Recently, a close friend and colleague reminded me of an axiom that had been fundamental to her thinking about professional learning communities and teacher leadership throughout her career. Namely, that one of the best sources of professional learning just happens to be sitting about a metre away from you–your colleague. This insight is underscored in Parker J. Palmer’s compelling book, The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life (1998), when he advises that simply two pathways exist for every teacher’s personal professional growth–the path of personal reflection and the community of colleagues “from whom we can learn more about ourselves and our craft” (p. 141).
Alma Harris, well known for her research in education leadership, has been studying and writing about the benefit of school leaders and their link to instructional improvement and teacher effectiveness. She asserts that teacher leadership has a significant effect on classroom practice and student engagement. Harris’s research is supported by others who recognize that, as teachers first, school leaders are well positioned to promote and support school improvement efforts due to their understanding of the school’s unique context within the community.
The notion of teacher leadership is not new. In the early 1980s, teacher leaders were predominantly formal assignments such as department heads or curriculum coordinators. Over time, the focus for teacher leadership has evolved from an administrative to a more pedagogical function where teacher leaders are seen as part of a school’s culture, utilizing their in-house instructional expertise to engage colleagues as they grow in their professional practice.
Just as with distributed leadership, there is no singular definition of teacher leadership. For some, teacher leaders are mentors, curriculum coaches, lead teachers, etc. Other systems subscribe to Fullan & Hargreaves’s (1998) definition of teacher leaders as those with the “capacity and commitment to contribute beyond one’s classroom.” Perhaps the most salient definition is offered by the authors of Examining Teacher Leadership: A Decade of Research (2015) in which teacher leadership refers to “ … teachers who maintain K-12 classroom-based teaching responsibilities, while also taking on leadership responsibilities outside of the classroom” (p.9).
Harris (2003) identifies four dimensions of a teacher leader’s role for school improvement. First, they offer a bridge linking larger school improvement goals and classroom practice. Second, as a guide, teacher leaders can bring teachers together, focusing on a particular school improvement goal. Third, teacher leaders are a source of expertise and resource with the ability to access internal or external resources for their teacher colleagues. Finally, teacher leaders serve an affiliation role in that they create trusting alliances with teachers as a result of ongoing support, be it through professional development, coaching, mentoring or any other collegial interaction about professional practice.
The bottom line is that as a result of their content knowledge, pedagogical expertise, leadership skills as demonstrated through professional development, classroom observations and problem-solving deliberations, teacher leaders can significantly inspire and influence teacher practice, thus making a positive contribution to a school’s improvement targets and goals.
However, beyond the advocacy and inspiration, teacher leaders are charged with the responsibility of engaging their colleagues in practices that can actually change what teachers do in the classroom. Enter, the school principal!
The research is clear. What the principal does–or doesn’t do–to empower teachers is critical to the development and sustainability of teacher leadership in a school. Principals promote teacher leadership in their schools when they:
Create a climate characterized by trust and open communication.
Foster a collaborative school culture.
Share a common vision for student and teacher learning.
Clearly articulate expectations, roles and responsibilities for teacher leaders.
Give teacher leaders the space and autonomy to develop and enact instructional goals for teachers.
Clearly communicate and support the value of teacher leaders.
For principals considering the identification and development of teacher leaders, the research on this topic is helpful. Teacher leaders who are successful in influencing and engaging teachers in instructional change efforts have a learning orientation, seek out professional dialogue about teaching and learning, demonstrate leadership capacity, are trustworthy, visible, valued by staff members, have strong interpersonal skills, and possess a strong knowledge base regarding curriculum content and effective pedagogy.
Both Alma Harris (2002) and Charlotte Danielson (2007) tell us that leadership is necessary at every level of the organization for sustained school improvement. In today’s environment where principals are committed to empowering teachers through shared leadership in schools, opening the space for teacher leaders with a focus on teaching and learning can make a significant and positive contribution to a school’s vision and mission for student and teacher success.