Throwing Out the Baby with the Bath Water

Leadership, in its many forms and permutations really comes down to a basic human desire; to feel a sense of empowerment and control over the direction of one’s life, whether that is in the classroom, home or the greater community. As discussed by Smylie, Conley & Marks (2010) the concerns of teacher leaders are no different than other educators: they want involvement in decision making; they want to experience professional efficacy, satisfaction and a sense of professionalism; and they desire to reduce feelings of isolation and increase their ability to communicate with other educators. What marks a teacher as leader is a willingness and drive to put themself “out there” in the greater school community, to open themselves and their ideals to criticism, collegial discord, and the ever pervasive “us vs. them” mentality of a traditionally hierarchical system. Yet, despite the drawbacks of leading, there are both intrinsic and tangible rewards: monetary, professional recognition, a sense of self-fulfillment and for some, realizing the democratization of education.

The readings this week speak to a link between school reform and the “professionalization” (Smylie, Conley & Marks, 2010) of education on the one hand, and the posit that teacher leadership, as realized through professional learning communities, can work as a transformative component of social justice for both students and teachers (Hirsch & Hord, 2010). Viewing teacher leadership as a necessary component of social justice works to dismantle the strict power dichotomies that have characterized education. According to Hirsch and Hord (2010) there are three new approaches to teacher leadership that has caused a “move to more dynamic, organizational views of leadership” (p. 268):

  • Teacher as researcher approach- “challenge hegemony of a university-generated knowledge base for teaching” (p. 268).
  • Models of distributive leadership to build teacher leaders-
    • Performance of key tasks or functions
    • Power and influence through interaction among individuals
    • Two or more leaders interaction with others creates a “multiplicative” (p. 274) rather than summative effect
  • Self-manage teams that substitute for administrative leadership- “…promote improvement at the school level and exert substantial social and normative influence over their members, shaping their thinking, beliefs, and behaviors” (p. 274).

This notion of teacher leadership is a dramatic contrast with an antiquated past where teacher leadership was approached from the angle of developing the capacity of individuals. Through re-realizing teachers roles as researcher and members of self-managed teams, leadership is distributed amongst administration and teachers to more effectively facilitate the real work of education; improving students’ social and economic mobility through quality education.

If you do not look at things on a large scale, it will be difficult to master strategy

– Miyamoto Mursashi

Paradoxically, while these new approaches to teacher leadership are viewed as the means to usher in greater participation in decision-making at the classroom and school-wide level through re-realizing organizational and relational hierarchies “There is little empirical research to date that examines these new approaches “in action.” (p. 268). While imagining teacher leadership as a potential cure-all for the ills of hierarchical hegemonic structures, the realities have not been fully examined.  For example, Smylie, Conley & Marks (2010) admit that the positive outcomes of self-managed teams created as substitutes for administrative leadership is unclear at all levels: “Teaming appeared to inhibit the development of school-level reform agendas” (p. 277). Similar outcomes for both primary and high school teaming were observed in different studies; “…Herriot and Firestone (1984) found that departmental structure created barriers that hindered communication, collaboration, and curricular coherence across the larger school community. Interdisciplinary teams fared no better in promoting collaboration and collective decision making at the school level (Witziers et al., 1999)” (p. 277). And finally, “…it may mean that strong external leadership is needed to set the direction for and to coordinate team work at the school level and to avoid organizational fragmentation” (p. 277). It seems that teachers still need administrator access to resources, support, and guidance in order to be effective leaders.

As a leader you should always start with where people are before you try to take them to where you want them to go.  – Jim Rohn

This year, I have a great opportunity to “try on” administration for size; I am able to experience first-hand the daily pattern of interaction between administrators and teachers. I am in my third month of an administrative/curriculum internship at an international school in Jakarta, Indonesia. Much of my work the month prior to the start of school was spent creating basic systems and an overall structure of the school’s Pre-K to 12 curriculum. My second month as an intern was a continuation of systems building. I also actively worked to create numerous opportunities for teachers to have a direct voice in the direction and creation of curriculum of the school through committee work (Best Practices, Advisory, Best Practices, Policy/Handbook Review, etcetera), designated time during the school day to meet in content-area team meetings, an open all-staff meeting agenda…the list goes on. What I’ve noticed is the same thing I’ve noticed in the various schools I’ve worked in all over the world; there are those that welcome and take advantage of opportunities to have a voice and those that steadfastly avoid engaging in anything outside of the domain of their classroom. What to do when confronted with reluctant teacher leaders? I continue to provide opportunities for all staff members to have a voice while encouraging and highlighting those teachers that are leaders. I remember my simple, guiding principle in the decisions that I make and am part of what’s best for the kids? and try to remain true to the spirit of my vision.

What makes leadership is the ability to get people to do what they don’t want to do and like it.  – Harry Truman

As a burgeoning administrative leader, one of my proudest moments this year occurred just yesterday. I have been working with a staff member that has been reluctant to teach outside of her experience. This teacher is a certified ELD specialist that has been working with high school ELL students in the US. However, she was hired to be the middle school English language arts teacher, an area that she holds an endorsement in though is not her preferred area to teach. I have spent the last three weeks coaxing, encouraging and supporting her with unit outlines, vocabulary lists, chapter questions, and formative and summative assessments. I set appointments with the middle school social studies teacher and Media Specialist to facilitate cross-curricular discussion that is resulting in a nine week unit where students will study and research (about Egypt) in social studies while they reading a fictional novel in ELA. There will be common assessments including a summative assessment that will be graded in classes, a rich media component and a rigorous curriculum. The best part of all? Yesterday, this teacher told me that she was starting to feel comfortable, that she was beginning to see the big picture of the unit, that she was excited and that it was going to be so much fun to teach. I am proud that I was able to draw upon my leadership skills, resources and experience as a teacher to support a fellow educator in their own professional growth, despite their initial resistance. This teacher told me just last week that while she could meet with me about ELA curriculum, she really wasn’t invested in the process; she’d rather work on developing her skills as an ELD teacher. This teacher is doing exactly what she never imagined she’d do; teach English language arts and enjoy it.

As educators, we owe it to ourselves and our students to step-up and lead every day in whatever way we can best serve kids. Whether our title is teacher or administrator, we can all have a positive impact on students. Teacher leadership can be used to realize social justice, to bring a louder voice to the individuals that work directly with children, for self-actualization or simply to share in the immense amount of work it takes to educate children. However, teacher leadership should not be envisioned as a replacement for administrators; to suggest so is to paint an exceedingly naïve view of what it means to be a leader at the administrative level. Schools in the US are desperately in need of reform but let’s remember not to throw the baby out with the bath water. There is room and a need for teacher leaders and administrators in education.


Hirsh, S., & Hord, S. (2010). Building hope, giving affirmation: Learning communities that address social justice issues bring equity to the classroom.  Journal of staff development, 31(4), 10-12, 14,16-17.

Smylie, M.A., Conley, S., & Marks, H.M. (2011). Exploring new approaches to teacher leadership for school improvement. In E. Hilty (Ed.) Teacher leadership: The “new” foundations of teacher education (pp. 265-282). New York, NY: Peter Lang Publishing, Inc. (Chapter 25).



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