Unpacking Dispositions in Teacher Leadership

In a Phi Delta Kappan article called “Teacher Leader,” Roland Barth, founder of the Harvard Principals’ Center, tells of an encounter with a teacher in an innovative middle school. Barth had asked the teacher whether she had any leadership responsibilities. She replied, “I’m just a teacher. If you want to talk with the leader, he’s down the hall in the principal’s office.” Barth observes, “It is alarming that the individuals so central to the learning process so often see themselves as incidental to the enterprise we call school.”

The teacher’s response reflects the traditional model of school management in which principals lead and teachers follow. While this pattern persists in many places, an alternative approach views school leadership as a collaborative rather than a hierarchical process. Instead of concentrating leadership in one individual, leadership is stretched across various participants in an organization. This model of distributed leadership provides a rationale for teacher leadership. 

The idea of teacher leadership recognizes that teachers are key to school improvement. No serious educational reform can succeed without buy-in, learning and change on the part of teachers. And who better positioned to lead such efforts than accomplished teachers, who are respected by peers and administrators for their pedagogical know-how and their skill in facilitating teacher development. Although definitions of teacher leadership vary and the term encompasses a variety of formal and informal roles, at its core teacher leadership is about teachers leading within and beyond their classroom in ways that foster a collaborative culture and improve the quality of teaching and learning in schools.

Teacher leadership brings many benefits. It keeps talented teachers in the classroom, while tapping their pedagogical expertise, growing their leadership skills and increasing their job satisfaction. It professionalizes teaching and creates vertical career growth for teachers who do not want to become administrators. Empowering teachers as leaders of instructional improvement and school change can also strengthen teacher morale.

The idea of teacher leadership has gained momentum since the mid-l980s when educational reforms advanced the professionalization of teaching. In “What Do We Know About Teacher Leadership?” Jennifer York-Barr and Karen Duke identify three successive waves in the evolution of teacher leadership. In Wave 1, teachers served in formal roles as grade level chairs, department heads and union representatives, taking on managerial responsibilities that principals could not or did not want to assume. In Wave 2, teachers took on expanded instructional roles, helping to implement mandated curricula, leading staff development workshops, mentoring new teachers. In Wave 3, teachers began to lead professional learning communities designed to foster collaboration, ongoing learning and instructional improvement. Today, in schools around the country, including some Jewish day schools, teachers are filling formal and informal roles related to each of these waves. 

But what does it take to be a successful teacher leader? Everyone agrees that the foundation is being a good teacher. Teacher leaders know how to engage diverse students in learning worthwhile content. They enjoy what they do and want to keep doing it. They are also learners, open to new ideas, actively seeking better ways to teach their content and reach their students. Their commitment to student learning and their effectiveness in the classroom give them credibility with other teachers and with administrators.

If being a good teacher is necessary but not sufficient, what else do teachers leaders need to know, care about and be able to do? To answer this question, we examined a set of national standards for teacher leaders. We also reviewed the learning outcomes of a graduate program in teacher leadership at Brandeis University designed for teachers in public schools and Jewish day schools. In keeping with the theme of this issue of HaYidion, we paid special attention to dispositional requirements. In both cases, we discovered that dispositions for teacher leadership were either implicit or incorporated into descriptions of teacher leaders’ understandings and actions, not separated out as distinct qualifications. 

This integrated approach reflects an understanding of dispositions as a combination of will and skill, capacity and commitment. The strong desire to be a teacher leader and the requisite knowledge and skills for doing so fortify each other in the practice of teacher leadership. Steven Covey (Seven Habits of Highly Effective People) makes the same point when he writes that a habit, another term for disposition, is “the intersection of knowledge, skill and desire.” 

In 2010, the Teacher Leadership Exploratory Consortium released a set of model teacher-leader standards. Designed to stimulate discussion among stakeholders of the teaching profession, these national standards outline the competencies of teacher leaders around the following domains:

  • Fostering a collaborative culture to support educator development and student learning
  • Accessing and using research to improve practice and student learning
  • Promoting professional learning for continuous improvement
  • Facilitating improvements in instruction and student learning
  • Promoting the use of assessments and data for school improvement
  • Improving outreach and collaboration with families and the community
  • Advocating for student learning and the profession 

While the descriptions of the domains contain little explicit dispositional language, one can infer some of the dispositions teacher leaders would need to carry them out these responsibilities. 

Take the first domain, which calls for teacher leaders to foster a culture of collaboration in support of teacher development and student learning. A large body of research shows that effective schools provide teachers with regular opportunities to share problems of practice, examine student work, study and design curriculum, analyze data, observe each other’s teaching—all in the service of improving teaching and learning in their school. Yet many schools do not provide the conditions that support this kind of collaborative work among teachers. 

Picture a grade-level meeting in which teachers discuss samples of student work to figure out what individual students have learned from a recently completed unit, what they misunderstood and what still needs to be taught. What facilitation practices, patterns of talk and norms of discourse would be needed to make this a professional learning experience?

Developing a culture of “critical colleagueship,” in the words of researcher Brian Lord, requires a sea change in how teachers relate to colleagues and talk about students, teaching and learning. This is particularly true for teachers accustomed to working alone in the privacy of their classroom. But even teachers who welcome opportunities to learn with and from colleagues may not feel comfortable exposing their practice to others, surfacing questions and concerns, probing colleagues’ comments, hearing and offering constructive criticism. 

Helping teachers move from a culture of congeniality to a culture of collaboration is a tall order for teacher leaders, requiring considerable tact and skill. One can imagine some of the dispositions they would need to foster the trust and openness on which productive collaboration depends: patience, persistence, open-mindedness, confidence and a willingness to take risks. Such habits of mind and heart enable teacher leaders to act as agents of cultural change. 

The graduate program for teacher leaders at Brandeis frames the curriculum according to four broad learning outcomes: developing an identity as a teacher leader; planning teacher learning opportunities aligned with school improvement goals and principles of effective professional development; facilitating teacher learning with individuals and groups to improve student learning; and using organizational principles and data to think strategically and advocate for school change. The Brandeis program rests on the assumption that teacher leadership is a professional practice that must be learned and can be taught. What distinguishes the assessment framework is the explicit recognition that becoming a teacher leader requires the development of a new professional identity along with a new set of skills and understandings. For us, that identity is intimately tied to the notion of teacher leaders as “lead learners.” 

A professional identity combines outside expectations—what one is supposed to do and be like—with an inner sense of agency and self-awareness. Becoming a teacher leader means coming to see oneself in new ways as well as meeting and shaping the expectations of others. It means expanding one’s professional identity to include being a facilitator of other teachers’ learning and an advocate for their students’ learning. 

When teacher leaders are comfortable in their role, they share their classroom successes and challenges with others. They welcome the chance to lead a professional learning community (PLC) or start a mentoring program in their school. They question taken-for-granted ideas about teaching and learning. They accept the inevitability of resistance and the need to work patiently and persistently toward school improvement. 

Still, being a teacher leader can feel risky in a flat profession like teaching, where distinctions are mainly based on years of experience, not expertise. That’s one reason why the Brandeis program embraces a view of teacher leaders as “lead learners,” not experts. Another reason stems from the inevitable uncertainties that come with the challenging and complex work of teaching and teacher leadership. By adopting an inquiry stance, teacher leaders invite others to turn problems into questions, seek evidence of learning and be open to new possibilities for meeting the learning needs of their students. 

Working with three cohorts of day school teacher leaders in the Brandeis program has underscored the critical role that administrators play in the success of teacher leaders. It is easier to be a teacher leader in schools where teachers have regular opportunities to learn with and from one another. Even when such conditions exist, teacher leaders still need explicit, public acknowledgment and support from school leaders. 

By conferring legitimacy on teacher leaders and helping to create the structures and culture that support their efforts, heads of school make it possible to reap the benefits of teacher leadership. No matter where your school is now, teacher leadership is not beyond your reach. Identifying the right teachers, fostering a learning culture, and promoting distributed leadership are within reach for every Jewish day school. 

Sharon Feiman-Nemser with Shira Loewenstein
Leadership Dispositions
Knowledge Topics
Professional Leadership