Leadership Q&A: Teachers as leaders

Susan Lovett is an Associate Professor in Educational Leadership at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand. Her research interests include leadership learning and development, and teacher leadership. In this Q&A, Lovett joins Teacher to discuss what teacher leadership is, and why she believes it is a mistake to attribute school leadership activities only to those residing in formal roles.

Why does the terminology of teacher leader and teacher leadership concern you?

I am very conscious that understandings of leadership work undertaken by teachers typically reinforce those with formal positional roles at the expense of other forms of leadership which I believe are equally important for the improvement of student learning and achievement in schools. I use the term informal or teacher leadership to acknowledge the leadership work undertaken by teachers without titles and incentives of time and remuneration. In so doing, I favour a collective rather than individual interpretation of leadership, where it is the work which matters rather than a person holding power, status and superiority over others.

My view is that there are many teachers who engage in leadership work which either they or others may not necessarily recognise as leadership. Informal leadership by teachers is harder to distinguish because of its close connection to teachers acting professionally and continuing to deepen their understandings of what it takes to help students to learn. This type of leadership emerges when teachers see interactions with colleagues as opportunities to make sense of practice accepting a mutual exchange of insights, with each moving between leading and learning according to their expertise. In this way, learning to improve teaching is the impetus for leadership.

However, how we acknowledge this leadership and learning connection in terms of language remains a difficulty because who counts as this type of leader is always a tension when highlighting the collective rather than individual space in which teachers lead. I now favour teachers as leaders because I have realised that without the word ‘teachers' in the terminology, there is no recognition of the greater number of the profession who are engaging in leadership work.

Could you tell me more about the research you've done as part of the Teachers of Promise Study?

The Teachers of Promise Study was designed to track the aspirations, dreams and experiences of early career teachers. It was a study initiated by the New Zealand Council of Educational Research (NZCER), to which I was invited to join. Working alongside Marie Cameron and Robyn Baker from NZCER, we tracked 57 primary and secondary teachers deemed to be those the profession could not afford to lose because of their potential to make a difference to student lives and learning. Interviews and surveys allowed us to gather longitudinal data covering their reasons for choosing teaching, experiences of initial teacher education and induction into the profession and their years after gaining full registration.

We kept asking these teachers about the challenges they faced, support received, sources of satisfaction, work-life balance and their current responsibilities. Our data collection resulted in rich case studies revealing the decisions made by these early career teachers to remain in their schools, move to other schools or leave teaching and the extent to which other members of the profession played a part in their professional growth. Questions about their aspirations and experiences of leadership were included in the study as the teachers moved into extended roles. It was this particular focus which prompted my most recent data collection (2016-17) when I returned to a smaller number of these teachers to explore their views and experiences of both formal and informal leadership. I specifically used the terminology teacher leader and teacher leadership in my attempt to broaden conceptions of leadership work beyond formal roles and capture all forms of leadership. However, I was intrigued that before they would answer my questions, they asked me what I meant by the term, ‘teacher leader' because even they were unsure of its meaning.

In what ways do schools benefit from having leaders at all levels, no matter their formal title or role?

Schools need a variety of leaders. In my work as a programme coordinator of postgraduate educational leadership, my mission has been to excite teachers about the possibilities of leadership work and support them to fulfil their professional obligations of making a difference to students and their learning. How this is achieved as teachers take on extended roles means that the connection between leadership and learning may become more indirect than direct. This means some teachers when turning to leadership work will choose to stay close to classrooms, whilst others will see their leadership contribution as being layered supporting others in the classroom.

My research involvement in the Teachers of Promise Study has made me realise that early career teachers' potential must be systematically identified, nurtured and continually developed rather than left to plateau. Learning about leadership can begin much earlier than we might think. Leadership when aligned to the improvement of one's own and others' practices is the beginning of how influence is shared. It does not simply occur because a teacher has a designated role to work with colleagues. I consider it a mistake to attribute school leadership activities as only residing in formal roles because this denies the greater bulk of the profession opportunities to develop leadership capacities which may lead to other leadership activities in the future, either formal or informal. When conceptions of leadership are inclusive of both formal and informal roles, there is recognition that leadership can be fluid and encompass a mutual exchange of knowledge and inquiry rather than be determined by a formal leader having status, power and authority over teachers. Here I am highlighting leadership as practice, activity or the work to be done rather than attributing it to a named individual.

How can early career teachers be better supported to influence the work of colleagues and student learners?

I assert that early career teachers benefit from support which concentrates on how to converse about practice with colleagues. What I mean here is knowing how to engage in professional learning conversations which allow participants to see themselves as learning partners who have developed a curiosity about what works and why and what to do to resolve issues of practice. If colleagues are to engage in conversations for the purposes of improving rather than judging practice, it therefore matters how rapport is established, questions posed and listening skills facilitate a learner to learner relationship. It is these skills which require explicit attention and modelling so that early career teachers are able to engage in conversations which enhance collegial practice. Specifically, this involves having an awareness of the question types which enable conversations to explore and interrogate practice without fear of repercussions so that new meanings are possible. At the same time it also means extending one's listening skills repertoire to become an active or committed listener who does not take over the conversation but instead knows how to encourage and extend the dialogue in order to co-construct meaning. These are skills which can also apply to work with student learners modelling strategies of how to learn in community with others emphasising learning processes which underpin our ability to learn content knowledge.

You've said, ‘…what is currently practised as leadership is not necessarily what will appeal to the next generation of teachers as they make decisions about whether to lead or not.' Could you please expand on this?

If becoming a leader is interpreted as having to distance oneself from classroom teaching to become a manager at the expense of losing the close connection to student learning, this could serve to detract those with leadership potential from accepting leadership roles. Furthermore, when being a leader is seen as individual rather than collective responsibility, there is risk involved. As the work climate is dominated by compliance and accountability agendas, those with potential to lead may feel they cannot be the type of leader they would wish to be, especially if they suspect they will be left alone, unsupported and vulnerable if they make mistakes.

The teachers you interviewed saw leadership as a collective and reciprocal activity, rather than defining it in reference to an individual's power, status, title or level of remuneration. Why is this point important and what are the implications?

In the Teachers of Promise Study, the participants had varying aspirations towards leadership. Interestingly, their leadership occurred within designated and remunerated roles with some placed closer to classrooms than others. Regardless of the kind of leader they were, they were treated as individuals in named roles with a set of duties to perform. In comparing the focus of their respective leadership work, I would say that their formal roles reinforced the conception of leadership as individual work belonging to some and not others and giving the message that there is a dividing line between leadership and teaching.

My conception of leadership needing to be inclusive of formal and informal leadership is a recognition that schools need both types of leadership to fulfil their moral obligation. I also argue that we need to think of informal leadership as a practice ground for future leadership work, whether that future be as a designated leader or someone who displays leadership practice when interacting with colleagues on a formal and perhaps more sporadic basis. When these forms of leadership are similarly valued, leadership work will be interpreted as teachers acting as professionals because that means working with others in order to improve one's own practice.

Susan Lovett says, ‘I also argue that we need to think of informal leadership as a practice ground for future leadership work…’ As a teacher, consider the informal leadership opportunities that you have experienced. What skills have you learned? How could they be applied in a formal leadership role in the future?

As a school leader, how can you better support early career teachers to be teacher leaders and influence the work of colleagues and student learners?