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Implementing Change Through Teacher Leadership

by Carol Carota

How does one become a leader? After completing this week's reading assignment, I could not help
but relate this question to my own decision to change careers, to return to school, and to become a
teacher a few years ago. The idea of changing careers and leaving the security of a job I had known for
some fifteen years was without question an intimidating prospect, but I knew that it was a challenge I
could no longer escape. For as long as I can remember, I have wanted to work with young people. I
believe that students’ educational experiences can be among their most positive influences. It is for
this reason that we must not enter into this profession lightly but must be ready and willing to embrace
the challenges that come from assisting young minds to develop. Educators have a responsibility to act
as positive role models for students in order that they might emulate and imitate them. I would submit
that part of this responsibility requires a willingness on the part of educators to recognize when change
within the existing system is necessary and to embrace this change demonstrating qualities of
leadership.

I believe, as indicated in the York-Barr and Duke article, that teachers play a central and significant
role in the ways schools operate. Therefore, it is not only teachers' responsibility but also their duty to
help foster change, and their role in bringing about this change is crucial. I would also agree with the
authors in that such change is impossible without the active involvement of individuals at all levels and
within all domains. It is an undeniable fact that change must begin at ground level: within each
classroom. As educators, however, we must be willing to acknowledge another key element:
improvement at the level of instruction is merely the first step in implementing change. True change
can only be realized when the organization and community work collaboratively. Therefore, this
collaboration not only implies working closely with administrators and colleagues when evaluating
initiatives and professional development programs but also demands coming together with the
community. Having stated that, one would be hard-pressed to deny the overwhelming magnitude of
such tasks when given the often isolating nature of teaching. As a second year teacher, I often find
myself struggling with the isolating nature of the profession. The recognition of this fact came in my
first year on my first day of school. When the door to my classroom shut, and I realized that I was
truly on my own, it was simultaneously exhilarating and overwhelming! There was no one to lean on
should questions or concerns arise, but I knew that I must embrace the challenge.

I often discuss with colleagues how we must not be afraid to accept the unique challenges that come
with teaching but must instead be self-directed and self-motivated to ensure that we are always
challenging ourselves as educators to become the best we can be. As a new teacher, however, I would
also suggest that meeting these challenges is rather overwhelming given our inexperience, lack of
preparation, and time constraints. New teachers are often forced to "hit the ground running" without
benefit of what most would consider true preparation. Having come from the private sector, I was used
to an environment in which there was a person assigned to train new employees for a rather substantial
time period. New employees often shadow their mentors, allowing for hands-on experience and
immediate question and answer sessions. Although one could argue that teachers are prepared
through undergraduate and graduate work, it was my experience that the education I received in no
way truly prepared me for teaching. Of course, I realize that many things cannot be taught when it
comes to our vocation, but I would argue that we could most definitely be better prepared to step into
the role of teacher within our given discipline. For example, as an English teacher, I often wonder why
we approach university literature courses not as future English teachers but rather as students of
literature. This seems a rather common sense solution but given the nature of the business metaphor
in education, an approach that is not easily accepted and therefore cannot be easily implemented.
Perhaps this is why the role of the teacher leader is of utmost importance. We must, as York-Barr and
Duke suggest, accept the uncertainty and ambiguity of our profession but also understand how relevant
our perspective is in recognizing the need for change and for helping to implement it. Educators in the
classroom are true experts with regard to teaching and learning. The experiences they share with their
students and colleagues provide them with authentic insight into the pros and cons of teaching,
learning, as well as possible suggestions for change. It is not to discount, of course, the importance of
the researchers' or administrators' roles, but I would suggest that their perspective alone cannot bring
about true change. It is the teacher's perspective coupled with the collaboration of administrators and
community that reflects and helps make informed decisions with regard to effective change. True
collaborative efforts not only bring about a more defined sense of ownership and commitment to
change but also model for students the notion of true democratic practices in motion.
How then can teacher leaders address this need for change? Teacher leaders are not necessarily
those appointed but often times leaders by example. Perhaps, as suggested by York-Barr and Duke, it
is the way in which a teacher collaborates with colleagues that distinguishes one as a leader. In my
own district, I tend to gravitate towards those teachers who practice leadership on a daily basis,
whether it is in the form of their conviction to their discipline and their student body, or their
commitment to better the community both academically and socially. Teaching can be an overwhelming
vocation, but it is those that strive for excellence and authenticity both in and out of the classroom that
rise to meet the challenges, and those are the teachers I typically associate with. Those teachers who
share their love and knowledge of teaching are truly the leaders in my opinion. I am often taken aback
by the unwillingness on the part of my colleagues, for example, to share their curriculum with one
another. It is only when we work together, exchanging the pros and cons of lesson plans and forms of
assessment, for example, that we can all truly benefit. Those that are unwilling to collaborate at this
level will surely be unwilling to embrace new systems of education. I also see, as mentioned in the
Johnson and Donaldson article, a resistance on the part of senior faculty to acknowledge new teacher
experiences as a means to discuss change. Many of my colleagues operate with a "this is the way we
have always done it" mentality, making it impossible to effect change of any kind. Often times, I sense
a great division among faculty, administrators, staff, and student body. When I began teaching in my
district, for example, we were operating without a contract, and although a settlement has since been
reached, I often feel as though others view me as a "traitor" when I associate with administrative
members. As a new teacher, this adds to the existing pressure I face each day. In my opinion,
however, it is a risk that I must take if I am to become a team player and eventual teacher leader. I
look to my principal, assistant principals, and director as leaders. I respect their commitment to the
community and to the student body. And although I may not always agree with all their choices, they
have always taken the time to hear me out when I have gone to them with questions or concerns.
Consequently, at this point, I defer to their experience. I also see the hesitance on the part of certain
faculty to acknowledge students as active participants in the creation of learning. I fully admit that
giving up classroom control is something I too grapple with, but if we are to truly effect change and
engage today's student, we must be willing to give over the reigns.

[Carol, the concept of relational leadership is critically important in understanding teacher leadership.
Teacher leaders are more often relational leaders rather than positional leaders. Their influence is not
based on their titles or formal positions but rather on the informal relationships they build with others.
Relational leaders model effective behaviors and practice rather than using the authority of formal
positions to "impose" their will and preferences on others.]

The role of teacher leader encompasses the need to give up old notions of authority, control, and
hierarchical definitions. An interesting concept addressed in the Combs et al. article regarding the
notion of human nature and motivation can perhaps serve as a springboard for the notion of change
within the educational system. Whereby once behavior was said to be determined by the struggle
between one’s dark side and one’s higher values and has since been replaced by the modern-day view
of one’s search for “wholeness”, one must acknowledge that change in any area is undeniable and
inevitable. With this idea in mind, we can look to the role of teacher leaders and the important part
they can play in bringing about the inevitable change within the academic arena. How they bring about
this change is the real question. Teachers can act as facilitators not only to bring about student self-
actualization but also as facilitators in helping to create a more evolved system of education. When I
think back on my own reasons for becoming a teacher, I recognize that it was my desire to fulfill a
higher sense of self that motivated my decision to return to school. According to Combs and his
colleagues, in fulfilling my own desire to make a difference, I am also fulfilling the needs of others. The
key, of course, is tapping into the motivation of my students in ways that are truly relevant to their
needs rather than relying on what I believe their needs should be.

As teacher leaders, we must be willing to embrace what some might consider radical notions and
ideas. The concept of situated cognition, for example, which advocates students as active participants
in developing learning culture, might seem extremist for those who are embedded in non-constructivist
theories. I see the resistance to embrace new ideas and theories in my daily experience as a teacher.
Many of my colleagues are much more comfortable believing that they are in charge of both instruction
and classroom environment, and they are unwilling to entertain the possibility that students might have
valuable insights to share. I suggest that it is only when we are willing to exchange open and honest
dialogue with our students that learning and change can truly occur. We must be willing to take risks.
We must afford every learner the opportunity to express opinions and viewpoints, however contrary
they may be, in order to effect change, grow, and gain true knowledge. When students express
opinions and are forced to engage in an ongoing dialogue expressing thoughts and justifying reasons,
they not only become more engaged in the learning process but also help to create and sustain relevant
knowledge.

I believe that teachers have an obligation to strive for academic excellence while simultaneously
providing students with resources, support, compassion, and flexibility. We must prepare students to
think critically, to communicate effectively, and to engage in a lifelong learning process. We must also
recognize our own need to strive for academic excellence in the form of reflection. We must continually
analyze our own instructional choices, reevaluate assessment, collaborate with colleagues, and strive to
understand our students and incorporate their needs into the curriculum.

Another aspect of the teacher leader was aptly expressed in the Ackerman and Mackenzie article.
The notion of vulnerability and risk-taking stood out most in this thought-provoking article. As a new
teacher, one is always looking to "stay under the radar" and go about the day unnoticed. Last year,
however, I was forced to step outside my safety zone several times. The first time was in dealing with a
union/administrative issue in which I was compelled to voice my opinion on my district's mentoring
practice. Needless to say, it was rather uncomfortable but a stand that I thought was most important
not only for me but for future new teachers. The second incident occurred when one of my graduating
seniors revealed to me that he was battling drug addiction. I referred him to the school social worker
and he admitted himself into a rehabilitation facility. I became his homebound tutor and reveled in his
success at graduation. After graduation, I often thought of the student and how he was faring. I could
have ignored my concern, knowing that it was far less complicated not to contact the student, but I
approached my assistant principal and asked if I could reach out to the student. When I contacted him,
he again revealed that he was battling his addiction, and I was forced to contact his parents, knowing
that this might anger the student. It was a difficult but incredible learning experience because I
realized the influence teachers have upon their students. The student was understanding of my
decision and his parents expressed their gratitude in my concern. Each day, I see how important it is
for teachers to step outside their comfort zone, both in and out of the classroom, and recognize the
importance of educating others on issues that may not always be easy to address.

If I am to become a teacher leader, I must strive to help create minds that are always ready to learn,
to explore, to create and to become. Students must be challenged intellectually as well as socially.
They must be encouraged to become participating members not only in the classroom but also in
society. By being a part of their educational experience, I will help students become responsible,
productive, and successful members of our complex global community. And I delight in knowing that I
may one day play a part in forging the world’s future citizens. An additional indicator of teacher
leadership must include a realistic look at the changes confronting our world and the means through
which we can effectively implement change. The classroom is no longer homogeneous but
heterogeneous. We must recognize that diversity, making sure not to foster division or separation
among races, classes, or genders. The incorporation of cooperative learning and peer tutoring are
among the ways in which I can allow students multiple opportunities to work together, to collectively
problem-solve, and to foster cooperation. The implementation of technology is another means through
which I can impact my classroom experience. Technology is a powerful tool that affords countless
opportunities for learning and growth. It is a part of every student’s lexicon and educators can no
longer deny its power or usefulness. At this point, my technological expertise is limited, but in the short
time that we have come together in T.E.A.M., I can see technology's incredible benefits. Google Docs,
for example, is a means through which I can collaborate and effectively engage students. We might
create a visual representation as a group on a particular piece of literature, or have an ongoing journal
dialogue on a given topic. The use of the word cloud is a remarkable means to reach students in very
relevant ways. Although somewhat over my head, I attended my first workshop, which introduced and
exposed me to the idea of the WebQuest, an idea that opens up numerous possibilities in the English
classroom. I teach a senior elective course in Modern Literature, and our focus is on society's values.
The implications of incorporating a WebQuest in which the students explore their own values and where
they come from is extraordinary. If one is to effectively address today’s classroom, one cannot deny
the technological component. It is without question the driving force behind our young people. It is
not only a source of entertainment but also an innate part of their learning style. It cannot be ignored.
[Carol, teacher leadership does not always require many years of experience as a teacher. It is based
on expertise, commitment, passion for a shared mission, empathy for others, and the confidence,
respect, and trust of your colleagues. You obviously have all of those qualities! Remember, teacher
leaders need not be elected or appointed. You can just appoint yourself, since teacher leadership can
be an informal/relational as well as a formal/positional role!]

I believe that educators have a responsibility not only to provide students with academic skills but
also to ensure that students are given the opportunity to explore and develop as productive members of
society. What other profession can boast such a demanding yet rewarding set of criteria? When I think
back on my own academic experience, I recognize that I was positively and irrevocably shaped by those
educators who understood the difference between teaching as an occupation and teaching as a
vocation. After reading this week’s assignment, I recognize this influence as those of teacher leaders.
Leaders who not only accepted the challenge and responsibility to teach their discipline but also
accepted the responsibility to influence and impact students to become productive members of society.
Finally, the notion of teacher leader can only occur when the norms of teaching are redefined. I can
only use my limited experience as a second year teacher, but I believe it is safe to say that until
teaching becomes less isolated and more collaborative, true and lasting change will not occur.
Educators must not look upon colleagues' expertise as threatening but be willing to embrace their
proficiency as a means through which to expand their own teaching experience. I also believe that the
implementation of more powerful professional development opportunities to help support preservice
teacher education would greatly impact teacher leadership. The ideal, in my opinion, would be to
totally restructure the undergraduate experience to encompass a more hands-on familiarity, an
experience that I would liken to the apprenticeship style of learning. In this manner, the new teacher
would be more prepared having "lived life" as a new teacher with the benefit of shadowing another
more experienced colleague. In the meantime, I will look to become the best I can be. I will challenge
myself to voice my opinions, however contrary, to continually collaborate with colleagues,
administrators, community members, and students, and to strive to take myself out of the classroom in
terms of my leadership capabilities.

Carol,

This is a very thoughtful essay written in an authentic voice, and I expect the process of writing it may
even have been somewhat cathartic. I wonder how often teachers -- especially those who have been
"settled" in the profession for many years -- stop to reflect in such open and critical ways. I hope you
will take the time to reflect on this essay and the questions it addresses five years from now and
beyond.

As I read your essay, I highlighted in green those ideas and observations that struck me as critical to
the positive exercise of teacher leadership and the process of positive change. I applied yellow
highlighting to note your observations and insights about obstacles and resistence to the exercise of
teacher leadership and to effecting positive change in schools and classrooms as learning communities.
I used underlining to add additional emphasis to highligted portions.

I believe your essay is especially strong due to its authentic and honest voice, its reflective nature that
connects your own experience to your intellectual processing of the ideas of teacher leadership, and to
your passion for teaching and playing a role in the overall development of your students.

I would like to see more comment on specific ways you feel you might influence other teachers and
school administrators, especially in encouraging developmentally appropriate and effective use of
educational technologies. Technology can be both a tool for effecting change (helping others to see
their teaching and learning differently) and an object of change (helping others to use technology to
facilitate teaching and learning).

This is an excellent essay.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts, experience and insights,


Red Owl

Essay Grade: 98 (A)