Katzenmeyer and Moller (2001) claimed memorably that ‘within every school there is a sleeping giant of teacher leadership, which can be a strong catalyst for making change’ (page 529). By teacher leadership we mean the exercise of leadership undertaken by teachers, rather than the process by which teachers are led. There has been considerable interest in such teacher leadership for over 30 years (see for instance the writings of Fullan, 1993; Leithwood and Riehl, 2003; and Stevenson, 2012). Even in 2004 Yorke-Barr and Duke (page 255) were reflecting that:
The concept and practice of teacher leadership have gained momentum in the past two decades. Teachers are assuming more leadership functions at both instructional and organizational levels of practice.
The case for teacher leadership
There is a strong case for teacher leadership as it has credibility because of teachers being ‘closer’ to the classroom environment. There is a real sense of teachers leading by virtue of their expertise, particularly when this is developed collaboratively. Their leadership authority and ‘bite’ is drawn from teachers being rooted in classroom practice and through their collaborative capacity and pedigree. So for a number of commentators teacher leadership is seen as a potent force for school improvement, and in particular for improving learning and teaching:
Teacher leadership is primarily concerned with developing high quality learning and teaching in schools. It has at its core a focus upon improving learning and is a mode of leadership premised upon the principles of professional collaboration, development and growth.
(Harris and Muijs, 2003; page 14)
By contrast, some researchers consider that the approach has often been overcautious and has avoided seeing teacher leadership as a radical challenge to how leadership operates in schools and to the nature of educational change being addressed by leaders. Teacher leadership entails giving authority to teachers and empowering them to lead as opportunities arise. However, this is often seen as being inhibited by the hierarchical leadership structures that tend to prevail in schools.
Watch the video clip of Anne Lieberman’s reflection that there has been an endemic reluctance to really invest in teacher leadership to help transform practice (external link). Then consider her claim that:
In my experience of over 50 years no-one has actually given teachers both the money and the time to actually develop both the learning and leadership skills, about collaboration, about working with their own peers, about spreading knowledge in a way that seeds the ideas in what teachers do every day.
Drawing on your own experience; how valid do you think this claim is? Is teacher leadership under-developed and under-utilised? What evidence would you draw on to illustrate your views?
Teacher leadership – formal and informal
As the power and authenticity of teacher leadership is seen as embedded in teachers' classroom expertise, it is often characterised as an informal phenomenon that bubbles up from teachers’ practice. It is therefore distinctive from those who exercise leadership in a formal position. Others disagree. So, for instance, Leithwood (2003) argues that leadership does not take on a new meaning when qualified by the term ‘teacher’. He says that leadership (whether teacher or otherwise) entails the exercise of influence over the beliefs, actions and values of others. In terms of teacher leadership ‘what may be different is how the influence is exercised and to what end’. So, in contrast to some other commentators who see teacher leadership as being essentially informal, Leithwood maintains that the literature and his own research have suggested that ‘teacher leadership may be either formal and informal by nature’ (page 104).
In the following adapted extracts Leithwood outlines examples of formal and informal teacher leadership. Read these and then consider the statement that:
Teacher leadership is not a formal role, responsibility or set of tasks, it is more a form of agency where teachers are empowered to lead development work that impacts directly upon the quality of teaching and learning.
(2003b; page 14)
What is your view of teacher leadership? Can it be exercised in a formal as well as an informal context? Does it lose some of its essential potency if it is formalised into a recognised role? Try to identify examples of both from your own experience; what criteria would you use to argue that they are instances of teacher leadership?
Lead teacher, master teacher, department head, union representative, member of the school’s governance council, mentor – these are among the many designations associated with formal teacher leadership roles. Teachers assuming these roles are expected to carry out a wide range of functions. These functions include, for example: representing the school in district-level decision-making; stimulating the professional growth of colleagues; being an advocate for teachers’ work; and improving the school’s decision-making processes. Those appointed to formal leadership roles also are sometimes expected to induct new teachers into the school, and to positively influence the willingness and capacity of other teachers to implement change in the school.
Teachers exercise informal leadership in their schools by sharing their expertise, by volunteering for new projects and by bringing new ideas to the school. They also offer such leadership by helping their colleagues to carry out their classroom duties, and by assisting in the improvement of classroom practice through the engagement of their colleagues in experimentation and the examination of more powerful instructional techniques. Teachers attribute leadership qualities, as well, to colleagues who accept responsibility for their own professional growth, promote the school’s mission and work for the improvement of the school or the school system.
(Adapted from Leithwood, 2003; pages104–105)