In “Helping Teachers Become Leaders,” Patricia Phelps (2008) presents a model that teachers, administrators and teacher educators can internalize in order to cultivate effective teacher leadership in our nation’s schools. Phelps begins her discussion of teacher leadership first by defining the concept. She cites Barth’s definition: “Making happen what you believe in” (p. 19). Phelps then goes on to argue that the development of teacher leadership has often been overlooked by both teacher education programs and by school administrators themselves: “The importance of cultivating leadership among teachers should not be underestimated as a powerful way to improve schools” (p. 122).
The risk then of not empowering teachers to become leaders results in a significant threat to healthy school communities and effective and empowering teaching: “Those teachers who do not become leaders are typically satisfied with the status quo, easily discouraged, sometimes cynical, perhaps burned out, and may engage minimally in professional development activities” (p. 123). In the school that I have been working at, it is very evident that the handful of teachers who do believe in their ability to become leaders, are indeed the teachers who complain the most without doing anything about it, and seem to be most dissatisfied with their job.
After having developed an argument for the rationale behind cultivating teacher leadership, Phelps outlines several key components about what skills, dispositions and competencies teachers need in order to take on leaderships roles within their schools. To begin with teachers must know what they believe about education. Phelps argues that teachers should be presented with opportunities throughout their teacher education program and throughout their careers that ask them to define what they believe about best teaching practices and the purpose of education.
Furthermore, Phelps argues, teachers must understand and appreciate the value of becoming a leader in the schools. Teacher education programs and staff development must show examples of how teachers can and should become agents of positive change within their schools. Phelps also reminds teachers that a critical disposition for becoming a teacher leader is resiliency. Inevitably teachers will encounter obstacles along the way either internally from colleague or administrators or externally as a result of federal policy that sometimes fails to take into account the best interests of students.
The next step in Phelps’ model is the development of the knowledge base that will help teachers assume a proactive and effective role within the school: “The knowledge base of teacher leadership consists primarily of the concepts of educational change and school culture” (p. 121). Phelps suggests that there are various types of roles that a teacher leader might assume: advocate, innovator and steward.
After explaining how the teacher can best prepare to assume leadership roles, Phelps goes on to suggest that school administrators also play a significant role in determining whether or not teachers will feel comfortable taking on leadership roles: “By making clear the unique challenges that a school faces, the principal opens opportunities for leadership” (p. 120). I believe that Phelps’ emphasis on administrator’s role in this process is important. Administrators very much set the tone at a school, and when teachers feel that their ideas are valued and appreciated, they will be much more likely to step up to leadership roles.
My principal frequently asks for staff input during meetings and asks for volunteers to become members of a committee. For example, when the school was considering whether to implement a dress code, our principal formed a committee and took all of their recommendations when it came time to adopt new policy. This makes staff members at our school feel valued and much more likely to take on leadership roles when they see other ways to improve the school. The process of preparing teachers to become leaders requires the commitment of many, not just teachers themselves.
Teachers must be able to articulate what they believe and identify the roles that they can assume within the school to effect change. Administrators must create a positive tone and actively seek input from their staff. Teacher educators have the responsibility of cultivating an attitude and a belief in pre-service teachers that teacher leadership is both possible and necessary. If administrators, teachers and teacher educators take to heart these core components outlined by “Helping Teachers Become Leaders,” then we will make a big step toward sculpting out positive work environments that welcome and promote innovation.
I believe that readings and discussions in this course about why becoming a leader is so important to schools and to individual teachers will help me to seek out and assume leadership roles throughout my career. Especially in the early stages of my career, I see myself most able to assume the role of steward, by exemplifying effective and innovative teaching practices and displaying a strong work ethic and a positive attitude about my profession. Once I begin to establish more of a professional identity, I hope then to be able to assume leadership roles in my school that will result in positive change on an even larger level.