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Teachers - Free To Teach

The Nature and Importance of Teacher Leadership

____________. "Survey on Rules, Regulations and Mandates." Teacher Choice Section, Alexis de Tocqueville Institution (ADTI) website (www.adti.net) , 7/10/2000.

This document presents the results of a survey of a self-selected sample of teachers regarding the rules and regulations imposed on them and their schools by local, state, and federal governments. Although ADTI seemed particularly interested in pinning the tail on the federal donkey (via complaints about Title/Chapter I, and Individuals with Disabilities Education Act regulations), almost seventy percent of teachers identified the district and school as the place where roadblocks to changes in curriculum or school operations occurred. According to ADTI, "those who encountered roadblocks most often cited resistance from school or district administrators." While many teachers learn to adapt to the intransigence of bureaucrats, it provides a constant source of irritation that may help teachers tune in to alternatives like teacher-led schools.

_____________. The 2000/2001 Bessie F. Gabbard Initiative on Leadership. Phi Delta Kappan, September, 2000, pg. 8 ff.

This worthwhile collection of essays on leadership includes "Leadership for Student Learning" by Mary Neuman and Warren Simmons, "Moving From Oversight to Insight" by John Deasy, "Mentoring Leadership" by Kirsten Mikel Hibert, "Conquering the Fear of Flying" by Rochelle Nichols-Solomon, "‘You Know Mrs. Castro, You'd Be a Really Good Teacher!'" by Marjorie E. Castro, and "The Everyday Work of Leadership" by Robert DeBlois.

The article by Neuman and Simmons proposes the concept of shared or "distributed" leadership for schools. While this idea would certainly lead to more opportunities for teacher-leadership, the authors' intent is not clear. The reader is uncertain whether they feel shared leadership is a good idea that should be expressed in a set of ad hoc relationships from school to school, or institutionalized in some more well-defined manner, so that leadership, once shared, can't be co-opted by one segment of a school community.

Much more on distributed leadership and related matters can be found in the work of James Spillane and his associates at Northwestern University. In particular, see "Towards a Theory of Leadership Practice: A Distributed Perspective," by James P. Spillane, Richard Halverson, and John B. Diamond, Northwestern University, Institute for Policy Research Working Paper (at www.letus.org/dls/). It is important to understand that the authors of this theory do not advocate a particular leadership or governance style, but rather seek to describe the complexities of the physical and social environment within which school leadership acts occur. We list this source here because of its school-based multi-dimensional, multi-actor view of leadership practice.

We note that the other five Kappan articles express ideas which coordinate very well with the concept of shared leadership. Four of the six articles are authored or co-authored by women, who may be generally more disposed to this perspective than male administrators with a background of traditional top-down leadership experiences. The best of the essays is the one by DeBlois, who offers the most interesting set of reflections on what leadership really means.

Barth, Roland S. Improving Schools From Within. Jossey Bass Publishers, San Francisco, CA, 1990.

This book, written by a former principal and director of the Principal Center at Harvard, contains many ideas related to the leadership roles that teachers can take. See especially the chapter called "Becoming A Community of Learners." In it, Barth says,

"I would like to suggest .... ‘All teachers can lead.' Skeptics might say ‘a few teachers' or ‘some' or even ‘many.' But there is an important part of the life and work of the entire school at which every teacher is good, wants to become good, and can become good. Teachers harbor extraordinary leadership capabilities, and their leadership is a major untapped resource for improving our nation's schools. ... The world will come to accept that all teachers can lead, as many now accept that ‘all children can learn' ... if we can overcome the many impediments facing teachers and principals that block teachers' leading, and if we can find conditions under which teachers will exercise that leadership."

In the same chapter Barth notes the opposition that administrators' professional organizations have to the concept of teacher leadership.

Barth, Roland S. "Teacher Leader." Phi Delta Kappan. February, 2001, pg. 443.

A cogent analysis of what teacher leadership is, why it's important, the impediments to achieving teacher leadership, and recommendations for how to increase its incidence. A section is devoted to the role of the principal and how the individual in that position can thwart or support the expression of teacher leadership. Barth makes some critical observations:

"Clearly, there is nothing inherent in the role of principal that causes either curtailment or support of teacher leadership: it is how the principal chooses to perform the job [emphasis added]. By their day-to-day actions, principals build the culture of their schools. That pattern of behavior can embed teacher leadership in the school's culture, cast a wet blanket on it–or have no influence at all.

"A profound ambivalence about teachers pervades our profession. On the one hand, teachers are viewed–and treated–by many as semiskilled workers who need to be more technically trained and retrained, more closely monitored, more regulated, and more frequently evaluated against ever more prescriptive requirements and standards. On the other hand, teachers are viewed by others as grownups–professionals deserving greater opportunity for more leadership, more participation in important decisions, and greater self-governance."

In these two paragraphs, Barth has nailed the problem of establishing permanent conditions supporting teacher leadership squarely on its head. Under current common governance structures it is up to the principal to decide to support or oppose teacher leadership. And, even if the current principal does support it, the next one in that school might not. Moreover, the widespread ambivalence about teachers makes any effort to move in the direction of a more adult and professional work role suspect on every side–even that of teachers themselves.

We may attribute this ambivalence about teachers to a fundamental lack of trust in them. We could attribute it to male chauvinism, since so many teachers are women and so many administrators are men. We could say, "It is no surprise that, after a while, people who are treated like children begin to act like children–dependent and in need of fatherly guidance. I also attribute the dearth of examples of teacher leadership to the protectionist impulses of individuals in favored positions in the current hierarchy. While we can agree with Barth that "all teachers can lead" and most want to lead, it won't happen without a conscious change in the common top-down, male-dominated governance structure.

Buchen, Irving H. "A Radical Vision For Education." The Futurist, May, 2000, pg.30.

Buchen's ideas may be radical to some, but they sound quite sensible here at CPSR. Prof. Buchen cites alternatives to traditional public education such as home schooling, charter schools, and the operations of all sorts of educational technologists and entrepreneurs as factors that will lead to a breakup of the current system. Especially interesting is his proposal to eliminate administrators and replace them with professionals who are hired by teachers to handle purchasing, finance, maintenance, and security. Teachers, in turn, "will manage learning, discipline, curriculum, assessment, and development." A professor of management at Walden University, Buchen draws on examples from business and industry to highlight his many ideas for changing education.

Cohen, Rosetta Marantz. "Schools Our Teachers Deserve: A Proposal for Teacher-Centered Reform." Phi Delta Kappan, March, 2002, pg. 532.

Professor Cohen grabs our attention early by saying,

"The whole failed history of modern education reform--from the prescriptive lesson-plan formats of the 1970s to the restructuring plans in the 1980s to the state testing and curriculum of the 1990s--has addressed the ‘needs of the child.' It has paid hardly any attention to the work of the teacher, the one critical player in the school who makes the biggest difference. ‘In the school, the teacher comes first.' I would wager there isn't a public school and the land with such a model."

She identifies successful schools as those that have a good ethos – powerful traditions and embedded norms (similar to the school climate research launched in the 1970s). She sees the teachers as the "one stable influence on a [school] culture that is, by definition, always in flux." She believes, as do business management experts, that employee morale is a central priority and that a loyal, intelligent work force is the key factor in organizational success. She believes " ... the sullenness and exhaustion of these teachers and their cynicism and contempt for the system are the real root causes of bad schooling. Poorly written curricula, scheduling, and structural concerns are of so much lesser importance than teacher morale that they might as well not be factors at all." Cohen notes that "Good liberal arts colleges, like good private schools, really are ‘teacher-centered' institutions. Both seem to recognize that the way to foster excellence in students is to foster excellence in teachers." She recommends a number of reforms that would foster this excellence: offer sabbaticals; reallocate budgets so that more money is available for books and letting teachers choose what they teach; involve teachers in the evaluation process; change hiring practices; make tenure mean something; reallocate the use of time to protect teachers; have administrators teach.

All of these recommendations are good. However, all would become possible, as well as other reforms, if teachers were permanently empowered to make decisions about how they wanted to operate their schools. Cohen is silent on the governance structure that would support her reforms. If the traditional authority structure remains in place, those who enable the recommended reforms could disable them at a later date. An additional concern about Cohen's quite sensible proposal is that something more than just teacher morale must be accounted for as a way to improve schools. That "something" is student achievement. Happy and satisfied teachers do not necessarily produce well-educated students.

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