Although teacher leadership is an established feature of educational reform, it was only 30 years ago that most literature on school improvement focused on principals and superintendents. Though the idea of teacher leadership is not new, the conception of this role has evolved considerably. The teacher has been considered an organizational leader since the one-room schoolhouse of the 19th century. With the advent of professional school administration in the 21th century, teacher leadership became an issue of workplace democracy. Critics of professional administration argued that schools could not teach democratic principles without functioning democratically. Teacher participation in policymaking was thought to be an important part of democratic school leadership.
Efforts to promote teacher leadership were renewed in response to regulatory reforms. These initiatives viewed teacher leadership as an instrument of school improvement that would facilitate problem solving by involving the people closest to the problems. The initiatives were also considered a means of empowering individual teachers. It was assumed that variation and expansion of teachers’ responsibilities, including increased leadership with commensurate recognition and compensation, would increase motivation, satisfaction, and performance. Thinking about teacher leadership has shifted from this approach based on individual, role-based empowerment, partly because evidence on the effectiveness of such empowerment initiatives was equivocal. It was not always clear how teachers were to perform in new leadership roles or how these roles related to student learning. The roles did little to improve schools, while they caused stress and role conflict for many teachers. Moreover, lessons learned from recent school improvement efforts have shown that improvement depends less on structural changes than on the development of teachers’ knowledge, abilities, and commitment, which are more likely to change the social organization and culture of schools.
Each of these approaches moves past the idea of individual leadership in formal positions to more dynamic, organizational views of leadership. Initial evidence indicates that these modes of teacher leadership are more conducive to school improvement than earlier ones. The approaches are also consistent with recent literature defining leadership as a social process aimed at a collective end. The first approach sees leadership in teachers’ efforts to develop new knowledge from inquiry in their schools and classrooms. Teacher research encompasses all forms of teacher inquiry that involve the systematic, intentional, and self-critical study of teaching. Advocates contend that teacher research provides useful knowledge for the larger educational community and challenges the predominance of university research. Moreover, teacher researchers tend to increase their sense of promoting change and become more reflective, critical, and analytical about their own teaching and the schooling practices around them. The literature examining teacher research reports positive outcomes. Collaborations among teachers to identify, research, and address school problems have been effective. Teacher research groups have developed school programs and policies. According to teachers, their research experience enhances their ability to promote school change, though they do not necessarily see themselves as leaders as they perform leadership tasks. Studies of teacher research indicate that collaboration between administrators and teachers on inquiry related to school improvement promotes a sense of individual and collective efficacy.
In the second approach, distributing leadership across roles influences school improvement. Attention in this approach shifts from individual roles to organizational tasks. Three related models of distributive leadership have recently emerged in the literature.
One model views leadership as the performance of key functions (for example, providing vision and encouragement, obtaining resources, monitoring improvement, and handling internal and external disturbances) rather than the fulfillment of formal roles. In this view, it is more important that work be done well than that a particular individual perform it. A study of elementary schools that introduced a new curriculum found that key functions were performed by numerous people, including administrators, teachers, and outside consultants. When people in different roles performed similar functions, the resulting complementary redundancy enhanced the effectiveness of the functions.
A second model describes leadership as an organization-wide resource of power and influence that occurs through interaction. One study found that individuals in different roles influenced different organizational outcomes. For example, principals and teachers influenced organizational commitment, while parent leadership affected student attendance and achievement. Another study concluded that total leadership influence, as an indicator of the distribution of influence across roles, was related positively to the effectiveness of school organization.
A third, task-oriented model sees leadership as the interaction of school leaders, followers, and situations. Leadership encompasses the practice of two or more leaders in their interactions with followers. Followers not only have an influence on leaders’ actions but also are an essential constituting element of the social interaction that is leadership activity. Moreover, situation both determines and is determined by leadership. Case studies show that leaders who work interdependently on tasks can contribute to effective performance more than any one leader can. School leadership is enhanced by the knowledge, skills, and commitment that teachers contribute. Teacher leadership adds value to administrative leadership in terms of influence on school improvement and student outcomes. Whether or not they occupy formal leadership positions, teachers can exert influence simply by participating in the social relationships that constitute school organizations.
The third approach stresses self-managed teams for promoting teacher collaboration, learning, and problem solving. These teams are commonly small task groups in which members have a common purpose, interdependent roles, and complementary skills. Schools may create teams to increase the responsibilities of teachers and to expand opportunities for self-direction. Teams of teachers may lead by promoting school improvement and by exerting normative influence over members who shape each other’s ideas and actions. This leadership can reduce the need for administrative control.
Research indicates that effective teams require contexts that support them through rewards, training, clear requirements, and lack of constraints. Teams also require strong internal leadership from teachers who are experienced with teams and strong external leadership from administrators who enhance team members’ sense of efficacy and autonomy. Thus supported, teams can accomplish particular tasks while they increase work motivation and job satisfaction. Teaming can reduce isolation and focus teachers’ work on student learning. Teachers in teams tend to address student problems earlier and be more proactive in changing classroom practice than colleagues not in teams. However, research has found the effects of teams on whole school improvement less encouraging, partly because teams can experience serious problems coordinating activities and reaching agreement on strategic issues at the organizational level. Though teams can promote rethinking and experimentation that can change practice, strong external leadership is needed to coordinate team work at the school level and to avoid organizational fragmentation.
These three approaches emphasize the importance of collective leadership aimed at developing school organization, curriculum, and instruction. School leadership should center on important functions, not simply people and positions, as a primary means of promoting school improvement. While we should develop collective leadership capacity, principals remain crucial to teacher leadership, since they know best how to support and manage new forms of leadership. These new forms are likely to be effective only if supported in their broader organizational contexts. School contexts that resist teacher leadership by allowing little time for its realization must be changed.