by Victoria Boyd-Dimock and Kathleen M. McGree

Leading Change from the Classroom: Teachers as Leaders

Leading Change From The Classroom: Teachers As Leaders

As the movement to restructure schools continues,
teachers are increasingly being called upon to provide leadership in schools.

Why Teacher Leadership?

The notion of teacher leadership is not new, but recently it has been transformed. In the past, teacher leadership roles have been limited in scope and established at the prerogative of school administrators. Teachers have long served as team leaders, department chairs, association leaders and curriculum developers. In these roles teachers have often served as "representatives" rather than "leaders" who enact change (Livingston, 1992). In addition, leadership roles for teachers have traditionally lacked flexibility and required a lengthy, ongoing commitment of time and energy. Often the decision to take on leadership tasks has been accompanied by a decision to get out of teaching and into administration.

Recently, reports on the status of teacher education have issued strong and compelling pleas for dramatically different roles for teachers and increased professional development (Carnegie, 1986; Holmes 1986). While recognizing the centrality of teaching, the reports emphasize the need for teachers to extend their sphere of influence beyond the classroom and into schoolwide leadership activities.

Advocacy for teacher professionalism and expanded leadership roles is based on the understanding that teachers, because they have daily contacts with learners, are in the best position to make critical decisions about curriculum and instruction. Moreover, they are better able to implement changes in a comprehensive and continuous manner (Howey, 1988; Livingston, 1992). The movement to expand teacher roles is also motivated by an ongoing need to attract and retain qualified teachers.

What is Teacher Leadership?

Teachers typically define career satisfaction in terms of their ability to be of service to others and make a difference in the lives of their students (McLaughlin & Lee, 1988). Similarly, the leadership considerations of teachers are grounded in their desire to improve the quality of teaching and learning for all students. Studies have shown that teachers do not subscribe to traditional definitions of leadership as "higher" or "superior" positions within the organizational hierarchy (Devaney, 1987). Instead, teachers view leadership as a collaborative effort, a "banding together" with other teachers to promote professional development and growth and the improvement of educational services (Troen & Boles, 1992).

Today, leadership roles have begun to emerge and promise real opportunities for teachers to impact educational change-without necessarily leaving the classroom. Teachers are now serving as research colleagues, working as advisor-mentors to new teachers, and facilitating professional development activities as master teachers. Teachers also act as members of school-based leadership teams, instructional support teams and leaders of change efforts (Livingston, 1992). In addition, teachers are forging a number of new and unique leadership roles through their own initiative by developing and implementing programs they personally believe will result in positive change (Troen & Boles, 1992).

What We Know About the Work Lives of Teacher Leaders

In spite of the fact that roles continue to expand, little is known about the teachers who take on leadership roles and their experiences. Researchers are only beginning to understand the complexities involved in creating and implementing leadership positions for teachers. Several recent studies have attempted to document the lives of teachers as they confront the challenges of leadership. These have shown that while lead teachers typically find their new roles and responsibilities enormously rewarding, they also encounter a variety of constraints and tensions.

What Do Teacher Leaders Do?

In one of the most extensive studies on the work of teacher leaders, Lieberman, Saxl, and Miles (1988) focused on what teachers actually did when they assumed leadership positions designed to provide assistance to other teachers. The authors found that the work of lead teachers was varied and largely specific to the individual context of the school. In order to be effective with their colleagues, lead teachers found it necessary to learn a variety of leadership skills while on the job. Those skills included:

  • Building trust and developing rapport
  • Diagnosing organizational conditions
  • Dealing with processes
  • Managing the work
  • Building skills and confidence in others

The authors concluded that restructuring school communities to incorporate leadership positions for teachers will require teacher leaders to take certain actions. These include: placing a nonjudgmental value on providing assistance, modeling collegiality as a mode of work, enhancing teachers' self-esteem, using different approaches to assistance, making provisions for continuous learning and support for teachers at the school site and encouraging others to provide leadership to their peers.

Personal Gains.
Studies have shown that leadership positions can yield significant personal benefits to those involved. Intellectual and professional growth and decreased isolation are personal gains teachers reported in their new leadership roles.

Intellectual and professional growth.
Teachers report that their knowledge and skills in teaching increased dramatically as a result of their involvement in leadership positions (Porter, 1987; Lieberman et al., 1988; Troen & Boles, 1992). New skills and knowledge also lead to increased confidence among lead teachers and a stronger commitment to teaching. Professional growth was more often the result of collaboration with peers than activities separated from the normal school routine. Growth occurred as lead teachers observed and assisted other teachers, worked with administrators, and were exposed to new concepts and ideas.

Decreased isolation.
Teacher leaders report a significant decrease in isolation as a result of opportunities to work with others outside of the classroom. Studies have found, however, that in most instances isolation only decreased for those involved in leadership positions and had little bearing on the isolation felt by the larger teaching force (Porter, 1987; Wasley, 1989). Other studies have shown that under certain conditions lead teachers are successful in facilitating cooperation and collegiality more broadly among faculty members, thereby decreasing the isolation many teachers experience (Lieberman, et. al., 1988; Hart, 1990).

Confronting Obstacles
While leadership roles can provide important benefits they have also proven to be highly problematic. Studies have shown that lead teachers confront a number of constraints as they learn to negotiate new roles and relationships.

Role Definitions.
Studies suggest that problems often result when teacher leadership roles are not well defined (Hart, 1990; Hatfield, et al., 1987; Wasley, 1989). When responsibilities involved with leadership are not well delineated confusion results and tensions mount, not only for lead teachers but also for those who work with them (i.e., administrators, classroom teachers). At the same time, however, researchers point to the need for lead teachers to participate in the definition and creation of their new roles. Teacher leaders who are given the opportunity to create and shape their own roles receive more support and experience greater success than those who are less willing and able to take initiative (Hart, 1990).

Teacher leaders report that time constraints significantly limit their ability to succeed in the dual roles of both teacher and leader (Dierks, et al., 1988; Fay, 1992; Lieberman, et al., 1988; Porter, 1987; Wasley, 1989). With additional responsibilities and little extra time, teachers are often forced to make sacrifices that compromise their ability to be effective in both roles.

School culture.
A lack of support and encouragement from school administrators and teaching colleagues often poses the biggest obstacles for teacher leaders. Lead teachers found that school norms of privacy and isolation made it difficult to foster collegiality and promote the sharing of ideas. Teacher leaders were repeatedly confronted by the "egalitarian nature of teaching" and had to work hard to gain acceptance and respect (Hart, 1990; Lieberman, et al., 1988; Wasley, 1989). The selection of lead teachers by the administration, which violated the "equal status" of teachers, often exacerbated the problems and bred resentment and hostility toward teachers in leadership positions (Devaney, 1987; Hart, 1990; Wasley, 1989). Lead teachers often blamed the administration for failing to support leadership roles and engendering a hostile environment (Hart, 1990; Troen & Boles, 1992).

Lessons From the Field

For the past four years, the Leadership for Change project at Southwest Educational Development Laboratory (SEDL) has been conducting case studies of leaders and their efforts to implement school improvement. One of the sites is Dumas Public Schools, located in one of the nation's poorest regions, the Arkansas Mississippi Delta. Dumas is a small school district, with two elementary schools, a junior high and a high school. Nearly 60 percent of the district's student population is enrolled in free lunch programs, and 77 percent of the families have incomes below the poverty level.

The Dumas community regards a quality school system as essential to economic and industrial development. The district continuously strives to improve in response to the identified needs of their students. Don McHan, superintendent of Dumas Public Schools, emphasizes the importance of data analysis as part of the district's planning process. the district examines student data and then pursues solutions to identified problems. Improvement efforts have been underway to revise the school curriculum, to implement the Ventures in Education program, and, most recently, to reorganize the school day into a block schedule.

A History of Promoting Leadership and Change
Dumas Public Schools has a history of promoting teacher leadership and change. The superintendent and principals have long encouraged and supported teachers who provide leadership in the development and implementation of innovative programs, particularly those to which the teachers exhibit a strong personal commitment. An elementary reading program, a mathematics curriculum alignment and revision project, and the Ventures in Education program have all been led by teachers in the district. In general, Dumas teachers report freedom to use innovative instructional strategies and programs in their classrooms and to share these ideas with other teachers. Teachers are also encouraged to bring ideas back from conferences or meetings and report their recommendations for change both at faculty meetings and individually to the superintendent.

There is a clear expectation in Dumas that teachers will participate in leadership roles. One teacher noted, "We're probably 56 years ahead of schools around us. We have always been on that leading edge of things because of the attitude of the administration that we should be leaders. And I think that's pretty ingrained in us as teachers that we should be out there leading." Superintendent McHan believes that it is his job to support ideas that are economically feasible and freely cites examples of teacher initiated projects that have benefited students. This expectation was furthered nurtured by former high school principal David Rainey. He described his philosophy towards decision making at Dumas as "putting critical decisions in the hands of people who are most capable of making those decisions - teachers. In the process of doing that, teachers have to ask themselves some serious questions, like why are we doing this?"

Mike Ratcliff, the current principal of the high school, has continued this pattern of decision making and focus on improvement as exemplified in a recent decision to initiate a block schedule. A teacher committee investigated the idea, visited other schools, collected research information, and presented its findings to the entire faculty on several occasions over the course of the school year. The faculty then debated the issue, eventually voting to change to block scheduling in the 1995-1996 school year.

Committees that involve teachers in the investigation of future innovations provide an ongoing structure to encourage and perpetuate leadership among teachers. In addition, teacher leaders have been given time, in the form of an additional conference period, to help them fulfill their role as leader. Funds to purchase supplies and staff development have also been made available to support innovations.

Implementing Ventures in Education
McHan has said, "a lot of things come from the entire staff, not from my direction. It is my responsibility and duty as superintendent to bring ideas to share." The Ventures in Education (VIE) program implementation began in precisely this way. McHan first learned of the VIE program at a statewide meeting and later shared this information with David Rainey, then high school principal. As is the school's practice, a committee of teachers was created to study the program and report to the entire faculty. Next, Rainey and several teachers attended an awareness session and reported on the innovation at a faculty meeting. The entire Dumas staff subsequently voted to adopt the program. The VIE program has been operating at high school and junior high school campuses for the past three years.

The VIE program is designed to encourage students to take four years each of mathematics, science, English, and social studies, two years of a foreign language, and other challenging elective courses. When implementation of VIE began, Gerri Appleberry, a teacher at Dumas High School, was chosen by the VIE committee as its chair. She has since become influential as a teacher and leader in the implementation of the program in Dumas.

One Teacher's Story

The following story is a description of Appleberry's experience as a teacher leader and her comments about what she has done as a leader to help teachers implement the Ventures in Education program in the Dumas Public School district.

Shaping and Sharing a Vision
"Every plan you want to do has a vision. Someone has got to really believe in that vision," says Appleberry. The high levels of poverty in the district and the students' limited opportunities to attend universities initially spurred Appleberry's interest in the VIE program. Her vision was that students would increase their academic performance and self confidence. She believed that by taking more advanced courses, students could achieve higher scores on standardized tests. This, in turn, would improve their chances of obtaining university scholarships and attaining success in their adult work lives.

Taking Initiative
From the beginning, Appleberry has been a driving force of implementation. As one of her colleagues noted, "...she's in charge because she was willing to be in charge. If she had not been in charge, this program might not have gone, because who will take over that kind of responsibility? I mean you're talking about time to teach school and still work on this." Another colleague remarked, "I feel like she is the one who has really pushed this, And we're behind her, we're there, but you've got to have that leader." Since taking charge, Appleberry has expended extraordinary amounts of time and energy to garner resources and support for the program. Much of this has paid off. One teacher noted, "Because of her we have things that we have never had before."

Building Community Support
From the beginning, Appleberry believed community support was essential to the successful implementation of the program. She initially built support by contacting parents individually: "I got on the telephone and I started calling parents. I told them about the program, and what I thought we would have, and what changes we would be making. I told them I wanted them to be part of it. . . . I know that we're going to make mistakes. . . . I leveled with them. I told the Chamber of Commerce and the Lions Club that we needed their support. . . . It's not going to be perfect, but if we have the commitment and we have this team of parents, students, teachers, and school working together, it's got to be nothing but good for our community."

Over time, this support paid off. As the program was implemented, some students unaccustomed to the increased demands of the rigorous academic coursework and new instructional strategies began to enlist their parents in their fight against a program that they believed was too demanding. Although a few compromises were made, Appleberry and the administration essentially stood firm in their support of the teachers. They knew support for teachers was essential for them to continue the new teaching practices. Eventually parents came to realize the importance of increased expectations for their students; students had to learn that they could meet the challenges being presented to them. Appleberry describes what happened next. "When people felt our dreams might be jeopardized, they formed camps of support, parents and community members. . . . A teacher has to feel support from the community in order to [implement] change."

Building Staff Support
Early in the implementation process, Appleberry experienced resentment and hostility similar to that noted in the literature. As one of her colleagues pointed out, "The negatives are out there. You can feel that some people probably hope that it will not work, but I think that's lack of communication. . . . Because I think some of the faculty members feel intimidated by her to begin with."

Appleberry has tried to work around these feelings by garnering support from a core group of faculty members. She has also tried to facilitate communication among the staff. During the first year of the program, Appleberry was unable to meet with the VIE teachers at the junior high campus and had few chances to communicate personally with them. Although the junior high teachers had a common planning period, they rarely met as a group. During the second year of implementation, the administration arranged for Appleberry to have an additional conference that was scheduled to coincide with the junior high teachers' common planning period.

Appleberry used this time to work through conflicts and improve communication. "I met with them regularly and in doing so we formed more of a team partnership. . . . If they had frustrations, I let them talk through those frustrations. . . . Teachers have to work through some frustration with new programs.

. . . This year, when a new teacher came to the school, the other three teachers took her in and helped her understand and buy into the philosophy of the VIE program. . . . You have to work on getting different personalities to work together as a team."

Appleberry still has no designated time to meet with her colleagues at the high school during the school day. They continue to meet after school hours when important issues arise. In addition, informal meetings and conversations in the teachers' work area or lunch room provide some opportunities for problem solving and planning.

Increasing Staff Capacity
Appleberry views the ongoing support and encouragement of teachers as essential. Referring to one of the new teaching methodologies implemented as part of the VIE program, Appleberry says, "This is difficult for teachers, . . . and that's why they have to have support in trying it . . . You need to encourage teachers, give them support, let them know if they try the first time and aren't successful, don't give up."

The summer program for students has proven to be a useful vehicle for increasing staff capacity and providing support for the implementation of new instructional strategies. Appleberry uses this time to encourage teachers to experiment with new practices, when they are free from the pressures of the regular school year. She notes, "[during the school year] teachers feel the pressure of everything they need to cover, so they are hesitant to try new things. They can try new methods in the summer program when students and teachers are more relaxed. Our teachers felt more confident in trying it when they were not pressured and the students were more receptive. Then it's easier to work the new strategies into the regular school year."

Pressing for Change
"Every vision is going to take time. You have to analyze what went wrong, what you can improve. After that you make some adjustments. If it works, you keep it and then consistently work on things that just didn't work out the way you thought. Sometimes it is just trial and error." Appleberry has found that a number of adjustments have been needed over the years to accommodate students' needs. In response to criticism about students being overloaded, she has encouraged teachers to be more sensitive to the total demands placed on students by all teachers . Teachers have been encouraged to share their class requirements across content areas. This allows students to meet requirements in more than one course when completing major assignments or problem-solving projects.

For Appleberry, pressing for change has included recognizing and celebrating the program's successes. Newspaper articles that highlight student achievements are regularly published in the local paper. Appleberry periodically collects and analyzes student test data to document the gains that have been made by students in the program and shares this information with staff and the community. Results have shown that students participating in the VIE program are scoring higher on state assessments and college entrance exams. They are taking more challenging courses. They are winning academic contests and scholarships.

These results have encouraged Appleberry. She believes the vision of student success she and other faculty members have come to share over the three years of the program's implementation is beginning to become a reality. "I wish it could happen overnight. I'm the type of person that when I have an idea, I want it to happen and happen right now. But working with people you find out that it's got to grow. You plant a seed and it's got to grow." And how does she keep going in spite of obstacles? Appleberry says of herself, "When things go wrong and you encounter negatives, . . . you keep picking yourself up and you go again."

Conditions Necessary for Leadership

A variety of conditions are necessary to support and sustain teachers in leadership positions. According to Lieberman (1992), vision, structure, time and skills are all essential to the success of new teacher roles and responsibilities. These same conditions were crucial to Appleberry's success as a teacher leader at Dumas.

It is important that teacher leadership roles be part of an overall vision and set of values that accepts and expects teachers to participate in leadership. When new roles are unrelated to a broad vision of teacher participation, leadership positions do not receive the systemic support necessary for success and change. At Dumas Public Schools, administrators at all levels encouraged, even expected, teachers to provide leadership.

Teachers need structure for their work. Although the structure will vary according to the school and community context, it must bring legitimacy to the new role and facilitate the understanding that knowledgeable and well-respected teachers can provide leadership. At Dumas, committees of teachers are regularly formed and provide a structure to elect leaders and investigate options for school improvement.

Time to experiment, reflect and create is essential for teachers. They need time to talk to other teachers, develop materials, deal with conflicts and build collegial relationships. At Dumas, an extra conference or planning period was added to provide time for reflection and communication.

There are skills and abilities, which can be labeled and learned, that make leadership more effective. Teachers need access to information and training. At Dumas, Appleberry utilized the following set of leadership skills in her role as teacher leader:

  • Promoting a clear vision
  • Taking initiative
  • Persevering in the face of obstacles
  • Analyzing and making program adjustments/improvements
  • Building support with parents and community
  • Building a team spirit among the faculty
  • Providing support and encouragement for other teachers
  • Facilitating communication and reflection among the faculty
  • Celebrating and recognizing program successes
  • Using alternative strategies such as a summer program to build skills
  • Exercising patience

Encouraging teachers to assume leadership roles appears to be working at Dumas. Teachers are teaching differently. They are demonstrating a greater respect for each other and for students. They are working across the curriculum and coordinating their efforts. Appleberry remarked, "I've really seen [teachers] take on the feeling that it belongs to them now. . .that it's not just someone telling them, you've got to do this. They're coming to me to ask for supplies to do activities and saying they'll share with other teachers. . .That's what I see the teachers doing - Getting excited about teaching again."


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Published in Issues ...about Change Volume 4, Number 4, Leading Change from the Classroom: Teachers as Leaders (1995)