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Assessing the Prospects for Teacher Leadership


Judith Warren Little begins with the premise that "it is increasingly implausible that we could improve the performance of schools...without promoting leadership in teaching by teachers." Little then goes on present a collection of studies that "reveal some of the conditions required to promote and sustain rigorous professional relations among teachers that yield benefits for students."

Reprinted by permission of the publisher for Lieberman, A. (Ed.),
Teachers College Press, ©1988 by Teachers College, Columbia
University. All rights reserved.), pp. 78-106.

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Teacher leadership has become a hot topic. Grand schemes, with equally grand titles, promise a new enticement for talented teachers and a new resource for the improvement of schools. In writing this chapter, however, I have had in mind a less grand scheme. I paint a picture of ordinary life in schools. And in doing so, I am led to draw four conclusions about the prospects for teacher leadership.

"High Gain, High Strain"

The gain in teacher leadership derives from teachers' classroom orientation, from their wealth of practical knowledge, and from their sheer numbers. The strain in teacher leadership derives from the inherited traditions of an egalitarian profession, from the persistent belief that teaching is just a matter of style and from the pervasive privacy and isolation of teaching. To talk in terms of teacher leadership is to introduce status differences based on knowledge, skill, and initiative in a profession that has made no provision for them.

The sources of strain often outweigh the felt gains, leading newly designated leaders to downplay their special status and the expertise that it signals.

The strains are compounded when teacher-leaders are recruited straight out of the classroom and attempt to earn their title after the fact with little preparation and support.

The strains are compounded when the principal is cut out of the action. Principals are pressed to be instructional leaders–and now are asked to move over and make room for teachers. When teacher leadership reaches the bargaining table, negotiators often require that the organizational "territory" occupied by teacher-leaders look so different from that occupied by administrators as to make any sensible discussion (or cooperation) between the two suspect. The more useful perspective is the well-led school.

Finally, the strains are compounded when the pace of implementation is fast–a year or less where legislative money is at stake.

To gain endorsements for a program, well-intended school professionals reach agreements that move a program forward but defeat the interests of schools and students. (One example is the provision for confidentiality regarding any dealings between a first-year teacher and his or her mentor.)

Through the Eyes of the Principal

When confronted directly about the prospects of expanded teacher leadership in their schools, what do administrators say?

Sweeping proposals for changes in teachers' titles, responsibilities, compensation, and relationships to principals have, predictably, generated worried speculation in administrators and school board members. Most commonly, administrators protest that a school's standing in its community will be jeopardized by the public impression that no one is properly "in charge" and that the best teachers are no longer available to teach children Teachers' potential encroachments on traditional domains of principals' authority, especially teacher evaluation, have even led to legal opposition. Studies of larger leadership initiatives, such as the California Mentor Teacher Program, detect considerable ambiguity in the teachers' new role and uncertainty among teachers and principals about their proper relation to one another (Bird, 1985).

But sweeping proposals produce equally sweeping responses. Case-study observations and closely situated survey measures have permitted us to "get down to cases" with regard to administrators' support of or opposition to specific teacher leadership possibilities.

Principals in case-study schools conceived and implemented a range of faculty configurations that offered teachers both the reason and the opportunity (including time) to lead. The configurations were varied, including teacher-led interdisciplinary teams or subject-area study groups, schoolwide instructional support teams, and intensified use of department heads. Asked in interviews and through survey measures about specific practices by which teachers, or principals and teachers acting in concert, might take initiative to improve the quality of teaching, principals responded in distinctly favorable terms. These principals, like the principals of other team-based schools (Johnson, 1976), were inclined to say that their influence over classroom teaching had been enhanced, not diminished, by involving teachers in decision making on matters of curriculum and instruction.

Principals and assistant principals in six secondary schools were confronted with the same small set of "teacher-initiative" survey items that were presented to teachers in their school. The items explored faculty and administration approval for advice giving by recognized leaders and for assistance to both beginning and experienced teachers. They presented options that included leadership in curriculum and lesson development as well as formal inservice training.

In their responses to the selected teacher leadership options, administrators were more sanguine than teachers, displaying more support for teacher initiative than teachers themselves displayed and believing that such acts of potential leadership occurred with more regularity than teachers themselves reported.

It is probable that administrators' support for teacher initiative is overestimated by these findings. The consistently high approval rates among the administrators on survey measures (despite considerable variations in observed practice) suggest that we have not yet constructed a set of measures that will tap the threshold of administrator's tolerance for teacher initiative. There are no scenarios among these items, for example, that directly require administrators' support for peer evaluation by teachers. In addition, these measures capitalize on a long history of school-level autonomy that may be steadily eroded by initiatives that centralize curriculum policy, leaving neither principals nor teachers much of significance to lead.

The Public Interest in Teacher Leadership

Teacher leadership will be supported when teachers and school boards believe that it deserves local tax dollars: that public interest professional interest, and personal interest all are served by singling out leaders from the ranks of teachers. The prospects for teacher leadership remain dim if no one can distinguish the gains made for students when teachers in large numbers devote their collective attention to curriculum and instruction. Each of the schools we have studied works with a staffing formula that makes the intelligent development of teacher leadership an exercise in creative organization (and occasionally creative insubordination). Underlying the staffing formula is a public conception (legitimized in board policy) of teachers and teaching that is satisfied almost exclusively by time spent in classrooms with children.

The most volatile issue in formal teacher leadership initiatives has been teacher selection. Witness the elaborate arrangements for the selection of mentor teachers in California and the careful provisions made for selection and promotion in the first stages of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg career-ladder plan. The selection of leaders has been cast both as a technical problem (what are the acceptable criteria for performance?) and as a political problem (who will teachers accept as leaders, if anyone?), and substantial space has been devoted to describing its solutions (Schlechty, 1984).

One might see the selection problem, however, as an artifact of isolated work in schools, a problem that only arises when teachers have no sensible grounds on which to grant or deny someone the right to lead them. Thus classroom teachers who are recruited or selected into positions with titles that signal leadership (mentor) display a wondrous ability to diminish their new status and to downplay the leadership opportunities and obligations that (inescapably) accompany the title (Bird, 1985). To the extent that the selection problem remains at the forefront of discussions of teacher leadership, and elaborate selection strategies remain the heart of implementation plans, we can expect that the prospect of teacher leadership will decline.

What will defeat teacher leadership? Past efforts have had a "checkered history" (Griffin, 1985, p. 2), and current initiatives proceed by fits and starts (Bird, 1985). School-level arrangements that have fostered leadership by teachers, with apparent benefit to students, have proved fragile and unstable (Little, 1987; Cohen, 1981). The professional teacher responsibilities and relationships anticipated by the Carnegie Forum and by many state initiatives (including California's Mentor Teacher Program) are a sufficient departure from current practice to produce a backlash (Bird, 1985).

Among the conditions that will advance or erode the prospects for teacher leadership, these five are prominent:

  1. The work that leaders do: Prospects will be diminished by describing as "leadership" tasks that are trivial and inconsequential, that are only peripheral to the important problems and tasks that schools and districts face, or that do not match in their own complexity the intellectual and social demands of teaching and learning. Prospects will be advanced by work that is widely and properly held to be important and difficult.

  2. The symbolic role that leaders assume: Prospects will be rapidly lessened if teacher leaders serve as "hit men," engaged in activities designated to fix, punish, or remove the incompetent or intransigent. Prospects will be strengthened by roles that invest leaders with dignity and by activities that show them to be exemplars of rigorous, rewarding professional relationships.

  3. Agreements for getting started: Teacher leadership will be jeopardized by well-intended but restrictive agreements (compromises) concerned largely with protecting the separate interests of teachers and administrators. A more sturdy platform will be provided by public, and concrete, demonstrations of shared interests and by specific ground rules for doing business together in the leadership of schools. For example, the relationship among principals, first-year teachers, and mentors can be thwarted by blind adherence to a confidentiality rule, but made effective by a careful consideration of each person's obligations to both of the others.

  4. Incentives and rewards: Prospects for teacher leadership must be judged in large part by the incentives for teachers to favor collaborative work over independent work and to lend their support to teachers who take the lead on some shared task or problem. There are substantial disincentives in the present organization of work in most schools. Among the most powerful examples is Cusick's (1983) description of the disincentives to cooperation created by the proliferation of electives in the high school curriculum. Faculties that are relatively cohesive or polarized over appropriate ends and means for student learning are likely to provide quite different environments for teacher leadership, but those relationships have gone largely unexplored (see Metz, 1978).

  5. Local policy support: Prospects for teacher leadership will be directly affected by district policies and practices, particularly those governing the principalship: the recruitment, selection, placement, and evaluation of building principals, and the provisions, if any, for transitions in leadership. In prior studies, effective but atypical faculty configurations have been quickly unraveled when the building principal departs (Cohen, 1981; Little, 1987) unless districts place special emphasis on preserving teacher leadership and evaluate principals accordingly (Little & Long, 1985).

Organized Preparation and Support

In effect, districts and schools face a two-part challenge. Policy and program support can be organized to meet both. One challenge is to introduce capable people to a new role. Leading a group, a school, or an occupation is not the same as teaching a class well. Training programs for new teacher leaders ensure that leaders have something to offer by helping them recognize, organize, and display their knowledge and skill to others (Bird & Little, 1985a). They ensure that new leaders work as successfully with colleagues as with students. And finally, they ensure that leaders have access to discretionary resources and are able to invent good strategies for using them.

A second challenge is to introduce a new role to an institution and an occupation. Leadership by teachers will require a more common pattern of teacher-to-teacher work in the daily operations of schools, as the basis on which teacher leadership comes to be found sensible and feasible. It will require shifts in authority relations in schools, in the bases for power and prestige. It will require changes in longstanding and firmly held conceptions of teaching, learning to teach, and teacher education.


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