Accelerating Change Through Shared Leadership
n What Are Your Major Change Initiatives?

Asperger's Syndrome
n What is Asperger's Syndrome?
n How Parents Can Work With Educators
n A Success Story
Links to External Resources

Click on the following link for the website of Solution Tree:
Click on the following link for Solution Tree's PLC website:
Click on the following link for the Center for Teacher Leadership website:

New Roles for Teacher Leaders

"Just close your door and teach." As a new teacher in the mid-70s, I heard this advice often, as bewildering new mandates were handed down, or site politics caused dissention among the staff. I think this epitomized the culture of schools at that time, which prized teacher primacy and privacy in their own classrooms, and the freedom (often termed "academic freedom"), within their own courses or grade levels, within very broad guidelines, to teach pretty much whatever - and however - they pleased.

In too many schools, this thinking persists among some educators, perhaps most often among those of my generation. I loved teaching idioms, and the one that comes to mind here is that "the chickens have come home to roost." With changes in school funding over the past several decades, and an increasingly tangled web of strings attached to the funding we get, the interest in what schools do and how well we do it has simply exploded. Education seemingly has become a favorite hobbyhorse of the majority of politicians, and every one of them fancies himself an expert, each with a different - often simplistic - opinion about how to "fix it." After all, everyone went to school, right? Naturally, with the greatly increased attention of lawmakers has come the equally increased attention - mostly negative - of the media.

The Coleman Report Said It First
With all this unwanted attention, the biggest chicken that has come home to roost for us has been the exposure of the widening chasm between the results of schooling for middle class children versus poor children. This is not news. The Coleman Report of 1966 brought this to national attention with its findings that poverty was the greatest predictor of student failure in school. The unfortunate inference was that nothing could be done about it, but at that time, little was known - that is, proven, through large-scale studies conducted with scientific/mathematical rigor - about what actually worked in schools, regardless of the socioeconomic, cultural, or ethnic background of the students' homes, or the specific characteristics of the learner, such as the presence of learning disabilities, or lack of English proficiency.

What We Know Today
Now we know what works, and it isn't having every teacher do whatever s/he wants. Probably the most cutting-edge entity to first tackle questions of what works in a large-scale, systematic way was Mid-Continent Research for Education and Learning. McREL conducted a meta-analysis of decades of studies of teachers' classroom practice, selecting the most rigorous from an initial sampling of 4,000 such studies. From this, McREL's researchers mathematically distilled the handful that were found to have a statistically-significant impact on student learning - measured by standardized test scores. That research is described in Classroom Instruction That Works by Robert Marzano, et al.

What Works in Schools, also by Marzano, describes the 11 research-based factors shown in another large-scale research project at McREL to be essential for the larger context of an effective school. School effectiveness and teacher effectiveness are highly interrelated in how a student learns. In "A New Era of School Reform," Marzano also described the marked difference between student learning with a highly effective teacher in a highly effective school versus a highly ineffective school, as well as the impact on student learning with highly ineffective teachers in both kinds of schools.

More recently, School Leadership That Works by Marzano, et al, identified what makes an effective principal, based on McREL's leadership research, and April 2009 is the expected publication date for District Leadership That Works: Striking the Right Balance by Robert Marzano and Tim Waters, President and CEO of McREL, discussing the attendant findings on district-level leadership.

Other researchers, such as Douglas Reeves, first making news with the "90-90-90 studies," have shown that high-poverty schools can also be high-performing, and the effective practices and policies identified in those studies are entirely consistent with McREL's findings. Many states now have their own systems of identifying schools that reach and teach all students.

Can I Still Close My Door and Teach?
So what are the implications of all this research for "academic freedom" and teachers' private practice? One of the highest-impact factors of the 11 described in What Works in Schools is "Collegiality and Professionalism." While the phrase may suggest that teachers simply get along and are friendly toward, and supportive of one another, the research surfaced specific aspects of teacher interaction that had a significant impact on learning and achievement. Specifically, high impact on student learning resulted from teachers in course-alike or grade level teams discussing student work, quizzes, and tests regularly throughout the year for the purpose of focusing on improved teaching practices.

In the broader context of the school as a whole, School Leadership That Works, an extensive discussion in Chapter four is devoted to the role of the leadership team. Effective principals do not lead successful change alone. During change with second-order (think "paradigm shift") implications for teachers, certain aspects - termed "responsibilities" - of the principal's leadership were found to be even more important than others. Another handful - four responsibilities - were found to be often perceived by teachers as "falling through the cracks" during second-order change. The four were culture, communication, input, and order. Chapter four discusses ways that the teachers on the leadership team can help support the change effort with specific actions in these areas of leadership responsibility.

Leadership teams are not a new institution in schools. However, what we now know from research about what works in classrooms, schools, and school leadership demands a new kind of role for these teacher leaders. This includes not only those officially designated as the leadership team, but also department chairs, grade level leaders, mentor teachers, academic coaches, curriculum specialists, and other traditional "titled" teacher leadership positions. It also calls for teacher leaders who may hold no formal positional role, but are highly regarded by colleagues, to step up to a new way of leading and influencing.

What Do These New Teacher Leaders Do?
The research demands that teacher leaders work to influence and support colleagues to improve teaching practices in their classrooms; serving as models for professional group learning and continuous individual improvement. Those who are grade level chairs or course-alike team leaders are called upon to lead the work of their specific teams in publicly sharing how students in each classroom are progressing through the curriculum, using hard data and the examination of student work. All teacher leaders must also help create demand for changes in school, department, and grade level policies that increase student success, even those that are at the expense of teacher preferences, comfort, and convenience.

Richard and Rebecca DuFour, international speakers and authors of many books on Professional Learning Communities, refer to this as a shift from a focus on teaching to a focus on learning. When a teacher makes a remark such as, "It's not my job to make sure all the kids in my class are successful," this is evidence that the teacher has not made that shift. When a teacher leader is told, "You're starting to sound a lot like an administrator," chances are that the teacher leader has made the shift, but the colleague has not. Unfortunately, our tradition in public education has been that only administrators push for changes that benefit students, and that it is the job of teacher leaders to hold out for what is convenient and comfortable for themselves and their colleagues. Teacher contract language in many districts has been crafted to guarantee certain "working conditions" for teachers, which too often keep the focus riveted on teaching, and make the shift to a focus on learning inordinately difficult.

In schools that are working to become increasingly effective PLCs - the vehicle most suited to putting the research-based practices and policies in place - teacher leaders are the lynchpin of the work. The work of each grade level or course-alike team must be led by a knowledgeable, optimizing, competent teacher leader. Administrators cannot lead these teams. In the first place, there are not enough administrators to lead them all, nor do administrators have the time to do so. Certainly they do not have the knowledge of individual students and the depth of curriculum expertise that the teachers have. The principal must lead and orchestrate the overall effort, assisted by the assistant- or vice-principals in schools that have them, but teachers must lead their own teams.

Characteristics of Effective Teacher Leaders
What are the characteristics of an effective teacher team leader? To fulfill this role, a teacher leader must fulfill many of the research-based leadership responsibilities of effective principals. Teacher leaders have significant responsibility, but without the formal authority of an administrator. However, teacher leaders exert tremendous influence. I use the term "teacher leaders" to describe those who are effective in leading positive changes for student learning. There are also, unfortunately, any number of influential teachers in schools everywhere who undermine these efforts, and they could also be termed leaders, but of the most negative kind.

Like an effective principal, an effective teacher leader has an extensive knowledge of curriculum, effective instructional practices, and student assessment. S/he stays on top of current research, and continuously provides intellectual stimulation for the team by sharing it with them, and/or supporting the team in seeking out answers to tough questions about practices and policies when student learning is not improving. S/he possesses strong ideals and beliefs about teaching and learning, and is not afraid to stand up for them with cynical colleagues. Effective teacher leaders are courageous.

"Optimizer" is a research-based leadership responsibility that includes both cheerleading and accepting responsibility for student performance. Instead of saying, "The district is making us do this," an optimizer finds a way to interpret the initiative in a positive way. This enables the team to meet mandates much less painfully, and more effectively for students. An optimizing leader constantly reminds the team of past successes, especially those that are a lot like those they need to create and experience in the new initiative. Over time, this creates something in the team that researcher Roger Goddard termed "group efficacy." Essentially, this is the conviction that "together, we can accomplish what none of us may be able to accomplish alone."

Although McREL's leadership research focused on principals, effective teacher leaders must, appropriately to their role, fulfill many of the same research-based responsibilities - optimizer, involvement in curriculum, instruction, and assessment, intellectual stimulation, ideals/beliefs, and others. McREL researchers believe that two of the 21 responsibilities - optimizer, and ideals/beliefs - cannot be staff-developed into a principal. Certainly they cannot be instilled in a teacher who lacks them, either, and many of our burned-out colleagues have obviously lost them, or perhaps lacked them when they came to the profession. Teachers who are team leaders - or who have any other kind of positional status - and lack these responsibilities certainly will do more harm than good in change initiatives to improve learning for students.

The need to step up
Clearly, teacher leadership roles have changed dramatically in the past three decades, and individual teachers can no longer simply "close the door and teach." It is my hope that teacher leaders everywhere will step up to these challenges. With the convergence of all the developments I discussed at the beginning of this article, the very institution of American public education has become endangered because of the failure of so many students. The larger and graver implication is that with the growing trend of outsourcing low-end jobs, the American way of life is increasingly at risk as the gap widens between the haves and the have-nots.

Teacher leaders can lead the way to a better future by stepping up - stepping up to accept responsibility for the learning of each and every student, to act as models for their colleagues, and to guide and support them in the continuous improvement of classrooms and schools. It is a new role requiring courage and commitment, and it is imperative that these roles are filled in every school: if all the responsibility is left to administrators, public education is doomed. If you are a teacher reading this article to the end, I hope that I have affirmed you if you are already fulfilling this challenging role. If not, I hope I have challenged your thinking, and I hope you will be the next teacher leader to step up.


  b Leading School Climate From Turmoil to Tranquility  
  b Not Just Surviving But Thriving
  b Supporting Principals to Create Shared Leadership  
b Making a Difference, One Child at a Time

Structural and Cultural Shifts to Change the Status Quo


High Fidelity, Creative Teaching

b Inspiration for the Next Generation of Leaders
b Essential Program Components: Funding Full Implementation
b Essential Program Components: The Leadership Challenge
b Professional Learning Communities for Schools in Sanctions
b Leadership is a Beach
b Come Back Kids  

All articles posted by permission of the Association of California School Administrators (ACSA)