning with colleagues is a lengthy one. This is the crux of leadership. "The way I teach is hard work. It is more rewarding to design materials for your students, but it takes a lot of hours. You can't force teachers to do that."

Barriers to Change

Administrators who require teachers to implement changes that they don't desire or understand are doomed to failure. "My experience at the district office was a big factor in developing an awareness of how people change. I likened the role of the consultant to someone who is trying to push a rope. You can't do it. You can't push somebody unless they are ready to go there, but you can try to pull them along and support a willing change process."

When a principal asks me to go in and do a workshop and it is the principal's idea, it is a whole different kind of workshop than when the staff has asked the principal to contact me to come and do a workshop. It is a different animal. If teachers don't want to do something, you can't make them. Teachers can go through the motions and make it look like they are doing something without really doing it. I have seen that happen in every school district that I have been in. A principal, through some communication channel, may have heard that teachers are supposed to be using portfolios, that they are supposed to be using heterogeneous groups, that they are supposed to asking kids to write. They tell their teachers that they expect to see those things when they are in the room. They may see kids sitting in groups, but not interacting; or they will see kids putting work in a folder, but not using it as a portfolio in the real sense — that kind of form versus the spirit. That is one of the dangers of top-down change. A principal will walk in and see these superficial signs and say, "this is great," but not see beyond that.

"If you want to encourage a teacher to change or consider another way of doing things," Tsuruda has learned, "you can't say to them, what you have devoted your life to is all gone. You can't even suggest it in so many words. I approach them by describing how I used to teach so that most of them can identify with me. I tell them I have changed. I started by doing this and this and this. I share with them the transition of how my practice has evolved and hope that they can identify with that and understand the reasons why I decided to change. I think that gets at the philosophy in a different way, a more comfortable way, than just saying, I know you are all wrong."

Gary sees networks like the Bay Area Math Project and ideally, local schools, as the places where long-term, in-depth conversations about teaching math should go on. "I don't think you can measure the effect of the Math Project just by looking at the math project itself. That is just the tip of the iceberg. A significant number of participants go out and in a lot of different ways, share the changes they have made with their colleagues. With all that goes on in math education, I'm not sure where the effect of BAMP stops and starts. I just know that for me and for the teachers that I talk to, it's effectiveness has continued." The Project has provided Tsuruda with a professional home for exercising the kind of leadership that he believes is most effective, and for continuing to develop his teaching practice. "Even if I weren't going back to BAMP as an instructor, I would have a sense of being a part of BAMP."

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