Teacher Leadership for Program Improvement and Development

“The function of leadership is to produce more leaders, not more followers.” – Ralph Nader

If you’ve read anything from the popular leadership literature, you’re probably familiar with the prescriptions for strong leadership: confidence, vision, integrity, charisma, and so on. Analyses like these are premised on positional leadership, or what James Spillane called ‘the heroics of leadership’ – the notion of the strong leader standing at the head of an organization, leading the way. Think Jack Welch, Jeff Bezos, Larry Page.

There is an alternative to this view of leadership. Distributed leadership begins with the idea of leadership tasks and asks how these tasks can be accomplished by individuals across an organization. In an intensive English program (IEP), leadership tasks can include curriculum development, teacher professional development, and materials writing, among others. In many management-driven IEPs, these tasks are still carried out by non-teaching staff. But there are advantages to bringing teachers into leadership tasks and distributing them more widely.

Bringing teachers into leadership roles – whether formally or informally – is great professional development for teachers in a profession that otherwise may have no upward career path. It can give teachers a sense of fulfillment from helping other teachers or the program as a whole, and can serve to retain talented teachers by more thoroughly networking them into the program. And it serves the program by drawing on the enormous pool of talent that teachers bring, and which is otherwise confined to their classrooms.

There are challenges to introducing teacher leadership. The role of leader is not a part of the ‘role schema’ of a teacher – teachers are socialized to be followers and may not see themselves as leaders. Teachers need to reframe their self-identity to include leadership. External constraints include how teachers are perceived by other teachers when they take on leadership roles – there is often a culture of egalitarianism among teachers, and teacher leaders may draw disapproval from their teacher peers. Finally, structuring¬† teacher jobs to include leadership can be a challenge: teachers may lack the time or energy to take on leadership roles, and the program may be limited in its ability to compensate them or structure their jobs appropriately to accommodate leadership tasks.

For teacher leadership to succeed, therefore, it requires strong support from the program director or academic director. Teachers need to be empowered to take on leadership roles, and they need to be given the time and resources to succeed. They may also need coaching on how to manage their identity as teacher leaders, and they may need to be protected from resentment that may occur among peers as they take on leadership roles.

IEPs serve their students best when everyone has an opportunity to contribute to decision-making and program improvements. Here are some examples of teacher leadership I’ve seen over the past few years:

  • A teacher took the initiative to start a reading corner to encourage extensive reading among students. With management support, she built up a collection of books for ESL learners at all levels, and now runs the reading corner as part of her job.
  • A teacher started a peer observation group to encourage teachers to visit each other’s classes and give feedback.
  • Teachers took on program coordinator roles for which they were given release time from their teaching.
  • Teachers played a role in the selection and hire of new teachers.
  • Teachers delivered professional development workshops for their peers, or organized a professional development program.
  • Teachers self-organized into ‘level’ teams to collaborate on in-class projects and assessments.
  • Experienced teachers mentored newer teachers.
  • Teachers became subject or skill experts in the program.

Think about how teacher leadership can be extended in your program.