Moving Away from Professional-Immolation: Can Teacher Leadership Professionalize Education?

What is the ultimate goal of teacher leadership? According to Hilty (2012), the aim of teacher leadership is really pretty straightforward; the goal is attained when student outcomes are improved: “Being effective necessarily means that everyone in a school participates in the decision-making process and is accountable for student achievement” (p. 125). It seems simple enough; increase opportunities for, and the capacity of, teacher leaders and students benefit. While some may seek social justice or monetary ends to indicate effective teacher leadership, by contrast, improved student outcome as envisioned by Hilty is something all educators should be able to rally around despite potential personal or political agendas.

Indeed, Zepeda (2012) links the notion of professionalism, including professional development, directly to teacher leadership and the potential impact that has on improved student outcomes: “…teachers increase their professionalism when they increase their capacity to lead, teach, and learn from the professional work they engage in during the workday. It is difficult to separate professionalism, teacher quality, and student achievement” (Chapter 1, Section15, Paragraph 1). The link between responsive, adequate professional development for teachers and student outcomes is undeniable. Paradoxically, professional development has traditionally been approached by well-intentioned administrators or facilitators shotgun style; load PD days up with lots of different topics then unload. The logic seems to be that if enough “knowledge” is discharged, teachers are bound to catch something to hold onto. Despite the preponderance of these antiquated approaches to adult learning, thinking around professional development is evolving into a more responsive and in some cases, participatory endeavor.

But how do we know if professional development is not only appropriate for adult learners but also effective? “The success of professional development is based on the extent to which change occurs” (Zepeda, 2012, Chapter 1, Section1, Paragraph 4). It is clear that there must be ways to hold professional development leaders and teachers accountable for the outcome (namely, student achievement) of time and money spent. Case in point, two fundamental questions identified by Zepeda (2012) deal with program evaluation; knowing if transfer of a new practice occurred and whether student achievement has increased. Lieberman (2012) takes the idea of effective professional development one step further, suggesting a de-centralization of the process where teachers are in charge of their own collaborative project-based professional learning including finding sources of funding. When teachers are directly involved in creating their own learning that they share with others, perhaps the need for rigorous program evaluation becomes a moot point as teacher leadership evolves into an organic by-product of simply leading through being: “The research describes a type of teacher behavior that reaches beyond classrooms to create the climate and the organization necessary for learning. The behavior is not so much an act of instruction as an act of leadership essential to the whole school” (p. 116). Once again, being a leader does not have to be about titles or adopting this technique or that one; it’s about a set of dispositions and habits of mind that guide an educators’ professional work.

cannibal- anthropophagus, man-eater, flesh-eater (n.); animal that eats its own species. (online dictionary)

But, if teacher leadership is the essential key to positively impacting student achievement (which, by the way, should be the fundamental motivation of teachers), then why do educators sabotage the very underpinnings of what can accord our work professional legitimacy? The Institute for Education Leadership Inc. (2012) speaks to this professional sabotage within the hierarchies of high schools: “Teachers reported that traditional education systems in high schools act as barriers to teacher leadership. An unspoken code of conduct discourages professional initiative among teachers; and those who go against this code can be seen as a threat by some colleagues” (p. 122). While it is not clear in the text whether threatened “colleagues” were administrators or other teachers it’s clear that teachers will never gain the professionalism we so desperately crave when there is in-fighting and sabotage happening at any level. Indeed, Zepeda (2012) sounds a warning cry for teachers, telling us that a professional must possess:

  • knowledge and competence acquired from highly specialized training and formal education;
  • the respect and trust of community and peers that leads to a degree of autonomy and self-direction, and;
  • a set of values, moral and ethical, that allow the performance of the job to become more service-oriented rather than profit-oriented”

(Darling-Hammond & Goodwin, 1993; Sullivan, 1995 as quoted in Zepeda, 2012, Chapter 1, Section, Paragraph 1).

“Leadership is not handed out like blue books for a college examination”

(Institute for Educational Leadership, Inc., in Hilty, 2012, p. 99)

How does all this connect to what I’m learning about leadership, in particular the link between the professionalization of education and responsive, participatory professional development? I have to be forthright and admit that our (the administration’s) approach to professional development has been mostly about disseminating skills and information as we attempt to create a normative level of knowledge surrounding the use of hardware and software; we’re working hard to address teachers’ immediate needs of how to enter grades, access and populate their Edline page and communicate with parents. I mentioned a teacher survey I put together for my Best Practices committee that asked teachers to rank-order their PD needs/wants; I feel please that although we are not at a point where we can develop a theme for our professional learning, we are at least being responsive to teachers needs.

My final thoughts come back to the idea of professional expectations and professionalism amongst educators. The Institute for Professional Educators has this to say about teacher professionalism: “Teaching is admittedly an exhausting, demanding job and a huge time-devourer, but people in many other professional fields are under similarly ferocious pressure. Yet they somehow manage to get published, to take on advocacy roles, to volunteer time and expertise, and otherwise improve themselves, their profession, and most importantly, the products they may be developing, serving, or processing” (p. 99). I’ve talked about our (school administration) drive to create opportunities for teacher’s voice in decision-making, and I’m not just referring to sharing in mundane tasks, but real opportunities to shape the vision and mission of our school for years to come. There are teachers that have gone out of their way to volunteer to take on significant leadership positions that extend their working hours into the evening and weekend for no remuneration. Clearly, I think they should be paid a stipend for their extra work, but that’s not decision to make. Needless to say, these are the same people that are stepping up and volunteering to spend a Friday night and both days of their weekend so they can have a voice during our Strategic and Action Planning session in November. Educators, whether teachers, paraprofessionals, or administrators owe it to themselves and their students to focus on the dispositions, beliefs and habits that all recognized professionals embody: otherwise, sitting on the sidelines, lamenting the absence of a “voice” while rejecting opportunities to be heard and sabotaging burgeoning teacher leaders is akin to professional suicide.


Lieberman, Ann. (2011). Teachers, Learners, Leaders. In E. Hilty (Ed.) Teacher leadership: The “new” foundations of teacher education (pp. 104-108). New York, NY: Peter Lang Publishing, Inc. (Chapter 10).

Institute for Educational Leadership, Inc. (2011). Leadership for Student Learning. In E. Hilty (Ed.) Teacher leadership: The “new” foundations of teacher education (pp. 85-103). New York, NY: Peter Lang Publishing, Inc. (Chapter 9).

Institute for Educational Leadership, Inc. (2011). Teacher Leadership in High Schools. In E. Hilty (Ed.) Teacher leadership: The “new” foundations of teacher education (pp. 115-128). New York, NY: Peter Lang Publishing, Inc. (Chapter 12).

Zepeda, Sally J. 2012. Professional Development: what works, second edition [Kindle version]. Retrieved from



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