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Teachers as Leaders Within Their School Communities

October 16, 2011

Shared Leadership leads to success, courtesy of IStockphoto

I am a strong believer in the idea of shared or distributed leadership.  The Annenberg Foundation has supported numerous initiatives that have benefited our society, especially in the area of education and leadership.  The foundation supports the Penn Center for Educational Leadership, which is an organization that has studied the value of distributed leadership models.  We know there is a link between school improvement and effective leadership.  In fact, they go hand-in-hand (see the work of Michael Fullan).  In leadership models that rely on the energy and vision of one person, the talents and attributes of many other people are left untapped.   I believe in the old adage, “two heads are better than one.”  In fact, in my own experience most good school reform efforts or change initiatives get implemented because they have had strong teacher leaders behind them.  Often a small, but effective, team of teachers who lead as a group.  Of course, a supportive administration helps as well.

I decided to write this post in response to a question that Anna Bacon Moore, a facilitator of one of our Edward E. Ford Faculty Cohorts, raised that came out of the recent cohort meeting.  The question goes something like this: how do we (cohort members who are engaged in learning deeply) work with “naysayers” back in our own school communities?  I think another way of asking the question is: how do we become the change we want for our school?  It can be hard to be the change you want to see when you might easily face a fair amount of resistance to your innovative ideas.  In Anna’s question, she also made reference to the idea that the “20-year veterans” who are quite comfortable doing things a certain way, can be a huge obstacle.  The “20-year veteran” could also be the “5th-year teacher” who is totally set in his or her ways.  So I guess the question is how to advance the work of assessment for learning (one cohort’s topic) or the influence of neuroscience on teaching and learning (the 2nd cohort’s topic) in the face of colleagues who may not understand or want to understand these ideas?

For me the answer lies in starting close in (Start Close In).  I use this poem by David Whyte frequently when confronted with the question: “where do I start because there are so many possibilities?”  We need to start by making changes in our own practice that help us become a better teacher, a more engaged learner.  If we each devote time to becoming the best teacher possible, then we will impact others through the changing reputation of our practice.  Others will notice and ask questions with time.  Why is she assessing students in that way?  Why did he redesign his lesson plans so that new material was introduced first and last, and management or practice activities are placed in the middle (primacy/recency theory from David Sousa’s book, How The Brain Learns)?  I think our role is to go back into our school communities and find those people who are receptive and motivate them to learn what we are learning.  Over time, the “TRIBE” will grow. (see the book by Seth Godin: Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us).  Here is a TED Talk he gave on the topic of developing your tribe, both are worth reading/viewing.

As I was listening to President Obama’s speech at the dedication of the Martin Luther King monument in DC, I was struck by many of the connections he was making to Dr. King’s leadership in the midst of significant resistance.  President Obama quoted Dr. King’s phrase, “…the isness of today and the oughtness of tomorrow.”  So Obama raised the challenge: “Let’s not be trapped by what is, but be energized by what ought to be.”  I think it applies to the question Anna Moor is asking.  When faced with obstacles and naysayers, let’s not be trapped by what “is” in today’s classroom, let’s be energized by the practices that we feel ought to be used to engaged students effectively.  If they work, they will gain traction with those who are paying attention.

With regard to teachers as leaders, a series of very good articles appeared in the September 2007 edition of Educational Leadership, a publication by Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, devoted to teacher as leader.  If this topic is of interest to you, I would highly recommend some of these articles.  While I have not read all of them, the ones I did read were extremely helpful in understanding what schools and school administrators must do to promote distributed leadership models.

We know that the process of change required to successfully implement 21st Century reform initiatives will be incredibly demanding.  “What is needed is not a few good leaders, but large numbers to make the extraordinary efforts required.” (The Moral Imperative of School Leadership, by Michael Fullan, 2003).  Schools must find ways to open themselves up to the voices of their faculty.  Listen to their classroom stories.  Encourage faculty to experiment with new ideas and listen to the voices of their students.  The more we engage the whole community in change initiatives the more likely the change will take root within the school.

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