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Friday, September 02, 2016

The Challenge of Teacher Leadership

Teacher leadership is a buzz word today as you read about changing schools and new laws. There is a broad call from many organizations to uplift the role of educator from the "doer" to "thinker, decision maker, and doer too." There's also advocacy for transforming outdated, old fashion school structures to more modern, knowledge age structures--structures that empower all staff with voice and choice and create distributive, collaborative leadership models throughout systems.

When I began teaching 31 years ago, educators had a lot of voice and choice. There were few administrators and teams of educators primarily worked together to best serve the students. Now we have many more administrators and less choice and voice, but change is beginning to occur and it seems like the doors are open to greater teacher leadership once again. How will this affect our roles as educators?

During the past year I've engaged in a number of teacher leadership events including the year-long Teacher Leadership Initiative (TLI) sponsored by CTQ, NEA, MTA, & NPBTS. It was a terrific professional event that served to introduce me to models, language, efforts, and action to better my teacher leadership skills and work. I also got involved with the ECET2 movement which introduced me to many teacher leaders and the work they are doing, and challenged state colleagues and me to create our own ECET2-MA2016 which will occur on October 22 in Cambridge, MA.  Further I am taking the TeachPlus online policy course that also has provided me with language and action to further the work I do. In addition, our new collaborative teaching model at 5th grade in the school where I teach gives me daily practice with teacher leadership skills and efforts. And my many roles with the local union, state union, state department of education, and local professional organizations have and will continue to help to develop my work in this regard.

Reading and writing papers about teacher leadership is not too difficult, but truly exemplifying those skills and attributes in the work place is a challenge. What makes this most challenging is that teacher leaders today are often trying to lead in old system structures, structures that don't invite teacher significant voice and choice. How can we change school structure to invite greater choice and voice from all educators?

The answer to this lies in utilizing distributive leadership models, inclusive/transparent communication, timely efforts, and successful models of collaboration.

Distributive Leadership
Starting from the ground-up, distributive leadership can be created by fostering strong grade level/content area teams. Already many systems employ efforts such as professional learning communities  (PLCs) and shared planning time to develop these teams. What's important in this regard is that the PLCs and shared planning time truly reflect teacher voice and choice, and serve as collaborative, share, and decision making structures.

In my school, our collaborative fifth grade teaching model truly supports distributive leadership in many ways, but we still have room for growth with regard to this model. To team well and teach well with the information we have today demands greater time upfront to create schedules, analyze data, determine roles, and create a structure that best serves all students. The more the team can work together to create this, the better the teaching and learning will be.

To build out from the grade-level team, I think it's best to have cross-grade level teams with representatives from each grade level. I like the idea of building content/project teams that work together to look at the development of content, concept, and skill goals throughout the grades, and openly sharing the decisions, questions, and goals of those committees. In the best of circumstances, I believe that every teacher should serve on at least one grade-level team and one cross-grade-level team to create optimal distributive leadership, share, and development. Models like this often occur at Middle School and High School levels, but not at elementary school levels.

Streamline Systems
Many systems that continue to exist at schools don't maximize the use of technology to streamline which slows down what's possible. For example, in many schools, forms continue to be paper/pencil forms that take lots of time to fill out and process whereas with today's technology tools those forms could become much less cumbersome for all if placed online.

Last year was the first time we were able to order our supplies online. One smart education supply company created an online ordering system which was much easier to use. I bet that company received a larger share of the business due the ease with which we could order supplies from them. When we look for and implement ways to streamline efforts, we create more time for the time on task to teach students well.

Lead Time and Communication
Still many in schools are reluctant to share information in inclusive, timely manners. This slows down what we're capable of doing. In the best of circumstances all information should be shared transparently two to four weeks in advance so that educators have time to read carefully and consider. Last minute share defeats educator choice and voice since most educators have very tight daily schedules with little time for additional information. When information is shared in untimely ways it serves to keep most educators in the dark about what's going on or what they could do to better their work and include their voice and choice in the effort.

Being as prepared as possible also supports good effort. If preparation is not possible, then communication can help. Letting people know what to expect helps to mitigate anxiety and useless worry. Not knowing creates struggle.

In the best of circumstances, we look at the big picture, and create good time lines and plans to meet the needs of required efforts upfront. I think that it may be true that many educators and educational organizations have not re-looked at the teaching/learning year to make room for all the changes that have occurred in the field in the last ten years. In many cases we are still using outdated timelines, roles, structures, and routines to address a very new age of learning and teaching. This is a critical consideration if we want to move schools forward.

Individual Change
For veterans like me, we have to update our expectations, work, speak, and learning too. We can look to our younger colleagues for mentoring in this regard. Some of what was acceptable in the past is no longer acceptable today. We have to take the time to deeply analyze our work and find ways to maximize our experience, vision, and demeanor to teach well, collaborate, and lead.

Teacher leadership demands new structures, roles, routines, and time lines in schools. It also requires that each of us look deeply at our efforts to find ways to mentor, coach, and lead each other forward. We have to unravel outdated systems, and create new structures to lead schools forward in ways that matter. I will be thinking about this in the days ahead and I welcome your conversation and ideas in this regard.