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Teachers Leading the Way: Voices from the National Teacher Forum - April 1998

Supporting Teacher Leadership

Good teachers don't like to be out of their classrooms, but it is a myth that to be productive teachers must spend all of their time in the classroom. "I am lucky in that my school district supports my taking time outside the classroom," says Mark Saul of New York. "But I am always apologizing for leaving to go to another conference or meeting. Most are jealous of other teachers who assume leadership roles. . . It is ironic that even as we strive to find new ways to measure student growth which do not involve seat time in the classroom, we cling to the notion that a teacher is not working if he/she is not in the classroom."

To move beyond this notion and develop more leaders, many teachers need support--from other teachers as well as from outside the profession. Support to help more teachers become successful leaders can be given in many different ways.

  1. Encourage teachers to lead and stay informed. Some teachers with great potential lack the confidence or skills to become successful leaders. Encouragement to make a presentation or head up a curriculum committee can help these teachers to become leaders. They also need to be encouraged to acquire research-based information that can guide them at the helm.

    • "A teacher's efforts to take on leadership roles outside the school need to be recognized and acknowledged as worthwhile, valuable, and appreciated," said Sharon Schwartz from Pennsylvania. "While it would be ideal to pay teachers for their time as leaders, even some public recognition and applause would go a long way to encouraging teachers to continue in outside leadership roles. We need to support one another physically and emotionally. We need to help each other by sharing the work load for both our teaching duties and leadership activities. We need to work as teams in our school and in outside leadership roles. We need to be willing to share ideas and information, not hoard them as our own. And yes, we need to 'play' together, to build friendships and support for those among ourselves, so we have the strength and courage to keep going in leadership roles in the face of the inevitable challenges and disappointments along the way."

    • "Teachers need to believe they have something special to offer before they will become leaders. They need to believe that what they are doing is good enough to share with others," said Wyoming teacher Jan Truchot. "I don't know how many times something has been going on in our building and somebody has come up with an idea. Then all of a sudden it will come out in an education journal as this most wonderful thing in the world. And, we all say, 'Well, we've been doing that for five years.' We don't recognize, all of us, that what we are doing is really neat stuff."

    • "You've got to get teachers out of the box that they are in," said David Williams from Florida. As a department chairman, Mr. Williams encourages some colleagues to teach more advanced classes than they previously have. He believes this is a small but important step toward increasing their confidence and capacity to lead.

    • Teachers with an eye toward becoming leaders need to be encouraged to expand their knowledge and understanding of education and how children learn, according to Forum participants. This is critical in order for the teacher leaders to move schools in directions that are educationally sound. Fie Budzinsky from Connecticut explained, "A lot of our teachers are well-intentioned, but are really not grounded in evidence. We don't read enough. I'm not saying that all the answers are in reading, but there is a lot of research on learning in the last 20 years that is profound, and I don't think we speak from that knowledge base. Until the leaders know more and can actually ground some of what they say in some sort of evidence, I think we will always have a credibility problem, and our leadership will be questioned."

  2. Create leadership roles for teachers. More ways must be found to provide leadership roles for teachers that enable them to remain in the classroom.

    • "Typically in a school district if you're a really good teacher they want to make you the principal. And, you know, that's not where some of us want to go," said Edward Barry from Vermont. "But there's nowhere else to go. We need to create other roles that are recognized and maybe monetarily recognized."

    • "I want a half-and-half job," said Cynthia Appold from New York. "I want to continue my teaching because I love it, but I want to be a liaison to a lot of community things. I want to be able to work with companies that are going to benefit my students or help other students."

    • Barbara Ellison Rosenblit from Georgia recommends having more "master teachers" who assume extra responsibilities such as working with less experienced teachers. A master teacher program can provide veteran teachers with important opportunities to "show their stuff to everybody" and receive recognition that extends beyond accolades at faculty meetings, she said.

    • For the last three years, Steven Levy has successfully shared his class with other teachers. This arrangement enabled him to remain a teacher and pursue other education interests and talents developed during his time as the 1993 Massachusetts Teacher of the Year. For one year, he paired up with a beginning teacher who had previously been his student teacher. "This worked well because we were very familiar with each other's style and with the traditions, ceremonies, enthusiasms, and procedures of classroom life," Levy said. Both beginning and veteran teacher gained from the partnership, Levy said. The beginning teacher learned that some challenges were beyond her ability to influence; it was not her responsibility to fix all of her students' learning, emotional, and social problems. "On the other hand," Levy reports, "her passion to solve every problem pushed this old man to reconsider taking on some battles that he had long given up on." When that teacher left to become a mother, Levy hooked up with a former education consultant who was eager to teach. "It is fantastic for me to work with this person who is so knowledgeable about the research, and strong in areas where I am weak," Levy said. "It is also great for her to test ideas that sounded great in the lab with real children!" Both he and his current partner do consulting and writing when they aren't teaching, and Levy also works for an education reform initiative sponsored by the New American Schools called ATLAS Communities. "Teachers need the opportunity to work with adults, reflecting on their practice and sharing it with others for development and critique," Levy said. "I encourage any of you great teachers who feel limited by the classroom, but would never want to leave it, to consider a job-sharing arrangement."

    • Teachers who are willing to serve should be paid...to spend half their time teaching in their classrooms and the other half serving in their leadership role," Merlinda Rodriguez from Texas suggested. "The preparation and planning time for these jobs should also be compensated. Also, resources . . . that enable teacher leaders to do their jobs more efficiently and creatively should be provided."

  3. Provide opportunities for teachers to continue learning and be trained as leaders. Professional development is essential if teachers are to gain the knowledge and skills needed to be leaders. Many forum teachers suggested that partnerships be formed with teacher preparation programs to improve their content and help teachers-in-training develop leadership skills. Forum teachers also suggested that classroom teachers have regular opportunities to attend professional development sessions to improve their leadership skills.

    • "We keep talking about teachers being leaders, but who is training us to be leaders?" Eva Thompson of Alabama asked. "I know that I should be a leader. But in our schools of education they do not instill that in us, to go out, be a leader. We don't get any background. In the ideal world, our universities, our colleges of education, need to help us get into jobs as leaders."

    • "Our district has only 77 teachers and about 1,200 students. But our building principal really encourages our teachers to go to conferences, to become experts, and our district has 11 in-service days," said Gene Stukel from Minnesota. "These are not workshops. It's very menu-driven. The presenting is done by the 77 teachers in our district. Out staff development committee and I work together to determine maybe six or seven offerings, and teachers sign up. At the end, we have a survey to ask people what we could do for the next in-service. We've been doing this for nine years, and it's been just incredible."

    • Classroom teachers can help improve local teacher education programs, Kelly McCalla from South Carolina suggested. "They don't ask what we think (teachers) should be learning," she said. "Too many universities are still teaching the same things they did 10 years ago. Why can't we be in their meetings, and design their course syllabus?"

    • "We all know that the best lessons that we teach to children are those in which we have a personal stake or personal interest," said Leonard Swanton from Massachusetts. This reality is behind some of the success of the Fulbright-Hays fellowships, which allow teachers to travel to different corners of the world. At the end of about seven weeks of travel, teachers are expected to develop a curriculum or a project to share with other teachers.

    • Leadership training similar to what Scott Griffin and his colleagues have developed could benefit many teachers. Mr. Griffin and several other teachers who were finalists for the North Carolina Teacher of the Year have established a leadership institute that enables teachers to receive leadership training. Among other things, these teachers learn about their own leadership style and how to make the best use of their attributes.

    • More reliable and competent substitute teachers are needed to step in while regular teachers receive training. "If you go on a three-day conference for teachers, the third day the sense of worry begins to set in," Kelly McCalla explained. "What's my little (class)room look like? What if my kids don't want to come (to school)?" Having the same teacher or teachers substitute for a regular teacher leaving for leadership training would make the instructional time more productive, she said.

  4. Ease time constraints. Many teachers describe a lack of time as the greatest challenge to increasing the number of teachers in leadership roles. Time for leadership activities must be built into a teacher's schedule so that they don't need to carry a full class load and also squeeze in time to lead during their planning time or hours outside the classroom. Forum teachers suggested constructive ways to restructure time and juggle their professional and personal responsibilities.

    • The teacher's day and work load need to be adjusted to allow for other involvements, many Forum teachers suggested. "The outside involvements need to be viewed as part of the teacher's job--not as extra work on his/her own time," says Sharon Schwartz from Pennsylvania.

    • "Twelve-month teaching contracts would give teachers more time to become leaders," said Edward Barry from Vermont. Part of that contract time would be for planning, part for professional development, and part for teaching.

    • More family-friendly policies would give teachers more time to lead, Melody Fawcett-Leech from Ohio recommended. "Schools seldom make concessions for people with small children," she said. Evening open houses, meetings with parents, or after-school athletic activities become a major scheduling challenge because her husband must be available to watch the children or she or her husband must find a sitter. On-site child care and/or other such supports would make it much easier to take on leadership responsibilities and other professional commitments outside the classroom, she said.

    • Teachers need to select carefully the activities that they become involved in outside the classroom. "You really have to pick and choose," Alan Taylor of the Northern Mariana Islands advised. "Find some things that you really do well, and focus on those things, because you just can't do it all."

  5. Create more "connection" opportunities. Teachers would benefit from more time to talk with each other and with the community. Most teachers have informal opportunities to talk in teachers' meetings or in hallways between classes. But more organized efforts to get together would help break down the professional isolation inherent in teaching, an isolation that can hamper the ability of teachers to build the knowledge and confidence needed to become leaders.

    • Opportunities to connect also help broaden teachers' perspectives and provide them with the context needed for being effective in their classrooms. As one forum teacher explained, "It is counterproductive for teachers to be hired, disappear into their classroom, and reappear 27 years later for their retirement party."

    • "There is so much isolation," explained Shelley Lawrence from California. "We need to find ways to make time for teachers to get together and to talk--to see what's happening in other classrooms, to really identify who the experts are in my school, at other schools in the community."

    • Teachers could benefit from "a common preparation period, more peer support and interaction," said Sam D. Hasselman from New Jersey. "In teaching with our peers, we rarely get to bond. We hold court in our own rooms, have a common teachers' meeting once a month, and shuffle home to do papers."

    • Connecting with people and groups outside the classroom is particularly important in small districts so that resources for students can be increased, according to Steve Hornyak. He has relied on a range of contacts to produce musical and theatrical productions in Eaton, Colorado. Teachers in local colleges, retired teachers, parents, art advocacy groups, dance instructors in the community, and other arts professionals have helped with everything from sewing costumes, to choreographing productions.

    • Teachers need to make time for people and activities outside the world of teaching, according to Judy Woytowich of Guam. "Teachers need a life," she said. "They need a passion outside of the classroom. When teachers have exciting lives that enrich humanity and themselves, they bring that energy into the classroom, and it kindles fire in budding firemen, scientists, doctors, writers, naturalists, future teachers, and parents... Whenever I get unhappy with my role as an educator, I say, 'Judy, you need a life. Go get a life!' Ms. Woytowich writes, reads, and plays racquetball. She has visited Alaska to work on her brother's boat and to see glaciers, whales, eagles, and seals. She's studied photography. "The enthusiasm I garner from the life outside the classroom reenters the classroom with me and helps motivate students," she concludes.


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