Summary:What do successful teacher leaders do? This short article suggests an emergent framework from a larger study about teacher leadership. Leaders address problems, facilitate collective learning, and celebrate the work of writing. This article could be powerful to read and discuss at a continuity event on taking next leadership steps.
She stood three inches from my space and sputtered, “Cec, you’re asking me to commit professional suicide.” Her fear was real—more real than I had expected a veteran teacher to admit….I had asked all grade level teachers to bring their class prompt writing samples to be read and evaluated by colleagues….It would mean exposing insecure places: writing instruction, contempt for writing itself, or just plain undeveloped writing pedagogy. Her fear was contagious. Teachers looked to her as “the rock of the second grade”—if she buckled others would follow.
—Cecilia Carmack, Central Washington Writing Project, 2006
When writing project teacher-consultants return to school each fall, many face Cecilia Carmack’s challenge: they want to change the culture of writing in their schools but they also encounter their colleagues’ fear of exposing their teaching to community review and critique. One reason behind this fear is that, despite decades of reform, teachers remain isolated, as schools provide few sustained opportunities that allow professionals to collaborate on ways to improve teaching and learning. By contrast, we know that establishing trust and building strong professional communities inside schools is key to transforming the teaching and learning of writing (Bryk and Schneider 2002; Sergiovanni 1994). Writing project teacher-consultants often lead such transformations.
In 2006, in an effort to understand how writing project teacher-leaders work with their fellow teachers to advance the teaching and learning of writing, the National Writing Project organized the Vignette Study. This research charged thirty-one writing project teacher-consultants with drafting narratives that explored a slice of their leadership work. Ten of these vignette authors described facilitating change inside their own schools as they worked alongside their colleagues—putting in place opportunities for their fellow teachers to learn together; changing how writing is taught; and improving conditions for students.
When we analyze these vignettes, concepts emerge that seem key to successful teacher leadership within a school. We explore three of them here.
Leaders Help Identify a Common Problem
One teacher had even brought a copy of his teaching certificate to show me he wasn’t certified as a language arts teacher, only a social studies teacher….Reading and writing were uncharted territories…[but] I also understood that students’ troubles with reading and writing were some of [my colleagues’] biggest frustrations.
—Christine Wegmann, Low Country Writing Project, 2006
Leaders need to help colleagues identify common problems and engage others in solving them. Christine Wegmann and Cecilia Carmack, like several other vignette authors, launched the change process by building a shared understanding of the challenges faced by all teachers in their schools. Working with social studies teachers at her school, Wegmann took a close look at the sheer volume of reading and variety of writing required in social studies. Presented with the research, her colleagues were “awed.” When her fellow teachers understood the problem, she was able to model literacy strategies she used in her social studies classroom, strategies her colleagues applied in the upcoming week. Teachers became persuaded that “reading and writing belonged in every classroom for every student every day.”
Carmack began by asking all students at her school to write to a schoolwide prompt. In this way teachers had a common starting place as grade-level groups analyzed students’ writing. Teachers could see their own students’ strengths and needs as writers. Increasing the visibility of a widespread challenge opened the door for collaborative study and collective action.
Leaders Facilitate Collective Learning
I learned that in any organization…leaders must foster collaboration by promoting cooperative goals and trust with each teacher before trying to implement change.
—Mimi Dyer, Kennesaw Mountain Writing Project, 2006
It is one thing to stand up in front of strangers…and ask teachers to try something they may not have tried….It is quite another thing to get up in front of your co-workers and tell them they should teach differently.
—Paul Epstein, Central West Virginia Writing Project, 2006
The vignette authors used multiple strategies to facilitate shared learning, including many they gleaned from their writing project experiences. For example, Epstein invited Lou Chafin, another teacher-consultant in his school, to cofacilitate after-school study groups for teachers. Chafin opened each study group meeting by asking teachers to write, often using prompts from her own summer institute experience. The writing helped “take teachers away from their daily grind” and led them to “reflect more deeply on their work,” says Epstein. The group would then dig into professional reading, discussing excerpts from books such as Because Writing Matters (NWP and Nagin 2006) that illustrate “best practice in teaching writing.” Epstein and Chafin allowed flexibility, veering away from the agenda in order to “allow each teacher to express her anxieties about teaching writing” and to draw on the study group’s expertise to answer each other’s questions. Teachers evaluated the experience positively and Epstein reflected that the group “came much closer to my vision for professional learning community” than previous efforts. By establishing opportunities to learn together, Epstein, like other vignette writers, enabled his colleagues to dig collectively into the challenges of teaching writing, and in the process students’ writing improved.
However, some leaders shared cautionary tales about what happened when they slipped into more traditional authority roles. Mimi Dyer was hired as a high school English department chair to “fix” the teaching of writing. Emboldened by her passion for effective ways of teaching writing, and convinced that her colleagues would be thrilled with her ideas, she made unilateral changes in curriculum. After two years the members of her department fought for her removal. Ultimately, Dyer came to understand that if she was to build community she would need to draw on the strengths of her colleagues.
Leaders Celebrate the Work of Colleagues
True teacher-leaders don’t have all the answers. Rather they view leadership as bringing in others and getting contributions from others. Woven throughout the vignettes are illustrations of teacher-consultants putting the spotlight on their colleagues’ contributions. For example, Christine Wegmann championed her co-workers’ integration of literacy into social studies by confidently inviting her district administrator—who advocated test preparation over literacy focus—to visit her colleagues’ classrooms. In another example, Lynne Dorfman, an upper elementary writing support teacher and Pennsylvania Writing and Literature Project teacher-consultant, asked another teacher to share some of his students’ notebook entries—written in response to Sarah Thomson’s Imagine a Day—at their school’s biweekly professional development meeting. Teachers who had seemed disengaged and uncomfortable with writing “were scribbling furiously in their notebooks.” Having a teacher who wasn’t “the writing teacher” stirred interest and helped teachers understand what was possible.
Similarly, Lucy Ware, a third grade language arts teacher and Western Pennsylvania Writing Project teacher-consultant, made public her colleagues’ teaching by publishing students’ writing. Ware persuaded second grade teachers to have their students act as reporters at the culminating celebration for their grade’s Cinco de Mayo unit. She transformed the reports and reflections from these classrooms into a newsletter for parents. By spotlighting work done in the classrooms of her colleagues, Ware celebrated the good work done by her fellow teachers.
As these teacher-consultants facilitated change in their schools, they redefined the idea of leadership for themselves. For them leadership was not about titles and hierarchy, but about demonstrating a strong moral commitment to doing what is right for children. C. Lynn Jacobs of the Northern California Writing Project writes,
At the school site level, I was driven to stand up for my beliefs and in so doing became recognized as a leader….What I think now is that leadership is about taking a stand and saying what we know.
Continuing to grow and learn as a teacher, receiving recognition from teacher colleagues, maintaining optimism, and working collaboratively with others are hallmarks of true teacher leadership. Lucy Ware’s reflections capture these principles:
My teacher friends share with me when they have an idea because they know that my enthusiasm will match theirs. Hopefulness is a rare commodity in today’s classrooms. I’ve learned that it’s the conversations and the shared work that help teachers grow in their practice.
As these teacher-consultants supported change in their schools, they simultaneously cultivated their own teaching practice. By developing their own teaching, they both expanded the knowledge they had to offer and empathized with the struggles faced by their peers. Encouraged by their involvement in the writing project to work collaboratively and go public with their successes, these teacher-consultants adopt a stance of being both leaders and learners. In their own schools, they work to recreate the sense of community and to establish opportunities for the kind of collaborative learning that they experience with the writing project.