Teacher Leadership: A Fresh Solution for School Improvement

In his blog Fixing Schools Again and Again, Larry Cuban takes a big-picture look at the factors that have driven and continue to drive school reform. He outlines a pattern of policymakers jumping from one innovation to another with little regard for history. Cuban suggests that school improvement initiatives across the past century have tried to fix education by altering: 1) students (e.g., preschool programs); 2) schools (e.g., accountability through testing); or 3) teachers (e.g., mentorship programs). He describes a dizzying array of reform efforts arising in part from shifting ideologies. This unflattering description school reform is analogous to trendy discussions of societal problems disguised as nightly news coverage: complex issues presented in condensed and over-simplified versions with a disregard for the entanglement of influences at play. No wonder solutions remain elusive in both these settings.

How might we take a deeper look at the challenges faced by today’s school and then design, as Cuban suggests, evidence-informed solutions? Perhaps we need to consider whether the right people are involved in defining school reform policy and practice. Which individuals are most integral to any reform effort? Where does the greatest body of professional knowledge about effective practice reside? What is the most powerful source of energy for sustaining reform until its goals are achieved? Which players are best equipped to tackle the complexity of school reform? School reform without teacher involvement is like a computer simulation. When we allow school reform to be controlled by politicians and policymakers we treat the evolution of our educational system as if it is a virtual reality. Real children need and deserve hands-on leadership at the most grass-roots level; they need teachers who take on a leadership identity and choose to take an active role in school improvement.

This is not a new idea. Over a decade ago James Stigler and James Hiebert took a hard look at our education system and concluded:

Improving something as complex and culturally embedded as teaching requires the efforts of all the players, including students, parents, and politicians. But teachers must be the primary driving force behind change. They are best positioned to understand the problems that students face and to generate possible solutions. In fact, almost all successful attempts to improve teaching have involved teachers working together to improve students’ learning. The Teaching Gap (2009, p. 135)

It’s time for all teachers to re-create their identities to include responsibility for improving our educational system as a whole. And it’s time for other education leaders and the public to recognize that teacher involvement is critical to successful school reform.

Cuban’s thoughtful post ends with a quote from French novelist Andre Gide: Everything has been said before, but since nobody listens we have to keep going back and beginning all over again. Listening to the accumulated experience and wisdom of our teachers, those closest to the problems and best positioned to implement solutions, is a good place to start.

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Collaborative vs. Self-Directed Teacher Leadership

My daughter, a high school teacher, is currently in Vietnam teaching English to elementary and secondary students in a summer volunteer program. She called me this morning for our weekly phone visit. We chatted about the extreme heat in Hanoi and her plans for a weekend trip. She mentioned in passing that she’s been spending some of her free time writing curriculum for the upcoming school year.

I pictured her working in the un-air-conditioned room that she shares with four other volunteers, papers and books spread across her bed. Surprised that she made space in her single suitcase to bring curriculum materials to Vietnam and that she was using her limited time in an exotic country for this project, I was also proud. My daughter is committed to her craft as a teacher. She wants to give her best to her students each day because she knows it will make a difference in their lives. “This is teacher leadership,” I thought.

But my daughter’s next comment also took me by surprise: “I know you believe in PLCs and I do too but sometimes it’s easier to work on my own.” She’s right; I am a staunch supporter of teacher collaboration. I believe whole-heartedly that collaborative teacher leadership is key to the problems faced by today’s schools and school systems. My daughter’s statement reminded me of my own experience thirty-five years ago when I was frustrated by efforts to implement cooperative learning techniques in my classroom. I didn’t yet know how to mediate problems between students so they could learn effectively with and from each other. I didn’t yet understand that part of the learning that needed to take place had to do with helping students acquire the skills of social interaction. I think the same is often true in PLCs today. Many teachers haven’t yet seen the value of working collaboratively. Some don’t yet have the skills to mediate interpersonal conflict. But this doesn’t mean we should give up on PLCs or teacher collaboration.

And yet, I also recognize that there’s a very large grain of truth to my daughter’s observation. I am writing this blog on my own. In fact most of my writing projects are completed independent of others. The idea of co-authorship appeals to me but I haven’t quite figured out how to make it happen efficiently. I’m reminded of a friend, a curriculum coordinator, who has chosen to write all of the curriculum for her district on her own because she believes she can produce a higher-quality product by herself than if she worked with a group. She may be right. Some projects are better suited for independent rather than collaborative work.

As we invest time and energy in promoting and supporting PLCs and other forms of teacher collaboration, what guidelines might we use to decide when it’s better to allow or even encourage teacher leaders to work independently rather than collaboratively? I thought about the mission of Cognitive Coaching (Costa & Garmston, 2002): To produce self-directed persons with the cognitive capacity for high performance, both independently and as members of a community (p. 16). We need both forms of leadership – independent and collaborative. Costa and Garmston say that there’s an innate conflict between a person’s desire to be autonomous and simultaneously responsive to a larger system. They believe an individual should strive to be holonomous, to acknowledge and then consciously navigate this tension so they can remain resourceful in both independent and interdependent settings.

How might we encourage and support both collaborative and independent teacher leadership? What is the right balance between these two important dynamics? For now I’m content to simply articulate my beliefs about each.

Here’s what I believe about collaborative teacher leadership:

  • The Power of Collaboration: We’re smarter together. Collaboration enriches thinking and problem solving; it sparks creativity.
  • Collective Responsibility: Our children need and deserve teachers who feel and act collectively responsible to them. When the norm of collective responsibility exists in a school, it allows every child to have access to the best learning opportunities the school has to offer. Collective responsibility is therefore a moral imperative. Collective responsibility is also an important vehicle for fostering teacher and school improvement.
  • Learning to Collaborate: The skills of collaborative teacher leadership must be learned. Both students and teachers (and also administrators) need support in learning the skills of collaboration and time to do so.

Here’s what I believe about independent teacher leadership:

  • Every educator is morally obligated to be the best she can be, to stretch and grow on a daily basis, and to use her strengths for the purpose of making a positive difference in the world.
  • Each educator is also obligated to share her gifts (expertise, knowledge, perspectives) with others. Sharing with a spirit of generosity and goodwill does not in any way diminish the value of a person’s gifts or the person who offers to share them. Sharing enriches the giver, the recipient, and the world as a whole.
  • Each educator is further obligated to support others’ growth in ways that are personally important to each individual. Sometimes this support takes the form of simply allowing the other person the space needed to experience life for herself and to construct her own meaning.

That’s where I am in my thinking? What do you think?

Costa, A. L., & Garmston, R. J. (2002). Cognitive coaching: A foundation for renaissance schools. Norwood, MA: Christopher-Gordon Publishers, Inc.