Improving Learning through Teacher Leadership
by Professor Alma Harris and Dr Michelle Jones. This article first appeared on the SCEL (Scottish College for Educational Leadership) website: http://www.scelscotland.org.uk/. GCI thanks the authors and SCEL for permission to reprint this article.
A great deal has been written about professional learning, professional collaboration and the need for more professional connections within and between schools. While it is hard to disagree with such aspirations, the real question is exactly how to make this happen? This short article considers some of the important conditions that need to be in place for authentic teacher leadership to be a reality. It also looks at some of the enabling factors that encourage teacher leadership and the benefits that accrue when teachers authentically lead innovation and change.
The idea of teacher leadership is far from new. There is a great corpus of research evidence which highlights the centrality of teacher leadership in securing better teaching and learning outcomes. The research also shows that when teachers collaborate, in meaningful ways, and provide feedback to each other, their practice improves. The evidence about the relationship between leadership and improved student outcomes similarly highlights the pivotal role of the teacher. The latest writing on instructional leadership notes, for example, that the most effective principals ‘engage in, and support teachers’ professional learning’ that has a positive relationship to learner outcomes3. In short, how principals support and enhance teacher learning is a major determinant of school and student success.
The message is loud and clear but the question is what should this professional learning look like in order to be most effective? While professional development courses, workshops and conferences can be really useful in terms of awareness raising or knowledge acquisition, their track record of changing teachers’ practice is more debatable. This is not to suggest that this form of professional learning is not worthwhile, as there are clear benefits, but rather to acknowledge that professional learning that takes place outside the school has inevitable limitations. The context where teachers work is profoundly important to them, so if professional learning is to make a significant difference it has to be relevant and contextually focused. In other words, to be most effective, professional learning has to be ‘job-embedded’ and directly related to the workplace.
So the challenge facing principals is exactly how to create the conditions within the school for teachers to learn most effectively. Scanning the available literature on the subject helps, as it offers various models of teacher collaboration as a sure fire way of creating powerful professional learning. A range of writers have written about the potential of ‘professional learning communities’ as a mechanism for supporting teacher learning and more recently, about the importance of teachers ‘connecting to learn’4. The available advice to school leaders is pretty consistent, if teacher learning is to make a difference, where it matters most in the classroom, it has to be inter-dependent, collaborative and focused on learners5.
A central driver in the pursuit of more effective professional learning is the idea of ‘teacher leadership’6. Here teachers are viewed as the architects of their own professional learning and take chief responsibility for guiding the professional learning of others. So far so good, but for many teachers the word ‘leadership’ gets in the way as it implies certain formal roles or responsibilities. On a daily basis, teachers tend not to see themselves as ‘leaders’ in the formal sense, even though they are leading in their classrooms. Therefore it is important to clarify that the idea of ‘teacher leadership’ is not associated with role or position but rather it is about the practice of innovating and influencing others so that learning improves.
As highlighted already, the best way to maximise the ‘teacher leadership’ effect is through collaborative working, as then professional knowledge, energy, experience and ideas are enhanced. It is important however to remember that merely sharing or co-operating is not the end game of teacher leadership. Every day teachers are part of various teams where working together is vital so that certain tasks are accomplished. These are often routine meetings where the tasks are already pre-determined or prescribed. It is also important that any networking between schools subscribes to a common collaborative model otherwise school to school networks may struggle to have an impact as teachers talk past each other.
Authentic teacher leadership is predicated on affording teachers the opportunity to create new knowledge rather than simply re-cycling or re-circulating what is already known. It is predicated on the fact that there is no ceiling on improvement or what can be achieved by teachers working collectively. The true power of teacher leadership resides in the shared ability to create and innovate, along with the freedoms to do so. It is certainly not about maintaining the status quo but rather pushing the boundaries of professional practice.
Many schools are already hugely successful at promoting teacher collaboration and enhancing teacher leadership. However, there are other schools where this has been more difficult to achieve. Barriers such as lack of time, few opportunities to meet, lack of support, no model of collaboration and too many priorities are frequently highlighted as impediments to change. Such barriers are real and potentially undermine any attempt at authentic professional collaboration. But they can be removed, if there is the will to do so. This is where the principal plays a critical role in promoting or dismantling teacher leadership. If the principal wants genuine professional collaboration, then he or she has to actively remove some of these barriers by providing dedicated time for teachers to meet, by agreeing on a model of collaboration, like Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) that work by encouraging teachers to take risks and to innovate.
The concept of teacher leadership is powerful because it is premised upon the creation of the collegial norms in schools that contribute directly to better outcomes for learners. It is also powerful because it underscores that all teachers can be leaders of learning and that their ability to influence has a significant effect upon the quality of relationships and the quality of teaching within a school. At its most profound, teacher leadership is about a ‘new professionalism’ based upon mutual trust, recognition, empowerment and support. At its most practical it underlines that teachers working together is vital to the improvement of learning experiences for all young people. Most importantly, it reclaims leadership as a distributed and collective endeavour in which all teachers play a critical role.
- 1 University College London and University of Malaya
- 2 University of Malaya
- 3 Robinson, V, Lloyd, C and. Rowe K. (2008). The impact of leadership on student outcomes: An analysis of the differential effects of leadership types. Educational Administration Quarterly. Vol 44:5 pp635-674.
- 4 Jones, M and Harris, A. (2013). Disciplined collaboration: Professional learning with impact. Professional Development Today, Issue 15.4 pages 13-2
- 5 Harris, A and Jones, M (2012). Connect to learn, learn to connect. Professional Development Today, Issue 14.4 pages 13-19.
- 6 Harris, A and Muijs, D. (2004) Improving schools through teacher leadership. London: Open University Press.