Sustaining Teacher Leadership
Every Local Systemic Change project has to face the issue of how the changes initiated by that project can be sustained after the project ends. Sustaining those changes of the utmost importance for the long-term effectiveness of the project. Typically LSC projects are structured as partnerships between a university (or college) and one or more school districts, and the intellectual and administrative leadership for the project is shared appropriately between the partners. When the project ends, the levels of collaboration of the various partners often change radically, and the responsibility for sustaining change typically rests with the school district or districts that are involved in the project. Teacher leadership is one of the critical ingredients necessary for school districts to meet this responsibility and LSC projects usually have some focus on developing teacher leadership to a limited extent. It is worthwhile to see what the experience of different projects has been in this respect, both in terms of factors that have helped and barriers that have hindered the development of an adequate infrastructure for sustaining teach leadership. My purpose in this short piece is to offer some starting points for a discussion, based mostly on the experience of the projects with which I am associated, but also partly induced from what I have learned in discussions and exchanges with other educators who have been involved in other LSC projects. They are not based on a program of systematic educational research and are offered as impressions and tentative personal conclusions. I hope that they will raise many questions and provoke much discussion.
Many of the changes in mathematics education that have emerged in the last decade have helped to bring about a receptive environment for the idea that school districts can benefit greatly by developing resources of leadership among mathematics teachers in the district. Among the factors that help to bring home to district policy-makers the enormous value of a functioning leadership cadre of mathematics teachers in their district are:
- Growing awareness and acceptance of standards-based curricular materials, and methods of instruction that emphasize inquiry. The attendant need for high quality professional development needed to support such curricular materials in turn puts the spotlight on the advantages of having "in house" mechanisms that can deliver such professional development.
- The adoption by many states of some form of "exit testing" (be it "high stakes" or otherwise) has led to pressures on school district officials to try and ensure that teachers in their districts are equipped to handle the challenges posed by such testing and the attendant demands for "accountability" that state governments often impose in conjunction with the institution of such test batteries.
- In districts that have participated in LSC projects, the focus provided by the project's leadership development component also serves to underscore the value of teacher leaders as important sustainers of change.
The creation of a cadre of teacher leaders to fulfill the role of sustainers of change is not an easy task, and certainly no recipes exist in standard cookbooks to bring this about. Nevertheless, based on experience, one can consider some strategies that can increase the chance of success in that enterprise. Among them are:
- A shared leadership model (in which leadership roles are rotated informally among several teacher leaders) will probably have a better chance of survival than monolithic models that isolate one or two teachers as leaders (thus automatically putting many others in the role of "followers").
- District teacher leader cadres need to have breadth in terms of district wide reach, and also depth, meaning that the cadre needs to reach sufficiently deeply into each school site. The identification and orientation of such teacher leaders needs to be done by the project in close consultation with district personnel who are intimately familiar with the teachers in their district. Moreover, there is no prospect of a good result unless an easy working relation has been built up between the project staff and the district's mathematics education apparatus.
- LSC project activities need to incorporate specific leadership preparation sessions in their project activities. Leadership skills are not automatically learned by teachers through observation.
- Leadership cadres that reach district-wide across sites need to develop a somewhat different perspective than cadres that focus on site-based issues. Correspondingly, project design needs to consider these differences. For example, typically site-based teams are likely to be more concerned with issues that address implementation of exemplary curricula on a day-to-day basis, and the leadership needed for these teams is necessarily of a different texture than teams that address district-wide issues such as (for example) piloting and/or adoption of curricula, or planning of professional development activities. In the projects that I have been associated with, we have found that project design that addresses these differences explicitly is very helpful. Thus, we have encouraged the creation site-based shared leadership groups (called Local Learning Communities, or LLCs), and provided for appropriate project activities for these, while a different set of leadership experience opportunities have been made available to a different (smaller) group of teacher leaders whose experience and background has been with districtwide issues.
- A powerful strategic direction is the following: Most districts offer some type of professional development to teachers each year. Often this is done by writing a certain number (minimal as it might be) of days in their annual contracts, and scheduled as a part of the contract year. All too often the professional development workshops that are offered on these days are planned under pressure and are of indifferent quality. Even when such workshops are excellent in themselves, most often the connection they make with the teachers' classroom environment is either tenuous or absent. A very useful strategy is to try to incorporate the type of teacher enhancement offered by the LSC project as the sort of professional development offered by the districts routinely each year. In other words, to make project activities into "a model of first resort" for the districts' professional development. This has a number of obvious advantages, especially if a district-wide leadership cadre whose members can act as facilitators for the district's professional development program has been put in place. Such a cadre can provide an "in-house" resource that is easy to schedule and use on a continuing basis.
Of course LSC Projects encounter many barriers that bear strongly on the issue of sustaining teacher leadership. The broad categories of such barriers suggested by our experience are probably encountered widely, although the experience of each project will vary in detail. At the risk of seeming obvious, I will reproduce my personal list of some of the major barriers experienced by LSC projects:
- Fluidity of district goals; goals are often too dependent on accidental leadership personalities, and are not retained and pursued with continuity. In many cases another layer of decision-making power (brought about by a marked movement towards site-based management in many districts), vested at the school site, compounds the situation,
- High turnover of key personnel at the district level exacerbates the above problem.
- High rates of teacher and student turnover and migration. This is often twinned with low morale among teachers and low availability of time for their professional development.
- Lack of materials that could be used as "curricular materials" for high quality Professional Development in mathematics at the secondary level.
- Volatility of state funding and instructional decisions mandated by state regulation. No amplification is needed on this point.
- Parents' lack of understanding of and discomfort with inquiry-based curricular materials. In turn this can lead to disinterest and hostility.
- There may be a serious misalignment of expectations between what many college faculties expect in the way of preparation in mathematics and the type of skills on which exemplary curricular materials focus. Although most colleges espouse the desirability and importance of critical thinking skills in their mathematics requirements, many (indeed most) college entrance and placement tests are tilted towards manipulative and symbolic skills and away from open-ended problems that might assess such critical thinking skills better. This dissonance does not go unnoticed by high school teachers. Since many of those teachers still regard college preparation as the largest part of their mission, it becomes difficult for them to commit themselves to curricular changes that they perceive as placing insufficient emphasis on college preparation.
At a recent conference involving a broad group of persons interested in mathematics education (including mathematics educators and mathematicians, as well as persons from several other occupations that connect to K-12 mathematics education) I had occasion to discuss a couple of items on the above list. My tone was perhaps a little more despondent than it needed to be in the context. When I was done, the moderator of the discussion asked: "So why are you doing what you are doing?" My knee-jerk response was: "because I believe doing something in this area is much better than doing nothing". I did not mean this as a homily, but a simple statement that justifies reasoned action in trying circumstances. The silver lining is that teachers, parents and administrators in a steadily growing number of school districts are becoming familiar with a vision of mathematics education that is based on and catering to the natural curiosity of students and promoting inquiry as a method of encouraging it. The challenges are immense, and we know that the present situation is not satisfactory. But I doubt that the goal can be a matter of disagreement.