Who is a teacher-leader? How can teacher leadership be defined? What are the qualities and characteristics of teacher leaders?

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Dwight A. Moncur        T131        Prof. K. Boles        May 9, 2001        Final Paper


Who is a teacher-leader?  How can teacher leadership be defined?  What are the qualities and characteristics of teacher leaders?

Teacher leaders are scholar-activities who use research to improve classroom instruction and the school system as a whole.  The position: Teacher leaders have specific characteristics and qualities and unless such characteristics and qualities exist in the individual, he/she is not a teacher leader.  The selected teacher leadership issue for analyzes is “who are teacher leaders?”  Some students in writing their teacher leadership interview papers concluded that the particular teacher interviewed was not a leader.  By what basis did certain individuals come to this conclusion.  Someone else writing the paper might have seen the individual clearly as a teacher leader because his/her understanding and perception of teacher leadership is different from that of the opponent.          This paper provides a measuring stick for students and faculty in knowing whether a teacher should end up on the teacher leadership contact list or not.  This paper draws heavily on the course readings.  It indicates my theoretical understanding of the issue being tackled.  First, I examine the debate surrounding the definition of a teacher leader.  The second portion of the paper explains characteristics and qualities of teacher leaders evidenced through the readings.  The conclusion goes beyond the readings by arguing that teacher leaders should be identified through structural frames as well as qualitative and quantitative measures; arguing that teacher leadership can be negative as well as positive; and arguing that evaluative measures must be placed on teachers who call themselves teacher-leader.  Overall, the paper serves as a measuring stick for teacher leaders.  

Defining Teacher Leadership

        Teacher leadership means different things to different people.  Defining teacher leadership is not a simply thing.   The Teachers Who Lead author indicated that Ted, Gwen and Mary, and the other teachers interviewed all gave different definitions of teacher leadership.  The author mentioned that everyone was vague.  In Chapter 6 the author discussed Multiple Interpretations of Leadership.  The teachers at Ted’s school defined teacher leadership in terms of the traditional roles with which they were familiar – union representatives, department heads, and committee chairs.  Yet there was a consensus from the teachers that Ted provided enormous leadership in the building, even though he did not hold any of the formal positions they had mentioned.  Ted provided leadership as an instructor in the course he offered the staff.  He provided leadership by sharing what he gleaned in his travels around the country.  He provided leadership in curriculum development.  He provided excellent public relations for the teachers.  Gwen’s colleague defined teacher leadership as having “the power to influence policy, curriculum and procedures within the individual school and the school district . . . responsibility for instruction of children, peers, evaluation of their peers and of administrators to influence what happens in schools”(p.492).  Mary’s colleagues define a teacher leader as one “who has the guts to follow his/her own principles . . . who is recognized for having some expertise in the art of teaching and is able to share that with others . . .”(p.510).  Ted and Mary focused on instructional roles while Gwen spent more time doing administrative kinds of work.  Their collaborative teacher working relationships took one of three forms – mentoring, division of labor, and partnering. Teachers Who Lead showcased three case studies on Ted Newton – the entrepreneurial teacher, Gwen Ingman - a teacher leader in a principal’s model, and Mary Jones - a reflective teacher leader.  Sonja Harding defined teacher leadership as “learning to work as a team and sharing classroom strategies”. (Simmons Lettre 2001)  “The purpose of leadership is to improve practice and performance” (Richard Elmore 1999-2000). Teacher leaders come in all “shapes”, “colors”, and “sizes”.  Teacher leaders function and present themselves in varied, distinct, and diverse ways.  The readings indicate teacher leaders assume multiple roles as political actors, educational pioneers and entrepreneurial role models.

The Characteristics and Qualities of Teacher Leaders

        Teacher leaders have high expectations of students regardless of race, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status. Teacher leaders have a genuine interest in the well being and success of students. Even when children come from ethnically disadvantaged backgrounds expectations are high.   Cherly Thigpen, “The Veterans”,  compared her philosophy of teaching and students as distinct from that of many teachers.  She had high expectations of her students and did not give lenience to them because of their race, black.  “My philosophy of education is: ‘Johnny’s got one strike against him already because Johnny is black.  So when he comes to school he is going to read whether he wants to or not, .   .   .”.    Edouard Plummer, “The Veterans” held high expectations of his students.  He saw them as capable and showed a principal that they could be adequately prepared and pass examinations for admission in prep schools in New England/Boston.  As stated, “We have to overcome the impression that black boys can’t be scholars”(107).  Cynthia Ballenger also had high expectations of her students and did not label them as incapable of the best because of their ethnic background.  Ballenger notes educational professionals labeled them as “wild”, having “no language”, and having “depressed mothers”.    Instead, Ballenger viewed her Haitian students as responsive, intelligent children, with mothers who were perhaps homesick.  Haycock in her article “Good Teaching Matters…A Lot” provided evidence to indicate that poverty is no excuse for student failure.  Haycock notes “that poor and minority youngsters will achieve at the same high levels as other students if they are taught at those levels” (126).  Collins (Black Teachers on Teaching) felt that teachers did not expect him to be a successful student.  Williams (Black Teachers on Teaching) expressed that while at Princeton she always felt she had to prove herself to faculty and to the white students, as she suspected they thought black students were intellectually inferior.  Williams noted she was overly concerned with teaching basic skills.  As Williams states “If the white middle-class students don’t know grammar, it is likely to be overlooked, but if poor black students make grammatical mistakes, more than likely it will be seen as a language deficiency or lack of native intelligence”(p.186).  Anyon even exposed the historically held beliefs that students of higher social classes be exposed to legal, medical, or managerial knowledge, while those of the working classes be offered a more “practical” curriculum.  Anyon  noted a social stratification as identified through the curriculum of the schools she examined.  Collins, Anyon, and Williams all point to the challenge to have high expectations of students and the positive results that come about from such.        

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Teacher leaders have high expectations of themselves exemplified through choosing textbooks and instructional materials; shaping the curriculum; setting standards for student behavior; deciding whether students are tracked into special classes; designing staff development and inservice programs; setting promotion and retention policies; deciding school budget; evaluating teacher performance; selecting new teachers; and selecting new administrators. (Barth 1999) John has not been denied decision-making power and he makes the decisions.  Decisions that directly affect his work – textbooks and curriculum, assessment, scheduling, class placement, assignment of specialists, allocation of budget and materials – are made by John not be some “experts” at higher ...

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