The Teacher Leader: Words of Wisdom From Those Who Know Best

A look at the idea that students learn best when teachers take the lead.

October 1, 2000


Introduction by Ronald V. Gallo

Education presents an especially interesting series of questions on the topic of leadership not only because the overwhelming majority of the people in the profession enter at the same level -- that is, teacher -- but also because most of them continue throughout their careers at that same level. Education's career ladder has precious few rungs.... There is little difference between what is expected from a teacher in her first year and what a teacher in her twenty-first year is expected to accomplish -- an odd irony in a profession devoted to learning and development.

The illustrations in this monograph come from two talented student-artists, Jonathan Brower and Steven Vallot, who were seniors at Tiverton High School, in Tiverton, Rhode Island, when they drew them.

Roland Barth, who has crafted this monograph with skill and thoughtfulness... has devoted a lifetime to uncovering the simple truths that exist within the complex business of schools.... One of Barth's strengths is listening carefully to teachers and helping their voices rise above the fray.... We are deeply grateful to him for bringing this concept of teacher leadership into a forum where it can be discussed more broadly.

The Teacher Leader

The knowledgebase for improving schools is thought to reside in large-scale, social science research.... There is another knowledge base of inestimable value to the improvement of our schools. Although often overlooked and at times hard to find, craft knowledge, the vast collection of experiences and learnings that those who live and work under the roof of the schoolhouse amass during their careers, has much to teach us.... The voices of the schoolteachers you will hear in the pages that follow were recorded at... small group sessions... in Providence, Rhode Island.... Several committed their experience and insight to writing.

From this highly charged congregation of inventive teachers emerges some strong prose and considerable craft knowledge to which other teachers, their principals, parents, officials in the central office, and, yes, policy makers would do well to attend.

Who Benefits?

The Principal

If there was ever a time when a principal could ride in alone on a white horse, like John Wayne or Joan of Arc, and save a troubled school, those days are certainly over. The astonishing complexities and demands of the job are well known.... Ample evidence suggests that effective principals don't work harder; they work smarter. Principals who encourage and enlist teachers' leadership leverage their own.

The Students

A Rand Corporation study of governance patterns within 1,000 schools found that "in high-performing schools... decision making and leadership are significantly more democratic. The teachers are more involved and influential in establishing discipline, with selecting textbooks, designing curriculum, and even choosing their colleagues than are teachers in low-performing schools."

What can we take from this study? Students learn when teachers lead.

The School

In order to create communities of learners, teachers must model for students the most important enterprise of the schoolhouse -- learning. A teacher who has stopped learning cannot create a classroom climate rich in learning for students.

A powerful relationship exists between learning and leading.... This is where teacher leadership intersects with professional development. Teachers who assume responsibility for something they care desperately about -- a new pupil-evaluation system, revising the science curriculum, or setting up that computer lab -- stand at the gate of profound learning.

The Teachers

"I love to learn new things, and I'm an avid workshop participant. Most of the things I've learned... have found a way into my classroom and into the classrooms of many of the teachers and preservice teachers I work with. Spending time with other biology teachers and reading information from professional organizations and keeping in contact with other biology teachers on the listserv have helped me improve my own learning." --Judy Hede McGowan


Why, then, do so few teachers contribute so little beyond their classrooms to the life of their schools? Severe, crippling impediments stand in the way of realizing this dream. What teachers have to say about the barriers they experience to teacher leadership is important for our profession to hear.

Our Plate Is Full

"Recently, the only thing about our schools that the majority of faculty members could come to consensus on was that our plate is full." --Diane Kern

Responsibility after responsibility has been added to each teacher's working day: responding to parents, overseeing after-school activities, attending professional-development activities, and, of course, maintaining standards.... As one teacher told me, "When was the last time someone said to me, 'Sandra, you are no longer responsible for...'? It's always an add-on."


It is all about time. Time is why the plate is full. Time in schools is in finite supply and in infinite demand.

Teachers also lead demanding lives outside of school. Three-quarters of teachers nationwide are women, many of whom bear major responsibility for their children. Others are fathers, spouses, or caretakers of elderly parents. Still others hold outside jobs to make ends meet.

All these facts leave unexplained the puzzling paradox that those teachers who seem to have the least time and the most on their plates are the very ones who always seem ready and able to take on the additional work of schoolwide leadership.

The Tests

The current wave of quantifying accountability and standards has been widely translated into standardization, tests, and scores. Increasingly, the feeling in schools is that everything must be sacrificed on the altar of the standardized test. . . . Standardized tests are having a chilling effect on both the teaching profession and on the inclination and ability of teachers to assume broad leadership within their schools.

The tyranny of the test rules the day, every part of the day, and its tentacles work themselves into aspects of schooling that go far beyond the content of a student's class.


Coupled with institutional inertia is another quality familiar to many school cultures: aversion to risk.... One of the Sizer Fellows reported that he had given up pursuing his project because it had been dependent on his teaching a certain class, which was assigned to someone else at the last minute.

The more he thought about it, however, the more he found himself asking hard questions about himself: "Why didn't I go to the superintendent and explain what the schedule change was doing to my work? Why didn't I go to the teacher who got assigned to that class to see whether we might pursue the work together?... Instead, I threw up my hands, railing against the system when I should have been helping make the system work for me and for my students."... Ours is a very cautious profession top to bottom.

Personal and Interpersonal Skills

A final source of passive resistance to the teacher leader, found in many schools, is the primitive quality of the relationships among teachers. Few teachers would characterize themselves as collegial. Many seem to lack the personal, interpersonal, and group skills essential to the successful exercise of leadership. The following story suggests the intent of the deficiency:

"Recently, I sat with a group of educators from several school districts to talk about student reading responses and to share our craft knowledge.... I thought that all teachers would love to talk about student work... so I envisioned a worthwhile conversation.... I was completely taken aback at how miserably the morning went.

"Two teachers sat red faced and unable to contribute for at least an hour. One teacher was combative.... One teacher interrupted others.... The majority of the group felt the need to defend why their students did not do as well on this test as they would have liked.... This task was too risky for a majority of members." --Diane Kern


Happily, fellow teachers also hold the power to unlock teachers' leadership potential and to foster its growth.... One definition of leadership I like very much is "Making happen what you believe in." If a teacher believes in strengthening parent involvement in the school, say, and wants to make that happen, there are several choices.

Lead by Following

Perhaps the least risky, demanding, and complicated -- and therefore most common -- way to influence the life of one's school beyond the classroom is to follow the lead of others. By selectively enlisting behind the efforts of fellow teachers, one teacher can help others move mountains. This can mean showing up and speaking out at an important public meeting, signing petitions, writing letters, and participating in the cheering section. Followership is an art form many educators have yet to discover.

Join the Team

One teacher put it this way: "If schools are going to be run by committee, then I want to make damn sure I'm on the committee."

So they join in a collective effort, not as followers, but by sharing leadership with others. Teams offer some safety in numbers for the cautious, companionship for the gregarious, challenge for those attempting to influence others, and greater hope of making a significant difference through combined strength. They also often lead to better decisions because more perspectives are considered.

Lead Alone

One of the Rhode Island teachers described it this way: "In the past, I have taken the correct route to try to get things done. I go to the principal and get told no. Then I write a letter to school committee and superintendent and get ignored. Then I just go and do it myself.... Many teachers conceal their attempts to improve their schools, such as applying for a grant to get the school wired into the Internet. They become covert, guerrilla warriors.... If the effort succeeds, however, the impact of the guerrilla leader is often blunted.... There is no one to share in the celebration, as there was no one to share in the project." Despite the many impediments the teacher who set out to lead alone faces, a great many find success.

Lead by Example

Different from their guerrilla cousins, teacher leaders who stay out in the open are more likely to have a positive influence on the larger school community when they take the risk to provide a constant, visible model of persistence, hope, and enthusiasm, and simultaneously pursue their worthwhile goals.

"The best teachers I have known have shown leadership by holding out their excitement for teaching like a beacon and by keeping it focused on student welfare. Their model inspires other teachers. It also brings other teachers along with them in their zeal." --Helen Johnson

What It Takes

The Rhode Island teachers suggest that their success as teacher leaders is related to three factors:

Have a Goal

"I had a goal to try to get a scanner purchased for my school. I decided to create a school Web page so my principal could see the benefit of it. She loved it and has agreed to make the purchase for the scanner, a color printer, and a digital camera. I will be running a faculty workshop on how to use this new equipment."--Lisa Zavota


"Tenacity, persistence, and handling rejection well are admirable qualities of a teacher leader."--Michael Neubauer

Teachers who succeed in influencing the school are tireless, incessant, and undeterred by the obstacles that seem to leap from behind every bush.

Learn to Enjoy Half a Loaf

The teacher leaders who succeed... seem to be able to settle for, and to even celebrate, small, partial successes.

"When we built our first weather station, many teachers came to me and said it wouldn't last and that the kids would trash it. It hurt, but I was stubborn and felt it was worth a shot.... Unfortunately, the teachers who thought it would never work were right: The station was trashed.... The following fall we rebuilt it for the third time, only to find that our phone line was pulled because the school was installing a 56K line in the building.... The GLOBE computer is constantly in use in my classroom, and the activities I learned have found a place in my curriculum even if my students and I could not participate... the way I wanted to.

It was not my most successful project, but I learned that it was OK to try new things. I don't like to fail, but I did learn from the failure."--Judy Hede McGowan

So, how might more teachers reconcile their crucial classroom work with equally crucial schoolwide responsibilities? To capture the potential of these teachers, the profession needs to invent, expand, and honor other opportunities so there will be more choices than "either" principal or teacher. If greater teacher leadership is to be attained in our schools, educators will also have to explore multiple conceptions of the role of the teacher: team leader, lead teacher, teacher researcher, master teacher. There is no more important form of school restructuring.


"I personally think teachers are crying for respect. They want to feel they are valued and productive members of the school community."--Michael Neubauer

Teachers will not for long go through the heroic efforts of leading schools, in addition to teaching classes, if the consequence of their work goes unnoticed, unrecognized, or unvalued by others.

Positive recognition comes in many forms: a title such as "master teacher," additional compensation, reduced teaching load, responsibility for a budget, allocation of prime space, an appreciative note from a parent, acknowledgment by the principal in the school newsletter, writing for publication about the work of teacher leadership, or taking some responsibility for the profession beyond one's school.

It's ironic that teachers, principals, and parents see clearly the value of student recognition and have assembled an array of ways to offer kudos to them, from gold stars to scholarships, while developing no comparable offerings for the outstanding work of teachers. Recognition costs little, sometimes nothing in dollars, but when the alarm rings at 6 A.M., it is among the reasons a teacher keeps bounding out of bed with alacrity.

Text and drawings excerpted with permission from The Teacher Leader, 1999, published as a monograph by the Rhode Island Foundation. Copies may be purchased for $6 (including shipping and handling) from the Rhode Island Foundation, The Teacher Leader, One Union Station, Providence, RI 02903.

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