Where are the righteous-optimists?


Written for the Scottish College of Educational Leadership by Matthew. Thank you for asking.

What is “teacher leadership”? This is a really interesting and important question for any of us who want to develop school leadership beyond our automatic default of headship. Teacher leadership is one of those slightly amorphous terms that sounds like we should know precisely what it means if we are educators worth our salt. The trouble is, we really don’t seem to!

Actually this isn’t a particularly unique term in this regard; we seem to be surrounded by this plausible-but-vague verbiage. How about “active learning” for starters? For some it means something around the “constructivist” approach used in the early years, while for others it simply means learning through activities to enliven lessons and to discover principles through “doing”. Then of course there is “distributed leadership”? Everyone uses the term to describe what is going on in their schools, but often they are merely describing delegation. And how about “situational leadership”? This is one of my personal favourites. There are certainly some people who use it in the sense that it was intended by Hersey and Blanchard, however, it has been widely corrupted to mean “adopting whatever style I need at any time to deal with people as I find them”. The language challenge is an interesting one, because being unable to define a leadership idea with a broad base of agreement generally means we will struggle to develop or support it in practice. So back to our language challenge over “teacher leadership”?

Given that I have nailed my colours to the “amorphous jargon mast”, do I think the term has any use or meaning for us? By and large I actually have warm feelings for the term, in the sense that it reminds us that teachers have a strong stake in leadership of schools, and should not just be seen as followers until such time as they finally “do their time before the mast” and are finally deserving of promotion. What do others understand when they hear or use the term I wonder?

One view is that it is the development of the leadership skills that will lead to promotion through a more conscious understanding of leading within the classroom. This encompasses the leadership of learning, the leadership of parents and the leadership of peers by ideas and examples. This is certainly a valid way of looking at teacher leadership, although it runs the danger of undermining the unique qualities of headship that we profess to want more of. If it is agreed that there is a single skillset of leadership that all leaders at every level possess, then we may find senior leaders in tension with “over confident” inexperienced staff whom they are ostensibly supposed to be developing!

I’m certain that for some people teacher leadership means something more directed to classroom leadership without being tied to a promotion pathway. This is the idea, of a “leader in every classroom”, strong, motivational, brave, challenging and effective at building a learning team. This concept of course is not one that excludes the idea that these skills can lead to promotion, but for holders of this view, it isn’t the point!

The final way of framing the concept for me is in terms of “distributed leadership”. This became the dominant discourse in English school leadership after the 90’s, mainly driven by the National College of School Leadership in England. It grew out of the practical realisation that headteachers, even the “superheads” seen as the salvation of struggling schools during the early years of the Blair Government, needed to generate leadership in others, not to lead alone! There is therefore a practical way of framing “teacher leadership”; it is about using teachers, wherever they show a talent or a will to help solve problems. In this model, teacher leadership isn’t an entity with any solidity; it is simply a pragmatic realisation that leadership of a school, is “hungry work” and cannot be carried out by any single head or senior management team alone. In essence you could see this as a kind of supplementary leadership supplied by teachers with leadership potential.

So putting these more obvious models to one side for the present, there may be a problem to address here about our shared understanding of leadership? At the heart of leadership definitions there is always something about the leadership of change. Transformational leaders, (a once dominant idea, less so at present), build an ambitious, shared vision and then carefully steer the committed team in the new, better direction. In the real world of Scottish schooling, we don’t actually see much of this in practice! The variables that are amenable to change by head teachers in the current, fairly hierarchical, and slowly evolving system, are often about challenging performance and tightening up on “good practice”.

This may sound like a criticism, but it is not intended here as such. It perhaps reflects the kind of leadership dominating our system at present, and the truth might be that the “managerial” or “administrative” is more dominant than the “leaderful”. The kind of leadership that we promote in schools may therefore reflect the styles of the management teams who are leading now. If this kind of leadership does dominate, then teacher leadership could become (by default) the ability to be more organised, more conscientious, more professionally competent and skilled than most. However, this is the kind of leadership that will help us to maintain or evolve the current system, not to develop the changes to practice that we so desperately need.

I believe, as do many, that we really do need change in our school system. “Age and stage” increasingly looks like an idea from the factory age. International comparisons give no comfort that our system is the “envy of the world” as we once believed. Technology is accelerating beyond our ability to harness it in school settings. We are realising that our learners are not adequately prepared for the world of work. We really do need to learn to change more steadily and effectively. So where are the new leaders entering the profession filled with righteous optimism for young people and their potential, working from a confidence in the new global economy as exciting, not threatening? Do we know what to do with such new blood when it appears? Perhaps as `Lave and Wenger’ described in their work on “communities of practice”, we only allow these idealist teachers to become part of our professional cultures when they conform to accepted views and “staffroom” language systems. Seen in this way, teacher leadership could be the bringing of new approaches and ideas that could be transformative if allowed and nurtured adequately.

In this harsh light, teacher leadership might be a matter of permission? Permission to try ideas, to break old rules, to make mistakes, to build experimentation within our schools, to balance learning their craft with innovation, not to learn their craft before innovating! Teacher leadership could be the leadership of change and growth from the bottom-up; teacher leaders as seed carriers!

Written by Matthew.

Image from Pixabay.com