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.

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.

Leadership as Decluttering

I’m reading a book called the life-changing magic of tidying up: the Japanese art of decluttering and organizing. Everything about this book is adorable including the tiny size of the book itself, the soothing Japanese brush art on the cover design, and the lack of capital letters in the title. The author, marie kondo (also without capital letters), sets forth a number of simple but profound principles to help the reader “put your space in order in a way that will change your life forever.” I’m struck by parallels between these principles and the work of teacher leadership for the purpose of improving student achievement. Here are some are few ideas:

Decluttering Principle: Effective tidying involves only two essential actions: discarding and deciding where to store things. Of the two, discarding must come first.

School improvement can feel like the tangled mess of power cords I found underneath my desk. It’s difficult to see what goes with what, which cords are critical to my improvement efforts and which are extraneous and therefore distracting. Time is limited, and when our attention is scattered by too many issues and options we accomplish little. The first step in teacher leadership is to prioritize and then focus on those priorities. What is your number one priority? Will you work on improving the effectiveness of your PLC this year? Or is your big goal to launch and sustain a vertical team to strength your school-wide reading program? Decide on your first priority so that you can truly and deeply commit to accomplishing it. Then consciously and assertively decide which interesting but less important challenges you will put aside. Commit to all of this in writing and display your commitments in a visible location.

Decluttering Principle: Once you choose your belongings properly you will be left only with the amount that fits perfectly in the space you currently own.

Once you have decided on and committed to your leadership priority, designing your action plan will be straightforward. Much like organizing a collection of books after weeding out unneeded titles, your decluttered priorities will naturally lead you into plan your monthly, weekly, and daily activities. Your new focus will allow you to clearly see your progress towards the school improvement goal you’ve identified. Be sure to collect this formative data. Add it to the display of your goals as a way of maintaining focus on your priorities.

Decluttering Principle: One of the magical effects of tidying is confidence in your decision-making capacity.

Imagine opening the closet of your teacher leadership work and seeing in a single glance your vision of success and the compartments representing your steps towards realizing this vision. Decluttering and organizing your school improvement efforts and monitoring the impact of your newly focused efforts will most certainly build your self-efficacy. It can also decrease stress and bring you joy, feelings that can impact your school’s culture as a whole. Kondo says “A dramatic reorganization of the home causes correspondingly dramatic changes in lifestyle and perspective. It is life transforming.” The end goal of school reform efforts is always to improve student learning but also to build capacity within the system for continued improvement. Spending time decluttering and organizing your leadership priorities and efforts is a smart investment in your own leadership capacity.

The Best Ways a Teacher Can Demonstrate Leadership in the Classroom

In C. M. Rubin’s June 26 blog The Best Ways a Teacher Can Demonstrate Leadership in the Classroom (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/c-m-rubin/the-best-ways-a-teacher-can-demonstrate-leadership-in-the-classroom_b_7654578.html) she cites perspectives on teacher leadership offered by recognized teacher bloggers. Several of these teachers provide examples of leadership involving classroom actions and relationships with students: building trust, serving as role models, and helping students take ownership of their learning and acquire skills needed to learn independently.  Other contributors maintain that teacher leadership emanates from internal dispositions such as the willingness to take risks or an inquiry stance. Some of these teacher leaders suggest that teacher leadership requires actions outside of the classroom including the use of social media for sharing professional knowledge and taking an active role in educational reform efforts. The examples offered by these teacher bloggers paint a multi-faceted portrait of teacher leadership. At its core, teacher leadership is about the identity which is felt and then visibly worn by a teacher: I am a person who takes the initiative to make a positive difference in this world. Teacher leaders have agency. They know they are capable of changing the world and they take responsibility for doing so every day.

Why teacher leadership?

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world.

Marianne Williamson, A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of “A Course in Miracles,” 1992, p. 190.

Teacher leadership amounts to playing big in the world in service of destiny. How did you make a difference in the world today? Celebrate your actions and opportunities you have each day to make the world a better place through your work as a teacher. Celebrate your colleagues who are also are also making a difference. Together you constitute a mighty force of justice for children and possess the ability to shape society and our future.

Why La Revolutión?

La Revolutión is designed to be a vehicle to inspire widespread teacher involvement in rational school reform.

Outcomes:

  • Teachers feel an increased sense of importance about the work they do.
  • Teachers individually and collectively become more vocal about what’s important in education and what needs to change.
  • Teachers form alliances with each other and with other stakeholders (thought leaders, researchers, media, parents, community members, etc.) that create a new vision for schools and steps that begin to make this vision into reality.
  • People across the world in all fields (educators but also non-educators) recognize the importance of learning, the innate need and capacity and right of humans to learn, and the importance of learning for our future.