Teacher works with student
Leadership Insights

Developing Teachers as Leaders: Why Effective Schools Require Balanced Leadership

By Terry Wilhelm February 27, 2013

As we launch a series on developing teachers as leaders, a school principal reading may well ask, “Why?” What is the rationale behind sharing school leadership with teachers?

Developing Teachers as Leaders: This is the first in a series of articles about developing teachers as leaders.

McREL studies effective school principals

Teacher works with student

When Robert Marzano and fellow researchers at Mid-Continent Research for Education and Learning (McREL) conducted a meta-analytical study on effective principals, it resulted in the book School Leadership That Works and the professional development series Balanced Leadership. In these publications, the research team concluded that given the expectation for school principals to lead increasingly complex change efforts while maintaining a relentless focus on student achievement, it is essential for principals to share leadership in order to be effective: “the principal cannot do it alone.”

They were not referring to the loneliness of being a principal, nor were they ignoring the traditional leadership roles of teachers as department chairs, mentor teachers, curriculum committee leaders, and so on. The meta-analysis synthesized nearly two decades of studies that had examined the impact of principals rated as “strong” by their teachers upon student achievement, measured by standardized test scores.

Not surprisingly, in general, in schools where teachers rated their principals as strong leaders, student achievement was higher by a statistically significant margin than in schools where they did not. So what did the researchers define as “strong?”

The 21 Leadership Responsibilities

21 behaviors, termed “responsibilities” by the researchers, surfaced in the studies. These 21 leadership responsibilities form the basis for School Leadership That Works and the Balanced Leadership program.

The term “balanced leadership” is encapsulated in the concept of having the wisdom to know when to “step up” (take charge) or “step back” (empower others to take charge). The book also includes detailed descriptions of the 21 leadership responsibilities, discusses two types of change, and the need to focus on the right work. The final chapter, “A Plan for Effective School Leadership,” outlines beginning steps for a principal who is ready to begin sharing leadership with teachers.

Teachers are not taught to lead outside the classroom

Unfortunately, nothing in traditional teacher preparation programs prepares teachers to be leaders outside their own classrooms. On top of that, many aspects of traditional school cultures actively discourage teachers from taking on leadership roles outside the aforementioned parameters — department chairs, mentor teachers, and so on — most of which are accompanied by an extra-duty stipend.

The idea of teachers taking leadership roles in areas of responsibility directly related to improving student learning among their immediate peer group and for the school as a whole — without extra pay — is anathema to many schools’ cultures. In a school with a strong us vs. them culture, this would be summed up in the statement, “That’s administration.”

Entering into new territory of teacher leadership

From the novice to the experienced veteran who has earned the respect of peers, no teacher wants to become a pariah. No one wants a colleague to sneer, “You’re starting to sound like an administrator!” Not all schools have as much of an us vs. them culture as this, but many do.

Yet, in every school, among the best and brightest and most effective teachers, there are those willing to step into this uncertain new territory of teacher leadership. They are dissatisfied with the status quo, unhappy about students falling through the cracks and failing, and (privately at least) reject the negativity and jadedness of some of their peers. They are ready for a new adventure, and ready for a leader who is willing to lead it.

Developing Teachers as Leaders Series

Read part two: Shared Leadership is Not Delegation

Terry Wilhelm has served as a public school teacher, principal, district office and area service agency administrator, and adjunct university instructor in educational leadership. She is a regular contributor to Leadership, the bimonthly magazine of the Association of California School Administrators.

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