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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


The Nomination And Definition Of Teacher Leaders

We began our study in 1993 by asking 75 educational professionals in California for the names of teachers who they identified as "leaders." These educational leaders (including teachers) worked in state and county offices of education, in universities, in large school districts and with the California Subject Matter Projects. We invited each individual to contribute the names of up to five "exemplary" teacher leaders with whom they had worked. "The criteria for nomination should be your own," we told them, but we asked them to list each teacher's "major leadership contributions," and to tell us "why you chose this individual." We emphasized that we were interested in learning about leadership qualities, characteristics and roles that were "non-traditional and undocumented."

In response we received over two hundred names. It was from this pool that we chose twelve teachers for the leadership case studies, and it was this group that we surveyed to test and expand on information about leadership provided by the case study group.16

In addition to providing us with names, the nominators also provided us with rationales for their choices. In doing so they outlined both functions that teacher leaders were performing and criteria that made their work distinguished. They also helped to deepen the thinking about teacher leadership. For example, the official role of district "mentor" was mentioned only about twelve percent of the time. But in over seventy percent of the descriptions of leaders, a clear connection was made between discipline expertise derived from classroom experience, credibility with peers, and effective leadership outcomes.

We learned that teacher leaders were designing and adopting curriculum, presenting workshops to colleagues, planning and facilitating programs for staff development and initiating or furthering discipline-based school restructuring or reform agendas. The ability to reach and teach special populations of kids also was often cited as a leadership trait. "I know this teacher to be an authentic leader in education," an Associate Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs wrote to us. "His work is being recognized by his peers and others as he succeeds with immigrant students." Like good administrators, teachers also were viewed as effective leaders because they were not only good teachers but also personable and able to influence others.

The abilities or traits most frequently cited by "outsiders" as evidence of leadership could be grouped as follows:

  • a specific or deep knowledge about teaching a discipline in relation to a larger (state or national) context (e.g. "She has significantly increased her knowledge of mathematics content and pedagogy");
  • a positive, student-centered interpersonal style (e.g. "She is open and accepting and remains positive and supportive — always concerned about what's best for children");
  • a classroom practice expertise and classroom-based credibility (e.g. "She is well-respected by all teachers. They know her ideas have been tested in her classroom");
  • holding an influence with colleagues, schools, and policies (e.g. "He has been very instrumental in changing the way math is taught in our district," or, "She is a quiet leader who has had a profound influence on our [elementary] school in the following areas: science, class discipline, literature and manipulative math.")

Many nominators — who were also CSMP site directors — emphasized the leadership roles teachers had assumed in designing and directing CSMP site-based work. Participation in a CSMP invitational Institute was often listed by nominators as a part of the teacher's leadership resume. Recommendations from one CSMP site leader spoke of the teachers development in terms of the evolution of her role at the local CSMP site:

She has progressed from being a participant in 1984 to Associate Director of the [math project site] and has contributed much to the project, to her school and to the elementary school where her children attend, and was the [campus] visiting high school teacher for 1991-92. Her work with teachers began after her participation in the project.

Others spoke of the roles that teachers participating in the CSMPs take on in their home districts:

She is an excellent example of the strength of the CSMPs in creating teacher leaders who have far-reaching impact via curriculum and the staff development leadership roles they later assume.

While most of the teacher leaders referred to us had been in the profession for fifteen years or more, contrary to traditional notions of novice and veteran, seniority in the district or even in the profession was rarely mentioned as an advantage or prerequisite to leadership. A CSMP Board member reported:

Jane is a fairly new teacher to our district and yet she has had immediate influence on the teachers in her grade level.

Another CSMP site director stated:

Sandy is an exciting new teacher in the field, but she demonstrates exceptional insight, organization and instructional skill — she has emerged as a positive "younger" role model for many.

Comments such as these provided us with first hints of what finally became a vivid, compelling and often dichotomous portrait of the nature of teacher leadership work. From the twelve leadership case studies, and from the subsequent survey of 200 leaders, we learned that outward signs of leadership were only the tip of the iceberg. More and more we came to see that educational leadership, as practiced by classroom teachers, involved a subtle and complex system of motivations, strategies and goals based on a vision for educational improvement. We learned that teacher leadership is simultaneously student- and discipline-centered, an idea that we explore in the sections that follow.

Insider Views Of Teacher Leadership

People thought it was a step down when I went [from the district office] 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.17

The above quote from one of our case study teachers suggests that leadership in the teaching profession emerges from, is inspired by, and gains credibility from classroom practice. This teacher chose to leave a district position as math coordinator (at a considerable loss in salary), to return to a middle school teaching position. He did so because he believed that he could be a more effective curriculum leader when operating from the classroom, rather than from the district office. He knew this action ran counter to the ways leadership- and curriculum-based change are currently structured and provided for by school administration.

Results from a Survey of 200 Teacher Leaders

Traditionally, curriculum expertise and authority for leadership and change have resided in district, county, state and national administrators. Discipline-specific expertise has been provided by university, district or county resource individuals. They, in turn, are advised by state level experts who design curriculum frameworks, recommend course materials, create systems of assessment and keep abreast of research in the field, national standards and educational policy. Educational policies, including discipline-specific reforms, are almost always considered, approved and implemented from the top down and from the outside-in.

For the twelve teachers in our study, however, we found that authority for their leadership resided in their own accumulated wisdom about teaching, not in any prior experience in traditional leadership roles. While ninety percent of the teacher leaders responding to the leadership survey had good working relationships with local administrators and derived support for leadership from those relationships, administrative approval did not make them leaders. "I don't have to be designated a leader by administrators or other authorities," they told us. Instead over seventy percent acknowledged, "my leadership came naturally out of my classroom teaching and was validated when it resonated for other teachers." This attitude is reminiscent of other professions — science, medicine, law, and even sports — where authority is clearly related to one's expertise and experience in the practice of the discipline.

If success in the classroom provides the knowledge base and source of authority for informing the vision of the effective leader, what distinguishes a teacher leader from an expert classroom teacher? According to those participating in our study, a teacher leader is one who is able not only to teach well, but also able to communicate their teaching ideas and practices to others. In the words of a case study participant,

For me, a leader is someone who is more than just a successful classroom teacher, because the ideas or opinions which constitute successful classroom teaching are so idiosyncratic. I want to see someone who has a vision of what a school is and a theory about how learning takes place…[I want to see] they have achieved a philosophical perspective.18

Ninety-nine percent of survey takers endorsed this definition of a teacher leader. Or, as one teacher told us in more common terms, "teacher leaders can walk the walk, as well as talk the talk."

Educational administrators derive their leadership from a vision of what a school is and a theory about how learning takes place. Teacher leaders, by contrast, use a vision and theory that is grounded in the concrete experience, work and success of their own students. Just as Far West and PACE researchers found in their 1987 study, teacher leaders in our study linked the "credibility" of staff developers to the depth of their experiences with students and to "classroom-tested" ideas. "Classroom teachers," survey respondents told us, "have more credibility as presenters than those who have left the classroom," because, the classroom is the ultimate testing ground for the impact of any improvement or reform. The classroom is both the inspiration for and the final product or proof of effective leadership work. "My experience has been," the group affirmed, "that leadership only succeeds when it makes a difference in our own classrooms."

In terms of professional development the teacher leaders informed us that, "the old view that 'experts' come in from the outside to do to teachers what teachers [then] do to students is a wrong model for staff development." That is, they did not endorse a hierarchical model whereby curriculum expertise is passed down from outside authorities to be implemented by classroom teachers.

A Collegial Rather Than Hierarchical View of Teacher Leadership

The teachers in our study — those in the case studies, the survey group, and those attending colloquia on leadership that we later conducted — spoke of a new, non-hierarchical conception of leadership. They saw teacher leaders working in schools based on a collaborative and cooperative process whereby peers would both teach and learn from each other. "Leadership is a collaborative effort," one case study teacher stated. "It is getting together to try to understand what effective teaching is and then using that understanding to make a difference in your own classroom, in the school, and hopefully to make an impact in a wider way. For me, it is collaborative."

In part, this collegial view of professional development parallels a similar movement toward more collaborative classroom learning environments. Some have argued that advances in technology and the changing requirements of the workplace suggest reconceptualization of the classroom teacher's role. No longer is it sufficient for the teacher to serve solely as a deliverer of facts about science, math or history. Instead, teachers have become the architects of more complex learning experiences allowing students to assume greater responsibility for shaping and interpreting their own knowledge.

In today's public school classrooms, teachers engage students with widely varying abilities and motivational levels. In order to design and carry out a teaching program that will empower students as learners and achieve a deeper, more versatile understanding of the subject matter, expert teachers need to continually expand and adjust their teaching repertoire to match the needs of students. Purchased or "canned" teaching programs have been replaced by teacher-authored multi-resource lessons so that students with varying talents and skills can interpret, manipulate and critically analyze evidence or problems as a part of the learning process. To create such lessons, teachers must have a sophisticated knowledge of the essential ideas and processes of the disciplines and also a sense of the best way to involve students in the learning process. In addition, the teaching of the disciplines has to connect with students' knowledge and interests. Every teacher who responded to the leadership survey agreed, "It is important to me that my students are able to apply what they learn to life…and see its relevance for today's world. This affects my role as a teacher and the nature of the information I include in my lessons."

Educational researchers Kathleen Devaney and Gary Sykes have verified the complex challenge posed to today's teachers by a new and "contrasting conception of teaching that emphasizes the continual and changing interplay between thought and action, based on close observation and reflection about the encounter or 'match' between students and subject matter."19 Not only must teachers master subject matter, but they must use, "intuition, creativity, improvisation, and expressiveness…Teaching is more than skilled transmission; it is principled action."20 Changes in the way students are taught have had similar and profound effects on how professional development is conducted. Just as the role of the teacher has changed in the classroom, so the role of the staff development leader has changed. In both situations, greater responsibility is assigned to the student as a full participant entitled to experience the subject matter, to draw conclusions and make judgments about it. The goal in both cases is the same: to allow the learner or colleague to assume a greater share of the responsibility for their growth of knowledge, and to acquire a discriminating stance toward the acquisition of new knowledge. Over 80 percent of the teachers involved in our survey agreed with a statement made by a case study participant, "With my students I want to get to the point where I am a facilitator and they learn how to find out information without thinking of me as the fountain of wisdom — the same is true with adults." A case study leader told us, "We are talking about learners. No matter how old you are, the goal is to allow the learners to become their own teachers. We are all both learners and teachers."21

And, just as students of differing abilities can be better served by a more versatile curriculum, so a revised, non-hierarchical model for leadership has allowed teachers with differing backgrounds, styles, and strengths to emerge as leaders. While we found that most teacher leaders in the study were the traditional "up in front" type leaders, twenty-five percent (or about fifty) of those who completed the leadership survey strongly agreed that: "The type of leadership where you stand up in front of people is not my style. I am a good listener, so I function best in a listening role, as a reflective group leader."22 "There are different ways you can be a leader," another said, "I choose to lead in a subtle, supporting manner, where others are out there organizing — you can really see them. I see that need, but I also understand how I best do things. I lead by example."23

While a downplaying of hierarchy allows for a wider range of leadership styles to emerge, it also reflects the value placed on collegiality in the profession in three other ways. First, we found that teacher leaders do not necessarily connect leadership accomplishment to "moving up the ladder." Those responding to the leadership survey had mixed reactions to a statement that asked them to equate their leadership work to moving up in a professional hierarchy. That is, teachers expressed mixed sentiments in response to the proposition: "I need to move up in a professional hierarchy like members of other professions do; leadership roles provide that hierarchy for the teaching profession." One third agreed to the statement, a third were neutral or mixed about the idea, and the remainder rejected it or declined to answer.

Second, teachers need collaborative support to survive as leaders. We asked teachers if they had felt resentment or tension from their peers for becoming identified as a "teacher leader." A minority (38 percent) reported that they had experienced some tension. But, in a related response, 97 percent agreed that, "In the course of my development as a teacher, I discovered how important it was for me to work in collaborative situations with other teachers. It gives me the strength and energy to survive." They also agreed, in response to another question, that they would find it difficult, if not impossible, to be a teacher leader for any length of time without support from a professional community of colleagues.

Third, teachers do not engage in leadership work to escape the classroom. We asked leaders to respond to the following: "Without Project involvement, I probably would have left teaching and entered administration. The Project allowed me to develop professionally and exert leadership in education without giving up teaching." A resounding 71 percent of those responding rejected this proposition outright while only 18 percent endorsed it.

Leadership, they had told us in many ways, was not about moving away from the classroom, but about revealing the truths within it. Leadership work was pursued, not as an escape valve, but as a necessary outgrowth of a concern for the well-being of students in the larger system, and to serve and support their teaching. "The bottom line," 90 percent told us, "is I do leadership work because it benefits and impacts my own students."

When leaders view colleagues as respected collaborators rather than as "followers to be led to the mountain," they tend to reinforce the self-esteem of the profession as a whole. Teacher leaders spoke of experiencing an atmosphere of mutual respect during CSMP summer institutes, with profound effect. In such a climate they felt safe and empowered enough to critically examine their teaching practice — an essential core of leadership work and the foundation for meaningful staff development.

The Origins And Practice Of Teacher Leadership

Earlier we reviewed the categories Carnegie Commissioners had used to describe the roles of teacher leaders: mentoring of beginning teachers; appraising and critiquing each other; designing, organizing and conducting staff in-service; and facilitating review of building-level concerns. While the Carnegie vision is a bounded vision, the leaders we surveyed knew no such bounds. We provided leaders with an extensive list of 39 possibilities for leadership roles: 11 related to the classroom, 10 to the school, 7 in the district, and 11 beyond. The 200 leaders responded by writing in over 264 other roles they had filled. The write-ins included 122 additional roles alone that originated from "classroom-based" leadership.24 While many of the roles they described were more technical descriptions of our generic suggestions, they demonstrated to us the lack of imagination we and others have had for the variety of ways teachers exert leadership.

If one thing clearly emerges from this study, it is that the origins of and the "content" for teacher leadership work derives from 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 the source of authority and the content of leadership in their disciplines from their successful practice. Across many different disciplines, professional leadership comes from and draws upon the knowledge and confidence of grounded practice. When the philosophy or vision for leadership is grounded in successful personal teaching practice, a leader can move forward in a number of directions: 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, as well as by engaging in the more formal (and visible) roles of lead teacher, mentor or workshop presenter.

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.

Leadership in the Form of Workshops

One of the most prominent ways in which teachers share knowledge is via the "demonstration workshop." The goal of such a workshop is to engage colleagues in activity and reflection about teaching a discipline; it is not to give others something to do on Monday morning, but to plant the seed of deeper change over time. "When teachers come to workshops," a case study leader told us and others agreed, "they often want gimmicks and strategies to take home with them, but I've found that this can be the beginning of helping them re-think the way they teach on a more fundamental level."

Another leader expressed how the simple act of presenting a workshop is the result of a complex interrelationship between practice, vision, respect and empowerment for teachers and students. "When I go out and give workshops, my workshops are about what and how I teach, and how I address kids, so what I am doing is empowering teachers and knowing that as I empower teachers, they in turn empower kids. A disempowered teacher cannot empower kids."25 What, then, "empowers" the teacher-presenter? Empowerment in fact appears to come from two related sources: a deep, versatile and authentic personal knowledge of discipline teaching practices that are effective with students, and validation of the value of that knowledge by highly-respected colleagues.

Ninety-two percent of the teacher leaders who responded to our survey reported having presented workshops to colleagues in their schools at least "occasionally." A majority did so, "consistently." Ninety-six percent had presented workshops to teachers in their districts; 80 percent had assisted in the design or planning of in-service days for their districts; a similar number reported presenting at state or national professional association meetings; 75 percent had presented at the county level.

Clearly the professional development landscape has changed since 1986, when Far West and PACE researchers reported that teachers were rarely solely responsible for the planning or presenting of workshops to colleagues.

Leadership in the Form of Curriculum Development

Empowerment and professionalism as a teacher means that teachers author, rather than "implement," subject matter curriculum. Ninety-three percent of teacher leaders said they designed and wrote curriculum for use in their classrooms. "I change what I do every year," 83 percent stated, "I have to experiment when I teach." A significant part of teacher leadership work is making the results of their experimentation and innovation known to the immediate school community. Ninety-one percent served on grade level, curriculum and other school committees and a similar number were recognized as the lead teacher in a discipline at their school. Sixty-six percent were district mentor teachers.

Leadership at the School Level

When we asked them to judge their most effective sphere of influence, teacher leaders told us they were most effective where the stakes were highest for them: in their local school communities. Eighty percent of teacher leaders reported being most influential when working with colleagues and administrators in their schools. They work the hardest and exert the most influence there not only because of proximity but also because the fate of the students in their school is of the highest concern for them.

One case study participant shed light on what he and others consider to be the fundamental work of leadership: to create an environment for improvement and change on a day-to-day basis in the local school, and to move even reluctant colleagues gradually forward. "Teacher leadership," he told us, "is not doing presentations or workshops or being called upon to appear as an expert about curriculum or write an article about assessment, although these are things I've done. That is what an outsider might think leadership is, but that is definitely an outside view. Leadership is having a vision of what ought to happen in your subject matter and moving people there, and sharing ideas with colleagues in informal ways, because you don't come back to your school and do a workshop for the people you work with. There isn't the separation between the audience and the presenter that you get in the workshop. We work together, we talk about kids, we talk about the school and the problems we face. Everyone has to be approached differently."26

Others agreed that in the local school, informal interactions were most effective. "If teachers come to me, I would rather sit and talk with them one-on-one than give a presentation to my whole faculty." 27

Results from a Survey of 200 Teacher Leaders

Seventy percent of the surveyed teacher leaders also reported maintaining a strong and influential working relationship with other teachers through the local CSMP site and the California Subject Matter Project network. This satisfies their need for a supportive and validating community. 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 judged their efforts.

Although the authority for leadership emerges from their teaching practice and validation comes from peers, leaders need the support of local administrators to fulfill their agendas. Ninety-three percent believed that, "unless teacher leaders are formally recognized as mentors or policy makers by the system, we can't really be effective in leadership or change-making roles."

Strategies Of Teacher Leadership

Teacher leaders acquire an arsenal of strategies and "people skills" for working with colleagues with different attitudes, tolerances and comfort levels. In general, teacher leaders reported that they followed a respectful "path of least resistance," when working with their colleagues: "I am careful not to force my ideas upon colleagues…" they told us, "instead, I create opportunities for colleagues to become more receptive to new ideas."

When asked: "Do you have strategies?" a case study leader responded, "Everyone does. If you are trying to influence the teacher next door, you put your work out and you show the good points of your work in a very subtle way, not too much, otherwise they might just close their ears to it."28 Mutual respect is a hallmark of interaction with colleagues, even when the premise is to improve the colleague's teaching. "I don't think that you change people. I think that you need to provide opportunities for them to see other things and you need to challenge them, but people have to change themselves."29

Out of concern for the long-term experiences of students, leaders are willing to be patient when working with peers. "My strategy with groups of teachers is to build on strengths. If there is someone who is more willing, I will work with that person first," they agreed. They then build communities of colleagues over time. A case study leader used such a strategy to develop a strong district team. "I went to my school first — to my friends, and then from there we branched out. When there was resistance, we let people speak out. I wasn't so much a leader as a friend. I would talk with someone and say, 'look this was exciting and it has revolutionized my teaching and let me show you and why don't you go with me?' Then we started the team and I became the leader simply because I had the energy, the time; I had been to the [CSMP] summer institute. I had that one leg up."30

Leaders like the former encourage their peers to air critical views because they believe that new programs and processes should be viewed critically. Leaders overwhelmingly agreed with the survey statement that, "I measure [new programs and processes] against my intuitive sense of what is best for students and I encourage others to do that as well."

A motivating premise for engaging in leadership is the concern leaders have for the welfare of the students who enter and exit the leaders' lives — those students who are taught by colleagues in the school whose teaching programs may either support or undermine the leaders' own efforts. As one case study leader noted, "We have to make changes for kids today, but it is hard to make changes for them when teachers didn't have the background [in math] that they needed for those changes… Piecemeal change is frustrating."31 Thus leaders find it necessary to work with their colleagues in deeper ways that might promote transformations in individual teachers or even changes on a school- and/or district-wide basis.

Teachers are well aware of their power to accept or reject reforms. "Teachers change schools," a case study leader stated, unequivocally. "Teachers have a tremendous amount of power — collectively they have the most power. If you want change to happen, it has to be teachers who are the impetus. It can't be an administrator saying, 'we want to change;' it has to be a desire deep within the teachers that they want that change to happen." She added, "Most of the changes that I want to have happen are based on concern for an individual kid."32

Entering leadership work out of concern for children has a flip side, however. Eighty-five percent of leaders also told us that, "a hard part of being a classroom teacher and becoming more involved in leadership work is that it takes me out of the classroom and detracts from the time I spend on teaching my own students."

Symmetry Between Leadership Strategies and Teaching Strategies

Leaders repeatedly spoke of the symmetry between their work with students and their work with teachers as part and parcel of their unified vision for leadership. "I try to establish a vision [with my colleagues], if that makes sense. Just like I do with my kids," a case study leader said. "Once they get the vision, they return to you for more, then you keep encouraging them and sending little things out to them."33

Successful classroom teaching strategies can be transferred to work with colleagues. For example, just as students are taught how to learn in cooperative groups rather than in isolation, leaders agreed with a case study teacher who said that, "because teachers have been isolated they don't know how to collaborate. I find I have to create situations where they can learn how to work together." Another leader told us how she made the process for comparison between staff meetings and classroom interaction a conscious one. "We had a meeting that degenerated, so I said, 'let me plan the next meeting.' A colleague and I got together and planned a process. Afterwards we said [to the group] this is the kind of [processing] we do with our kids. Do you think this conversation was more fruitful?"34

One basic strategy that was affirmed by every respondent could be applied to work with colleagues or students: "For me, developing leadership in others means inspiring people to do their best work. I try to recognize their strengths and help them build upon that."

Leaders rejected a proposition we put to them that it was "hopeless" and "a waste of time" to try to work with some teachers. A case study teacher elaborated, "In dealing with some people, it is simply a matter of understanding that they cannot change or adapt as quickly. They need more time to process and practice. I think we [leaders] tend to be the risk-takers."35 She was right. Of those who took the survey, 72 percent characterized themselves strongly as "a person who thrives on freedom, flexibility, experimentation and risk-taking."

In conclusion, teacher leaders reported that they have developed strategies for working with teachers that respect and honor their colleagues' professionalism, while gently nudging them toward change. The inherent tension between respect for current strengths and the need for change causes leaders to move slowly, to build on strengths and to apply lessons learned from working effectively with students.

Extrinsic and Intrinsic Motivations for Assuming Roles of Teacher Leadership

We have seen that a strong vision of good teaching is both a motivator and premise for leadership. Teachers become leaders to move their agenda beyond the classroom, to provide an intellectual community for their personal growth and development, to create a variety of supports to sustain themselves in a demanding profession, to receive validation that they are "on the right track" from trusted colleagues and because, ultimately, leadership work benefits and impacts their students.

Results from a Survey of 200 Teacher Leaders

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."

Other write-in responses on the survey referred to the need for teachers to circumvent isolation, "to learn new things, to grow," and "to help make the teaching profession a community of learners and scholars."

Results from a Survey of 200 Teacher Leaders

We asked teachers what extrinsic rewards (in addition to the intrinsic rewards discussed above) they valued in return for engaging in leadership. On the survey, we presented them with eight types of "rewards, compensation or support" and asked them to assign a value to those they had received. Teacher leaders reported receiving release time, stipends, unit credit and expenses.36 However, these types of remuneration, while appreciated, did not provide the primary motivation for their engagement in leadership work. In addition to the compensation categories we provided, leaders wrote in an additional fifty-one other forms of support they had received, and valued. A third of the things they contributed were rated as "highly valued" by them and, once again, included intrinsic rewards such as respect, recognition, fulfillment, impact, and having their views sought by others.

Results from a Survey of 200 Teacher Leaders

Our findings about motivation for leadership echo those cited in McLaughlin and Yee's article, "School as a Place to Have a Career." They reported that "even though some teachers wanted expanded or new roles, a vertical job structure did not fit their vision of career advancement."37 While teachers sought expanded roles such as mentor or resource positions, such roles were viewed as useful to them because they gained a larger view of teaching that enhanced their effectiveness. Thus, again, the goal was to stay in, not leave the classroom.

The researchers also acknowledged the power of intrinsic rewards in the teaching profession as opposed to the more production-oriented professions. "Many people are drawn to the teaching profession by a strong service ethic or a strong client orientation and attribute greater importance to intrinsic motivation or reward (Lortie, 1975; Swanson-Owens, 1986). The strongest incentives for teachers derive their power from enabling teachers to reap psychic, intangible benefits from making a difference in the classroom (Lortie, 1975)."38

Issues Of Teacher Leadership

Teacher leaders reported encountering problems, tensions and obstacles in their leadership work including the following:

  • a lack of time due to the increased demands of leadership opportunities (ironically, leadership work that emerges from a concern for students often takes the leader out of the classroom);
  • the (understandable) reluctance of some colleagues to work as hard at teaching as these leaders do;
  • the problems encountered negotiating traditional administrative structures, bureaucracies and policies;
  • a commitment to voluntary rather than forced change that is embedded in honoring the professionalism of colleagues — but also a commitment that runs counter to hierarchical authority and administrative tradition; and
  • occasional assignment to trivial but time-consuming leadership roles that are designed to maintain, rather than improve, the status quo.

Issues of Time

Not all teachers are as appreciative of intrinsic rewards. "A major obstacle to my work with colleagues is that not every teacher is as willing or able as me to make the investment of time and hard work," is a sentiment that had been experienced by 80 percent of the group. Several of the case study participants related anecdotes that revealed how unrealistic it was to expect teacher leaders to influence every teacher in the school to try more innovative teaching approaches. "This kind of teaching requires hard work. It is more exciting and rewarding, but it is a lot of hours. You can't force somebody to do that."39

If we have come to expect altruism from every teacher, leaders tell us we are expecting too much. "Sometimes teachers just think about what is best for them. If they have to plan with another teacher, that means extra time planning and that means cutting out something that they wanted to do."40

Results from a Survey of 200 Teacher Leaders

When "Leadership" Becomes Busywork

The best intentions of school administrators "to hand over decision-making" to teachers can inadvertently burden teacher leaders with issues that are essentially non-instructional, and even trivial, in nature. Teacher leaders would like to be given nothing more than time and agency to structure and carry out their work — work that is, by nature, fluid, strategic and opportunistic. The leadership roles proposed by district administrators often shift generic, bureaucratic issues of school management to the shoulders of teacher committees. Teachers in the study were impatient with administrator-created roles that gave the appearance of "shared decision-making," but teachers were given mandates over what they felt too often were the "wrong decisions." When the "content" of such institutionalized roles is not related to the teaching and learning of a discipline, it fails to tap the teacher's expertise. One case study participant spoke of his frustration with (and eventual resignation from) the role of "instructional supervisor" for his department when he found himself making decisions about "where the band would practice."41

His experience characterized a phenomena educational researcher Patricia Wasley also found when studying leadership roles in schools. Leadership roles designed by administrators are not change-maker roles. "Most leadership roles currently available are not designed to change practice but to ensure the efficiency and effectiveness of the existing system." [Emphasis added.]42

Misunderstood Issues of "Resistance"

Even a seemingly plum leadership assignment like planning a staff inservice day can become wrought with peril for a teacher leader who is trying to build community among a teaching staff. One of the case study leaders was asked by her administrator to help organize an inservice day for the teachers in her school. Right from the start the nature of the event violated her instincts about the best way to proceed with reluctant colleagues. She had known in advance how teachers would react if they felt forced to participate and then change their teaching practices. "I knew it was going to be a horrible day, that people would be mad and frustrated. It was mandatory. After the event some of the organizers said they were appalled at the lack of professionalism among teachers, but I knew what was happening. Teachers were saying no to the experience because they felt increasingly more disempowered about everything they were being asked to do."43

The phenomena of "resistance" runs throughout research on change processes. A 1988 article, "Teacher Participation in Curriculum Development: What Status Does it Have?" captured the teacher's perspective. "I was very busy, and I thought this was just something added to the whole array of things that I was doing, and sometimes I found that it was just a bit too much. I think that was the problem with most people." So-called "teacher empowerment" became, in her words, "just another thing that's pushed down to the teacher level."44

When the "content" for leadership work is not centered on the realities of the teacher's classroom practice, leaders often encounter resistance from their colleagues. One leader related a story about the implementation of an adopted curriculum to develop learning skills. She had been designated to oversee this implementation by her school administrators. "I set aside Thursday afternoons for an hour for people to come to me with problems…hardly anyone ever came. A friend told me there was a lot of respect for me and that they had agreed to adopt a new program for my sake that no one really felt confident about…it was like they were saying, 'I can't come and relate to you.'"45

That experience, where no one showed up to learn more about a purchased curriculum, contrasted sharply with the experience of a case study leader who wanted to share from his teaching practice. He had successfully created and implemented a heterogeneously-grouped math course at the seventh grade. As student excitement and parental interest in the course grew, two other seventh grade teachers also were assigned to teach sections of the new course. One teacher began to sit in on the leader's class each day, while the other joined them for detailed discussions after school. "Two other teachers were so full of questions about how to do [the new course] that everyday after school we would spend quite a bit of time talking about what had happened [in my class]. That just didn't work for me. I just said, 'look you guys, I can't spend an hour after school every day telling you about what I did, because I have to prepare.'"46 He faced a demand for leadership from other interested teachers that he could not fulfill because of lack of time.


16 Please see Appendix C for more details on the composition of the 200 teacher leaders who were part of this study.

17 Case study consultant "C."

18 Case study consultant "G."

19 Kathleen Devaney and Gary Sykes. "Making the Case for Professionalism," in Building a Professional Culture in Schools, ed. Lieberman, New York: Teacher's College Press; Columbia University, 1988, p. 6.

20 Ibid., p. 6.

21 Case study consultant "E."

22 Case study consultant "G."

23 Case study consultant "F."

24 Teachers wrote in 122 additional classroom-centered roles, 78 school-based roles, and 64 other roles at the district level. When we categorized their responses we still were left with 36 classroom, 28 school, and 31 district (95 "other") responses. Our original "exhaustive" survey list had presented them with 39 possibilities. (Leadership roles specific to the CSMPs are not included here.)

25 Case study consultant "H."

26 Case study consultant "C."

27 Case study consultant "G."

28 Case study consultant "B."

29 Case study consultant "J."

30 Case study consultant "H."

31 Case study consultant "J."

32 Case study consultant "J."

33 Case study consultant "F."

34 Case study consultant "A."

35 Case study consultant "D."

36 Of these, unit credit was least valued, possibly because of the career advancement of the pool, most of whom were likely to be at the top of the salary scale.

37 Milbrey McLaughlin and Sylvia Mei-Ling Yee. "School as a Place to Have a Career," in Building a Professional Culture in Schools, ed. Lieberman, New York: Teachers College Press; Columbia University; 1988, p. 25.

38 Ibid., p. 25.

39 Case study consultant "C."

40 Case study consultant "A."

41 Case study consultant "C."

42 Wasley, "Teachers Who Lead," p. 4.

43 Case study consultant "B."

44 Jean Young, "Teacher Participation in Curriculum Development: What Status Does It Have?" in Journal of Curriculum and Supervision, Winter 1988, Vol. 3, No. 2, p. 110.

45 Case study consultant "B."

46 Case study consultant "C."

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