While teaching in the K-12 education system, Jodi Nickel completed her Master’s of Education researching student-teacher interactions during writing conferences. Her Ph.D. focused on the emerging autonomy of young children. She now teaches prospective teachers in the Department of Education at Mount Royal University, Calgary, Canada. She has been examining the emergence of professional identity in teacher education by following the first cohort of teacher candidates through the program and into their first years of teaching. Her current research conducted in collaboration with Calgary Reads examines the ways a tutoring program contributes to teacher candidates’ understanding of literacy development as well as growth in the children themselves.
As part of a larger research project, the “International Study of Teacher Leadership,” that was featured on this site in a previous blog, we identified an independent private school in Canada, Cypress School (a pseudonym to protect the anonymity of the participants) that offers a remarkable example of teacher leadership. In June and July 2020, my collaborator Dr. Charles Webber and I interviewed 13 members of this school’s educational community and analyzed the interview data first independently and then collaboratively to identify themes related to teacher leadership. This blog summarizes these findings from this “success story” and lays out next steps for action research about teacher leadership.
First, through our interviews, we learned that there is a collective understanding of teacher leadership work at Cypress School. Teacher leaders model responsible behaviour, lead grade level teams and committees, address parents’ expectations, and advocate for the success of students and colleagues. They engage in peer coaching, collaborative inquiry, mentoring, sharing, and organizing. They introduce new colleagues to the “Cypress Way.”
Second, it was clear to us that the organizational culture of Cypress School fosters teacher leadership. There are high levels of trust and safety. Teachers are encouraged to “dream big” and to “try and fail.” A strong sense of community facilitates interdependence and collaboration. Autonomy is accompanied by trust that colleagues will conform to school standards; new initiatives must be evidence-based and results must be communicated. Seasoned teachers mentor new teachers in their responsibility to “grow the culture.”
Next, our interviewees told us about structural support for teacher leaders who wish to engage in professional development and organized activities designed to facilitate “generative dialogue” and leadership development. Many teachers are engaged in “Emerging Leaders” activities and in graduate studies; additionally, there are numerous opportunities to lead work teams, facilitate professional development, participate in communities of practice, mentor colleagues, and lead international studies. Formal leaders sometimes “see something in you” and “nudge” teachers to share ideas and to “find their tribe.” Perhaps most important, the school’s strategic plan provides a common vision.
Our interviewees highlighted several key learnings drawn from their formal and informal experiences at Cypress School. They realized how their past experiences as athletes and coaches prepared them to serve as leaders in Cypress School; further, they needed to learn from mistakes and informal leadership experiences. They developed connections with colleagues throughout the school and across subject areas and learned communication skills such as “tempering enthusiasm and just listening,” “being empathetic,” “earning trust” and “challeng(ing) ideas respectfully.” They learned not to try to do everything but to do what is meaningful and has “the biggest ripples.”
Career progression was another theme that came up in our conversations. Interviewees suggested that pre-service teachers should learn what leadership means and how to work collaboratively. Early career teacher leadership may be limited until interpersonal skills are developed and a solid experience base is established. Opportunities to lead may prepare teachers at all career stages for formal leadership later. Some teachers prefer lower profiles and “sometimes we need a benchwarmer; we cannot all be superstar quarterbacks.”
Another important theme we noted was related to the rewards of serving as a teacher leader. They included feeling empowered and more confident because of involvement in grade-level leadership activities. Teacher leaders reported a strong sense of freedom because senior administrators “trusted me to do things differently for struggling students.”
Interviewees also observed that they need to guard against challenges to the school’s supportive culture. Engaging in teacher leadership can be both gratifying and depleting; time limitations can be an obstacle. Formal and informal leadership work can alter interpersonal relationships with colleagues, especially if grade leaders feel vulnerable when they communicate administrative decisions to their colleagues. Competition among colleagues can interfere with trust, “groupthink” can limit critical thinking, and impatience with conflicting points of view and apparent resistance can inhibit collaboration. In addition, parental expectations mean that there must be solid research to support new initiatives. Fortunately, teachers perceived that issues were investigated appropriately and “not swept under the rug.”
Through our interviews, we observed that the school’s formal leaders were driven by a big picture perspective and a strong set of values and beliefs. They believe that teacher leadership is integral to school improvement and that system improvement starts with individual teachers. They feel a high level of accountability “first and foremost to students and their families.” They believe it is critical to have alignment throughout the strategic plan, executive functions, teacher leadership, curriculum development, and assessment frameworks. Formal leaders aim to facilitate a culture that stretches people to go beyond their self-perceived capabilities and limits. They understand that top-down goals can cause resentment and that “high-performing organizations are nothing more than a set of concentric high-performing teams.” They caution against the belief that authority is positional while concurrently noting that autonomy is not unbridled and that it is expected that “executives manage the rudder.” Interviewees in both formal and informal leadership positions know that hidden agendas can undermine leaders. They advised formal leaders to decentralize leadership, to build structures that invite collaboration, and to support but not rescue teacher leaders who encounter challenges.
We recently met again with our interviewees from the Cypress School to discuss these findings. To the degree our research revealed wrinkles and tensions, the formal and informal leaders wanted to iron them out and figure out how to make teacher leadership at the school even stronger.
Next Steps for Action Research
The profile of Cypress School that emerged from our interviews is particularly positive and, as one interviewee described it, “a good news story” that lends itself to appreciative inquiry (Cooperrider & Srivastva, 2013) or, more generally, a form of action research (Lewin, 1948) that addresses the question Why is Cypress School special?
Our future research will examine the structures that support teacher leaders at Cypress School and also the socio-emotional dimensions of teacher leadership and how these structures and socioemotional dimensions intersect. By better understanding the structures and values that guide teacher leaders, the school might identify gaps and use this understanding to continue to foster conditions for teacher leaders to emerge and excel. Finally, it would invite possibilizing, or “pushing the edges of beliefs and practices in [ways] that create possibilities for learning” (Webber & Robertson, 1998, p. 18).
Figure 2. Action Research
Cooperrider, D.L., & Srivastva, S. (2013). A contemporary commentary on appreciative inquiry in organizational life. In D.L. Cooperrider, D.P. Zandee, L.N. Godwin, M. Avital, & B. Boland (Eds.), Organizational generativity: The appreciative inquiry summit and a scholarship of transformation (pp. 3 – 67). Emerald.
Lewin, K. (1946). Action research and minority problems. Journal of Social Issues, 2(4), 34-46.
Webber, C.F., & Robertson, J. (1998). Boundary breaking: An emergent model for leadership development. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 6(21). https://epaa.asu.edu/ojs/article/view/588/711