Once principals decide to embed teacher leadership processes in their schools they often wonder how that is possible, given the hierarchical structure of schools. The historical structure of schools perpetuates a tradition in which principals lead and teachers teach. That traditional structure seems so commonplace that the idea of teacher leadership seems out of place.
It is difficult to imagine that teacher leadership can thrive given the hierarchical structure of schools -- but teacher leadership can thrive in schools, and principals are instrumental in creating conditions that make it happen.
Creating opportunities for teacher leadership is the first order of business. It is not enough for principals to simply state their desire for teacher leadership. They must create structures that allow teacher leadership to develop. Teacher leadership opportunities exist within structures that make teaching public, collaboration common practice, and relationships professional and collegial. Examples of such structures include examining student work, participating on teams, and communicating about issues of teaching and learning in formal and informal ways.
The hierarchical structure of schools creates barriers to teacher leadership because it reflects values, beliefs, and attitudes found and accepted in traditional methods of leadership. The view that principals should lead seems to make sense when considering obstacles to teacher leadership such as time, lack of formal authority, and competing demands of classroom and school.
Principals can address those concerns and create structures and processes that eliminate barriers. For example, principals can create common times for teachers work together.
Following are some more tips for school leaders who are intent on creating opportunities for teachers to take on leadership roles.
Start slowly and proceed with caution. While collaborative structures must be in place for teacher leadership to happen, it does not have to happen all at once. When making a decision about what structures need to be in place, use student achievement and perception data to provide valuable insight. Then go slowly by taking time to learn from your experiences, monitor progress, and modify what isn't working.
Embed structures for leadership development. Create structures that help teachers develop as leaders. Such structures include coaching, mentoring, action research, and study groups. Reflecting on leadership experiences is a powerful way to enhance leadership performance.
Include all teachers. Formal teacher leadership positions can be effective, but providing a means for all teachers to participate in leadership activities is crucial. When only certain teachers in positions that take them away from the classroom can lead, the hierarchical structure is reinforced. Involving teachers in conversations about collaboration, time, and selection of teachers on teams creates informal leadership.
Collaborate with teachers. Leadership is not something principals do to teachers. Instead, leadership is a collaborative activity that teachers and principals engage in together. Create structures that allow for teachers and principals to collaborate on instructional issues. Teachers and principals must forge new working relationships that may mean collaborating as equals for the first time.
The hierarchal structure of schools makes teacher leadership a challenging prospect. The classic structure of leadership seems at odds with distributing leadership to the masses. Fortunately, it isn't an all or nothing arrangement. Principals can lead and so can teachers. It's just a matter or creating structures and eliminating obstacles.
Read more of Ellen Cortez-Ford's nine-part Coaching Teachers To Be Leaders series.
Article by Evelyn Cortez-Ford
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