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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


Design Principles

The ideas expressed by the twelve teacher leaders in our sample, and the consensus expressed in the survey items, both have implications for the work of the CSMPs. If indeed, the CSMPs are about the development and deployment of teacher leadership, then it behooves them to understand that phenomenon very deeply. In this section of the report we identify key findings from our interviews and survey and speculate on some possible implications for the ways in which the CSMPs design and carry out their work. (See Table I for a summary of design implications.)

Selecting and Supporting (But not Creating) Good Leaders

Participation in a CSMP site, while supporting or bolstering leadership, does not make leaders out of non-leaders. More than 80 percent of those responding to the survey acknowledged that they brought the crucial prerequisite for leadership with them: their teaching practice. "I entered the institute as a professional with accumulated wisdom about teaching and learning. The institute provided a place to interact with other teachers whom I respected and to share my expertise to influence education beyond my classroom." Only 34 percent of those in the survey were willing to give their institute experience the lion's share of credit for fostering their subsequent leadership.

Again, this finding relates directly to respect for the professionalism of a teacher's practice-based expertise. Staff development programs do not "confer" leadership on professional teachers by virtue of their participation in a short program, or by attempting to bolster subject matter knowledge in a series of tiers or stages of involvement, but programs contribute successfully to leadership in both ways. CSMP sites should strive to recruit teachers for their invitational (i.e. selectional) institutes who possess the critical pre-requisites for leadership, including: expertise derived from a teaching practice; an attitude that supports critical inquiry, creativity and risk-taking; a student-centered motivation for engaging in leadership; interpersonal skills and a deep understanding of and appreciation for the subject matter.

While sites can contribute critical experiences that will enhance leadership, teachers we surveyed told us that it was their experience of community and the support from colleagues (from kindergarten through university) who contributed the essential element: validation of the teacher leader's commitment and vision. Eighty-five percent of teacher leaders reported experiencing a sense of validation from and mutual respect with others in the institute. As a result they agreed with one teacher who stated, "I realized that my ideas could make a real contribution to the profession." A case study leader explained further:

I was thinking that the kind of people who were in the Project were so talented, how could I talk to or compete with them? All of a sudden you are there and you are making a contribution and they are telling you that you are so talented, how am I going to compete with you? — and you say, wait a minute, that is what I was thinking about you! So you build on that energy and you build on that support. Something just happens there."47

Focusing on Classroom Practice

Activities at CSMP institutes give teachers an opportunity to portray, share and critically examine the concrete ways in which they each teach the discipline to their own students. Using such concrete examples, their discussions vary from examination of particular lessons, to more general pedagogical approaches, to underlying philosophical tenets. They also learn more about educational reform issues and current research on teaching the discipline, and relate their own classroom practices to these broader ideas. In this sense they gain a new view on their own teaching. Of those responding to the leadership survey, 85 percent agreed strongly with the idea that "involvement in the CSMP institute helped me develop a perspective on what I do in the classroom and the skill to articulate that to others."

Teaching Each Other the Practice of Teaching

Sharing teaching practices by presenting "demonstration lesson" workshops is a primary activity practiced at California Writing Project summer institutes, and at selected sites in other disciplines of the California Subject Matter Projects. This practice was reported to have a direct relationship to presenting subsequent workshops in schools and other arenas. Over 80 percent of the teacher leaders agreed that, "Making a presentation to teachers in the institute helped me develop the self-confidence to present workshops in schools and other arenas." And further, they expressed a belief in the basic premise of CSMP design: "In my experience," they agreed, "inservice series presented by teacher consultants are an effective agent for change in schools."

Workshops succeed when teachers are encouraged to talk and reflect about their own teaching practices, and when they preserve the dignity and professionalism of participants. "I have been to a lot of workshops. The ones that are voluntary, rather than mandatory, are the best. For myself, I like the talk when we get to collaborate with each other. So the "talk" half of the workshop is effective for me, and if it doesn't happen, then it really isn't as effective."48

TABLE I: A design checklist for CSMP sites

and other providers of professional development for teachers49

CSMP teachers report that their capacity as teacher leaders has been furthered by opportunities to:

Therefore, CSMP sites can ask themselves about the degree to which they are able to:

Articulate a vision of teaching and learning in their discipline

(85% say this was valuable in furthering their leadership)

Provide opportunities for teachers to engage in the critical kinds of talk and interaction necessary to articulate a vision for teaching the discipline

Present a workshop to colleagues (82%)

Provide a sheltered, structured and safe environment for teachers to develop professional presentations, workshops, and other events for their colleagues

Participate in a culture of critical inquiry and reflection on teaching

practices (76%)

Seek and encourage a multiplicity of voices, concerns, and critical judgments about materials, methods, ideas, reform documents and student evidence for teaching the discipline

Provide a safe place for teachers to experiment with their own teaching practice and critically examine the results

Serve in a range of Project leadership roles from facilitation or coordination to the design of activities and setting of policy (75%)

Select teachers with identifiable leadership traits for participation in invitational institutes

Provide multiple opportunities for teachers to initiate, design and lead site activities

Provide structured positions for leadership that are rotated among teachers and that are open to accomplished individuals who may be either old or new to the Project community

Mentor or coach other Project teachers (71%)

Provide an ongoing professional community where teachers collaborate, support, share, and learn from each other

Creating a Culture of Inquiry, Experimentation and Reflection

Leaders also reported that an atmosphere of inquiry, critical analysis and reflection at some CSMP sites had helped them to identify meaningful ways of teaching the discipline to students. Unlike school sites where teachers are under scrutiny from parents, board members and administrators, and where "experimentation is a dirty word," the college campuses where CSMP sites are located provide safe havens for the risky dialogue about teaching to happen. "In order to gain more perspective and further develop my own educational philosophy," 60 percent of survey takers said, "I had to get out of the classroom and into a safe space where I could dialogue with other teachers." Almost all (91 percent) of teacher leaders affirmed that, "During the institute, I felt that I was in a safe environment where teachers were encouraged to experiment with subject matter and teaching strategies…." As a result, participants are able to gain a perspective on their teaching, and the ability to articulate that to students, colleagues, administrators and parents.

Most importantly, this perspective on one's own practice becomes the bedrock of a "vision" for leadership. It is primarily by providing teachers with a place to analyze and reflect about teaching so they could articulate a vision for the work, that involvement in a CSMP institute furthered teachers' leadership abilities.

The relationship between dialogue about teaching practice, articulation of a vision for teaching in the discipline, the development of leadership capabilities and the strategies used to further leadership are deeply intertwined. Because "the CSMP provided a place to hear about the experiences of other teachers, which validated their own thinking about teaching and learning," three quarters of teacher leaders asserted, "I realized the extent of my own expertise and was encouraged to assume a leadership role."

Results from a Survey of 200 Teacher Leaders

In a 1982 paper entitled, "Workplace Conditions of School Success," educational researcher Judith Warren Little both confirmed and explained the reasons for a connection between "teacher talk" and effective professional development. Little found that "continuous" professional development happened when teachers' talk resulted in certain interrelated outcomes: when it included concrete talk about specific teaching practices; when a shared language about teaching developed over time; and when teachers developed the ability to distinguish one practice and its virtues from another and to integrate those into a perspective (vision) for teaching. In addition, Little identified certain situations as critical: those in which teachers critiqued each other's teaching; those in which they designed and evaluated teaching materials together; and those in which, "teachers teach each other the practice of teaching." Teacher leaders verified that these critical events were valued aspects of their participation in CSMP site activities.50

Practicing Leadership in Multiple Ways

In addition to workshops, leaders identified a number of specific experiences they had in CSMP programs that had furthered their leadership work including: activities like writing that helped them illuminate, reflect on and critique their own thinking; activities like teacher research that helped them become more analytical about the teaching and learning process; activities like designing Project activities in which teachers directly practice their leadership skills; and activities like facilitation, coaching or mentoring colleagues where they learned the interpersonal art of teacher leadership. These activities either provided them with direct leadership experience (designing an inservice series) or with a prized quality (critical reflection) that they were likely to replicate when designing or offering professional development to others.

Results from a Survey of 200 Teacher Leaders

Providing numerous and varied opportunities to both develop and practice leadership is a strength of at least some of the CSMP sites. In fact, the number and diversity of opportunities that a site can offer is, in some very real sense, a measure of the strength of the site. Each of the leaders we surveyed had filled an average of three leadership roles for their CSMP project or site (in roles such as teacher consultants, facilitators, site directors, and/or co-directors). In addition, 87 percent reported having presented in "a CSMP-sponsored or initiated workshop."

One of the advantages of a Project site design that allows (or requires) participating teachers to lead, create and design professional development offerings is that the teacher leaders are always in situations that are rich with learning. Teachers can address issues, seek remedies and envision strategies without the lag time that educational researchers (who learn from evidence) must endure. As a result, conversations can be timely and topical, solutions can be experimented with and critiqued, innovations that are put into practice today can be revised or improved upon tomorrow.

As CSMP sites develop into mature sites, they need to take care to allow very accomplished teachers to structure new challenges for their talents and to "push the envelope." A sizable minority (26 percent of our 200 teachers) found it at least partly true that, "I have outgrown my Project involvement. The Project focuses upon issues that I have already resolved in the course of my professional development." It is important that Projects and sites have ways to "always keep the foot of the teacher on the next step."


The results of this study represent the opinions and views of over two hundred teacher leaders throughout California who are as diverse as the demographic parameters of teachers and teaching situations, but who share one thing: They are recognized as effective and influential leaders by prominent education professionals. In addition, nearly all (182 out of 206) have been involved in the California Subject Matter Projects. In spite of their various experiences and 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.

According to them, teacher leadership is grounded in a vision for teaching the discipline to students. This vision emerges from their own teaching experiences that are, in the context of CSMP work, reflected upon and refined during interaction with (and validation by) other teachers. In becoming part of a network for professional development beyond the school, teacher leaders accomplish two things: They situate their own knowledge with respect to advances in the discipline and reform movements, and they are able to engage with colleagues in critical analysis of subject matter, in experimentation and in reflection. Teachers take the "something that happens there" from CSMP programs, back to their schools and colleagues where they feel most influential, and where they have the deepest investment.

Perhaps because the teaching profession has traditionally suffered from low self-esteem alongside other white collar professions, and perhaps because teachers are often viewed as tools for implementation rather than as partners or authors of curriculum, teacher leaders are sensitive to approaches and language that fail to honor the dignity of their colleagues. They 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.

Teacher leaders report that the relationship between the "model" for the California Subject Matter Projects and support for teacher leadership 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."

The "leadership relationship" between the Projects and the schools also has been mutually beneficial. Projects need leadership by teachers for the same reasons that schools do: Teachers have critical knowledge about teaching and students. In a symbiotic way, leadership abilities that derive their authority from classroom practices become strengthened through involvement in the Subject Matter Projects, and in turn, CSMP activities stay on target. Additionally, the evidence shows that teacher leaders who immerse themselves in the Subject Matter Project network also become increasingly engaged in teacher leadership activities that center around their own schools and districts.

CSMP Projects and sites have an enviable task. They convene dedicated teachers and university faculty on the neutral ground of the college campus for discipline-based programs — away from the real-life constraints imposed by bureaucratic school systems, student apathy and traditional school culture. It remains to those who emerge, the "teacher leaders" of this study," to do the harder part — to teach and reach the mass of their colleagues, a group that is as diverse in ability, needs, desires and learning styles as any group of students. Nevertheless, throughout the study, teacher leaders have shown us that they are not only up to the task, they are deeply invested in and committed to it.

Institute and other programs offered by California Subject Matter Project sites have advanced teacher leadership because the "model" allows for certain critical activities that engender professional development to occur. However, a question remains about whether these events happen on the margin, or on center-stage. Are they a natural outcome of bringing teachers and faculty together away from the site to immerse themselves in the discipline, or do they occur because of conscious and deliberate action on the part of Project or the site? Not every site, in every discipline, currently designs programs around the critical features teacher leaders identified as supportive of leadership. Most sites are first and foremost discipline-based: They focus their efforts on helping teachers deepen their understanding of subject matter content, and also on discipline-specific pedagogy. We strongly encourage Project sites to examine their programs alongside the experiences leaders have identified as supportive of subsequent leadership.

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 underrated 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.


47 Case study consultant "F."

48 Case study consultant "G."

49 A complete list of CSMP activities that have been reported by teacher leaders as contributing to their teacher leadership is included in Appendix B.

50 Judith Warren Little, "Norms of Collegiality and Experimentation: Workplace Conditions of School Success," in American Educational Research Journal, Vol. 19, no. 3, 1982, p. 331.

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