Mapping quality teaching

Sidney Poitier in To Sir, with Love Source: http://www.rockshockpop.com/forums/c

Sidney Poitier in’ To Sir, with Love’. Source: http://www.rockshockpop.com/forums/

This is the third post in a series of posts on quality teaching. You can also read:

Part 1, which explored the terms ‘teacher quality’ and ‘quality teaching’; and,

Part 2, which outlined those things that effective teachers have been found to do.

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If we accept that the quality of what teachers do in their classrooms influences student learning, and that quality teaching has some agreed characteristics, what can teachers, schools and systems do? How does the profession come to a common understanding of what good teaching looks like? Amid teaching debates like ‘traditional vs. progressive’, what is it that teachers should be striving to do?

Some question and warn against the itemising of teaching into a set of prescriptive elements, and many agree that attempting to quantify the complexity of teaching is fraught with difficulty. Many scholars and educators have nonetheless worked to identity what quality teaching looks like and what effective teachers do, trying to capture what teaching encompasses. These authors attempt to detail, describe, interpret, and evaluate the elements of teaching; to find what quality instruction looks like and the conditions necessary for developing the quality of teachers’ instruction.

Many authors suggest that in order to develop their teaching, teachers need a ‘map’ of where to go and how to get there. In his 2004 book Successful school change, Claude Goldenberg reflected on his work with a USA primary school over five years. He noted that the school and teacher change model he and the principal implemented was too abstract and unspecified. He added that “we should have been more nuts-and-bolts oriented, in the sense of specifying more clearly what teachers were to do in various settings, including their classrooms” (p. 173).

In order for teachers to improve, not only do teachers have to want to improve, they must know how to improve and on what aspects they would benefit from focusing their attention. Schools can benefit from frameworks that provide the knowledge base of what good teaching looks like, as well as processes that facilitate the improvement of practice. A map of teaching involves a clear set of agreed standards and a way to think systematically about the complexity of the task. Mapping teaching can be less about identifying quality and proving teacher performance. It can be about empowering teachers to improve, developing a common understanding and shared language of practice.

Examples of attempts to address the need for a framework or map of the intricacies of teacher practice include the Danielson Group’s Framework for Teaching, the Marzano Causal Teacher Evaluation Model, and the Australian Institute of Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) National Professional Standards for Teachers.

The Danielson Framework for Teaching, endorsed by Dylan Wiliam in his 2016 book Leadership for Teacher Learning, has been shown to: identify the most effective teachers and positively correlate their quality with student achievement gains; focus observers’ attention on specific aspects of teaching practice; establish common evidentiary standards for each level of practice; and create a common vocabulary for pursuing a shared vision of effective instruction. Students showed the most academic growth in classrooms with teachers who rated highly on the Framework, and the least academic growth in classrooms with teachers who received the lowest ratings.

Marzano’s model has also been tested in studies and meta-analyses, which report that using the instructional strategies of the model improves student achievement and helps teachers develop themselves professionally.

In evaluating the perceptions of the AITSL Professional Standards, AITSL has found that pre-service teachers were the most enthusiastic about the potential of the use of the Standards in their practice and their students’ learning, school leaders were most engaged in the implementation of the Standards, and non-pre-service teachers were least likely to perceive the Standards as useful in changing their practice or impacting their students. AITSL’s measures have concentrated on educators’ perceptions of their tool.

Frameworks such as Danielson’s, Marzano’s, and AITSL’s may have a place in helping teachers to achieve clear, measurable targets, but schools and systems using these tools need to be considered in their purpose and process of their implementation. My school uses the Danielson Framework (overlaid with the national AITSL Standards) as a third point in conversations, in order to help novice and veteran teachers to reflect on their lessons with specificity. It is a tool, as part of a large toolbox, for developing shared understanding.

My PhD study found that the Danielson Framework for Teaching, when used as part of a non-judgmental model of teacher growth, helps to develop teachers’ precision of reflection around teaching practice and a common language for talking about teaching and what it can look like. At my school, teachers who develop familiarity with the Framework and its descriptors find that while teaching they mentally aim for the descriptors of ‘Distinguished’ teaching; knowledge of the Framework shapes their decisions and their classroom practices.

As much of the world grapples with how to wrestle the octopus of ‘teaching’ into a small, rigid glass jar of pithy statements or political one-liners, we need to be wary of atomising teaching into disparate parts, but we can be equally open to tools that might help us deepen our professional understandings and practices. We can focus on dialogue, interrogation of practice, reflection, collaboration and growth, and on researching and critically appraising the frameworks and measures available to us.

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What do ‘quality teachers’ do?

Jaime Escalante in 'Stand and Deliver'. Source: http://remezcla.com/film/edward-james-olmos-on-stand-and-delivers-25th-anniversary-and-the-release-of-filly-brown/

Jaime Escalante in ‘Stand and Deliver’. Source: http://remezcla.com/film/

This is Part 2 in a series of posts on ‘teacher quality’ and ‘quality teaching’. You can also read Part 1 and Part 3

In response to my last post, I’ve received a lot of comments from those who bristle at the use of the term ‘teacher quality’ to label teachers and demean the profession; it is, however, a term used profusely in research and policy literatures. I’ve used the term here as shorthand for ‘teachers whose practice positively influences student learning.’

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As the quality of teachers’ teaching is generally agreed to be an important school-based influencer of student achievement, researchers have attempted to identify aspects of teaching as demonstrating evidence of positive effect on student achievement.

In reviewing literature for my PhD, I found five elements that emerged as agreed elements of what ‘quality teachers’ do. I have cited some of the references that mention each aspect, although there are larger webs of literature for each of the five threads explained below.

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1) Quality teachers purposefully design learning opportunities

Teachers have excellent knowledge of their content, pedagogies, their students, and how their students learn. They apply this knowledge to planning programmes, lessons, student groupings and assessments with clear, transparent performance targets. The purposeful designing of learning opportunities is articulated in references such as Bransford and Darling-Hammond’s Preparing teachers for a changing world: What teachers should learn and be able to do, Shulman’s (2004) essay ‘Communities of learners and communities of teachers’, and Linda Darling-Hammond’s seminal The right to learn: A blueprint for creating schools that work.

2) Quality teachers diagnose student progress to inform both teaching and learning

Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe (in their 2007 Schooling by Design) wrote that teachers facilitate the setting of challenging goals and high standards, designing the work so that learners believe in their own capacity for success, and adjusting plans in light of unexpected or inappropriate results. Jim Rose in his 2006 Independent review of the teaching of early reading noted that high quality teaching should inform realistic and ambitious target-setting.

3) Quality teachers fight for their students’ learning

A couple of references point to the importance of advocacy in teaching. In 1986, Philip Jackson argued that effective teachers fight for what they believe about teaching and learning, acting independently to advocate for their students. Wasley, Hampel and Clark (1997) spent three years observing and interviewing six students in five USA schools for their book Kids and school reform. They found that good teachers believe that each of their students can learn; and have the skills and capacity to engage in debate on behalf of their students’ learning.

4) Quality teachers personalise learning for students

Teachers balance the needs of the learner, the knowledge and skills students need to acquire (what they teach and why), assessment and feedback, and embeddedness in community. They select appropriate classroom design, instructional strategies, and subject matter to help each student learn, with a diversity of teaching methods including: reciprocal teaching, direct instruction, problem solving methods, explanation, elaboration, modelling, plans to direct task performance, sequencing, drill repetition, optimising peer learning, providing strategy cues, domain-specific processing, clear instructional goals, setting challenging goals and teaching students self-verbalisation and meta cognitive strategies. They respond with immediacy and a sensitivity to the here-and-now, showing flexibility by valuing freedom of thought and movement in the classroom. The emphasis on sensitivity towards, and individualisation of approaches for, students, is evident in Bransford and Darling-Hammond’s Preparing teachers for a changing world: What teachers should learn and be able to do and Philip Jackson’s The practice of teaching.

5) Quality teachers provide meaningful and appropriate feedback.

In Schooling by Design, Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe pressed the importance of backwards assessment design, providing ongoing feedback with immediate opportunities to use it, and implementing strategies to develop learner autonomy, thus making self-assessment and self-adjustment a key goal of teaching. The work of Dylan Wiliam and Rick Stiggins promotes formative assessment as a way to frequently check for understanding and to engage students in self-reflective, self-regulated learning.

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The above-mentioned studies suggest that quality teaching requires teachers to have a sound and continually developing knowledge of content and pedagogy. This supports the definition of teacher quality I identified in my last post: ‘knowing what to teach and knowing how to teach’. Quality teaching, according to the above cited works, involves teacher self-reflection, planning of well-structured units and lessons, focusing on higher order thinking, managing the classroom effectively, utilising an arsenal of effective teaching strategies, individualising learning, setting challenging goals for all students, knowing where each student is ‘at,’ facilitating each student’s progress to the next level, and giving effective, targeted, timely feedback.

Anne Freese (in her 1999 paper ‘The role of reflection on pre-service teachers’ development in the context of a professional development school’) describes herself as an educator (albeit in a higher education, rather than a school, context, so perhaps from a potato perspective) and in doing so resonates with the above threads of quality teaching:

I am more like a coach who structures the learning events and co-inquires. . . . I have become more comfortable modelling and making public my thinking about teaching, and risking being vulnerable as I put my own teaching under scrutiny. This is a different role from that of being the `expert’ and the dispenser of knowledge. (p. 908)

Here Freese underscores the teacher’s purposeful designing of learning by structuring what she calls “learning events,” suggesting deliberate design of student-focused learning experiences. She makes her thinking “public” and sees herself as coach and co-inquirer, vulnerable in her collaboration as co-learner with her students. Freese highlights the notion of self-reflection in her comment about having the willingness and capacity to put her “own teaching under scrutiny.” Freese’s description reflects Wiggins and McTighe’s description of those teachers who demonstrate ‘quality’ practice as designers, diagnosers, facilitators, and constructors of learning and learners.

As teachers, schools and systems have conversations around how to improve the learning of students by improving what happens in classrooms, it’s important that we continue to attempt to build a shared understanding of exactly what we mean when we say things like ‘quality teaching’.

Teasing out ‘teacher quality’

This post is the first in a series exploring the popular notion of improving teacher quality in order to improve student learning and achievement.

You can also read Part 2 ‘What do quality teachers do?‘ and Part 3 ‘Mapping teacher quality‘.

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For some time, scholarly literatures have generally agreed that, within the school sphere of influence, the quality of teachers’ teaching is the most influential school-based variable in terms of improving student learning and achievement. (We need to remember, however, that student learning and achievement are influenced primarily by many factors that are hardest for policy makers and schools to influence, such as students’ attitudes and abilities, socioeconomic context, parents’ education and peers.) Now, everywhere we look in education there are institutes and government policies and school websites all hailing the catch cry: ‘teacher quality!’

The term ‘teacher quality’ is in danger of being subsumed in what I call the ‘hashtagification’ of education terminology, in which words like ‘mindset’ and ‘grit’ become ubiquitous platitudes shared in sound bites or 140 character tweets. When we use words in education, we need to read the literature and research about them, tease them out, and come to a shared understanding about what are often dense concepts around the complexity of teaching.

During my PhD I spent time (ok, years) reading up on, among other things, ‘teacher quality’. Its definitions, its features, studies that aimed to measure its impacts. While I can’t distil those years of reading into a blog post, this post is a starting point (for comments, conversations, future posts) as well as a call to others to spend time cogitating over and teasing out the terms we use in edu-spheres.

‘Teacher quality’ is used to denote the quality of teachers’ teaching, in terms of its effectiveness in adding value to student learning. While it is sometimes used in terms of the individual teacher, many scholars argue that teacher quality should be considered in terms of collaborative expertise, rather than the solo hero teacher (so wonderfully written about here by Corinne Campbell). That is, while an individual teacher can have an influence on student learning, a move to improve the quality of teaching (and thereby, student learning) needs to focus on teachers as a collective.

One of my favourite images of collaborative expertise comes from Susan Rosenholtz in her book Teachers’ workplace: The social organisation of schools. She writes that in learning-enriched settings “an abundant spirit of continuous improvement” seems to “hover school-wide, because no one ever stopped learning to teach,” describing educators in effective schools as “clumped together in a critical mass, like uranium fuel rods in a reactor” (1991, p. 208). That image is a powerful reminder of what we in schools and education might aim for: a critical mass of huddled-together teachers feeding off each other’s energies, knowledge and practices. It’s also why competitive or punitive measures, like performance pay for teachers, are damaging to the profession. Collaboratively improving teacher quality is based on a notion with which most teachers would agree: that no matter how good our teaching is, no matter how well-planned and well-intentioned, we can always improve.

Two definitions of ‘teacher quality’ resonated with me in my reading. Firstly, the Educational Testing Service, in their 2004 publication Where we stand on teacher quality, defines it as: knowing what to teach and knowing how to teach. This definition hones in on the planning, classroom instruction, and assessment aspects of teacher quality, on the professional knowledge and skills upon which teachers can build in their pursuit of improving the quality of their teaching. Secondly, in their best evidence synthesis of international research on ‘teaching for quality,’ Zammit et al. (2007) define teacher quality as consisting of three intersecting factors: sociocultural context; professional knowledge, skills and practices used to meet student needs; and personal, relational and professional attributes. This second definition reminds us that teachers’ experiences are always situated within their professional contexts and entangled with personal and relational experiences. Teaching is not just about knowledge and skills, but about identities, contexts and emotions, too.

Some of those who write about teacher quality focus on the impact of teaching on student achievement and the others consider how we might break down or compartmentalise teaching in order to distil and define what quality teaching is; how it looks, sounds, and feels, and how it might be mapped, measured, or developed. Many grapple with the tensions between the desire to define and measure teaching, and its immeasurable complexity. In my Australian school, we investigated a number of tools that attempted to map what good teaching might look like. We chose to use the Danielson Framework for Teaching as our frame for professional reflection and conversation. Its rubrics help our teachers to drill down into their own practice, and into the AITSL Professional Standards for Teachers, giving them a sense of what those standards can look like at various levels of practice.

Teaching is such a complex phenomenon, it shouldn’t be reduced down to clichéd catch cries devoid of meaning. Despite the problematic nature of defining what teacher quality actually means, much available research shows that what a teacher does in the classroom is a crucial determinant in improving student achievement, and something we should spend some time teasing out in order to understand it in more detail. When we use terms in education—‘teacher quality’, ‘growth mindset’, ‘coaching’, ‘grit’, ‘vision’—let’s ensure that we work hard at figuring out what those mean and where our understandings might be shared, incomplete or requiring further discussion.

Questioning heroic leadership: The visible-invisible hero

heroes

Our notions of heroism change over time. The construction and reception of heroes is dependent on context. Often the heroes of a time and place are only decided in hindsight when their actions and the consequences of those actions are weighed by the collective, the media or Hollywood scriptwriters.

Texts can reflect the values, anxieties and aspirations of their time and place. For example, the Star Wars franchise has changed its notions of the hero over time. Early Star Wars films had some diversity back in the 1970s. Leia was an independent hero who could stand up for herself and played a key part in the Rebel Alliance. But she was still pictured as the pretty woman handing medals to the male heroes. Lando Calrissian was a non-white heroic figure, but a more minor and less honourable character than the two white males, Luke and Han. Diversity and Otherness were also foregrounded by the multiple alien species in the films, from everyone’s favourite heroic Wookie, to sinister or repulsive villains.

Fast forward almost forty years and Rei and Finn, the heroes of the 2015 Star Wars Episode VII (which I have written about here and here), show the shift in the hero’s representation in terms of gender and race.

Meanwhile, Batman is a hero whose representation has evolved over time, from the silly unintimidating comical figure of the 1960s television show, to the tortured, vengeful, imposing figures of recent films. Newer Batmans, including those played by Christian Bale and Ben Affleck, are psychologically darker and more complex.

In 2016, heroes like Deadpool and the new Ghostbusters question the traditional portrayal of the hero. Deadpool, like the animated hero Shrek, challenges stereotypical hero behaviour. He is rude, lewd and without a noble cause. The new Ghostbusters expand our vision of how heroes might look. The Game of Thrones franchise, too, agitates reader and viewer expectations of the hero by presenting us with complex, shifting characters who dance along and frequently cross the line between heroism and villainy.

To leadership …

How is the realm of leadership affected by the fluid definitions of heroism, dependent as they are on the time and place in which any real, mythological or fictional hero is created and received?

Today I’ll be speaking at the Rise and Future of Heroism Science Conference in order to explore what insights the data from my PhD has to offer the field of heroism, and what heroism has to offer the arena of leadership.

The questions I ask are:

  • Must the school leader hero be a charismatic, selfless visionary? A beacon of bravery and a moral crusader?
  • Are alternate leadership metaphors and narratives helpful for thinking about contemporary leadership in schools?

My answer, based in the emergent themes from the interview data of school leaders in my PhD study, is that the traditional lone hero on an individualistic quest is not an appropriate metaphor for the school leader. The leaders in my study reflected notions of servant, distributed, caregiver or transparent leadership.

Participants offered up their own metaphors for heroic leadership, revealing that heroism when leading others can be fluid, deliberate and imperceptible.

by Deborah Netolicky

In my PhD thesis, I applied the literary character of the Cheshire Cat to emblematically articulate the visible-invisible school leader, who deliberately appears and disappears, showing only part of themselves depending on the needs of those who they lead. The Cheshire Cat leader empowers others to find their way through their professional Wonderlands. Sometimes they are the encouraging grin, the glimmering eyes, the disappearing tail. At times they are the disembodied voice, mentoring, coaching or guiding. Unlike the autocratic and unlikeable Red Queen, the Cat is a mysterious guide who operates from the aerial view of the tree, with an understanding of the bigger picture.

The image of leaders posturing as white knights of school improvement, wielding swords of change and self-promotion, is seductive but unhelpful. Heroism in school leadership can be deliberate, fluid and at times imperceptible. School leaders can focus on the collective good and intentionally navigate visibility and invisibility (although I wonder to what extent deliberately imperceptible leadership can feel like being an under-appreciated Santa Claus, and how leaders feel when their machinations to build the capacities of others go unnoticed).

My PhD suggests that leadership that serves a community or organisation, and the individuals within it, need not be highly visible. Heroism in leadership can be about deliberate invisibility, the barely discernible swish of a tail and the disappearing gleam of a Cheshire grin.

Professional identity & professional learning: Reflections on my TER podcast interview

identity is liquid (aka Little Lagoon, Shark Bay)

identity is liquid (aka Little Lagoon, Shark Bay)

Recently I was interviewed by Cameron Malcher for the TER podcast about my PhD. You can listen to the interview, which was released on Sunday (it kicks in at the 35 minute mark). My favourite part of the podcast was Cameron’s concluding thoughts that were sparked by the interview. Below is not a blow by blow account, but a reflection on what we discussed.

What is professional identity?

In my PhD I defined identity as “ongoing sense-making process of contextually-embedded perceived-selves-in-flux”. It is a process rather than a product, a constant state of becoming. It is fluid rather than fixed. It is constantly shifting, as suggested by Fred Dervin’s notion of identity as liquid. It is socially constructed and contextual; that is, identities are co-constructed with others, and we are different versions of ourselves in different situations, with different people.

Factors that make up our professional identities include our beliefs, values and assumptions. Our identities are created and rewritten through language, through the ways we tell the stories of ourselves, to ourselves.

On the blogosphere and the Twitterverse there have been arguments about the disconnect between who owns identity and labels, suggesting that some think that identity is superimposed on us by others’ perceptions, while some believe that we own and make our own identities. The socially constructed nature of identities suggests that both have merit. We write ourselves for ourselves, and our self-perceptions rely on how others perceive and interact with us (although this interactions can be rejection of others’ perceptions, as well as acceptance).

Why consider professional identity in education?

Teaching is deeply personal. Part of the reason I brought professional identity together with learning, leading, and school change is that I think they are inseparable. Looking at education reform through the lived experiences and identities of those in schools is key to understanding its impacts. Professional learning and the leading of schools need to take teachers’ and leaders’ senses of selves into account, and engage with them.

Focus of my research

I conducted research within my own school and examined the stories of 14 teachers and leaders, including myself. The background context was a school-based teacher growth initiative.

I used narrative research to explore how these educators’ professional identities interacted with their learning and with school change. I was interested in what it is that shapes and shifts educators’ professional identity perceptions and in what ways schools and systems might work with a greater understanding of educator identities when designing and implementing education reform.

My narrative approach involved interviewing participants in ways that encouraged storytelling, including using coaching protocols, and then storying those data. It required me to be reflexive as the researcher. The experience of my PhD was personally and professionally transformative for me. I loved it, and it was incredible professional learning. In particular, the luxury of listening to educators’ stories was a joy and a privilege. I presented at AARE last year on my creative, literary approach to storying data, and this Saturday I’m presenting on my ethical decision making at the researchED conference in Melbourne.

Research findings

My research found that:

  • We professionally learn throughout our lives. Our professional learning encompasses life moments that are professional and personal, formal and informal, in schools and out of schools, singular and collaborative. Professional are shaped by good and bad experiences, by role models and anti-models.
  • Learning which taps into who educators see and feel they are, has the most impact on their beliefs, thoughts, behaviours, and practices.
  • Coaching and being coached is identity shaping, shifting teachers’ and leaders’ beliefs about learning and teaching.
  • The Danielson Framework for Teaching can be a useful tool for teacher self-reflection when used by teachers for their own growth.
  • School reform and school cultures which trust the capacities of teachers to reflect and improve is empowering and capacity building.

Implications of my research

With the caveat that my PhD was highly contexualised (considering the nature of the school and individuals I studied) the findings have something to offer the education world.

Firstly, there is a need to broaden the definition of professional learning, to allow teachers and schools to think more broadly about what it is that transforms educators, and who drives the professional learning of teachers. In my own leadership practice I am wondering how professional learning might be more autonomous and individualised. About how professionals might choose and follow, with support and opportunity, their own growth trajectories. About how schools and systems might acknowledge and encourage heutagogical (self-determined) learning.

Secondly, schools and systems can work from their own contexts to design and slowly iterate models of professional learning, from the bottom up and the middle out. As many scholars point out, effective education reforms are contextual. They cannot be lifted from one school or nation and dropped on another. Change in schools should be at a slow evolution-not-revolution pace, and based in assessing available evidence and current context.

As a result of my reading and research, I advocate for distributed and empowering leadership in schools, and school systems that trust teachers. I am a card-carrying, flag-waving fan of the Flip the System movement, which champions the agency and voice of teachers within their own systems. Teachers and school leaders have the internal capacity for analysis, reflection and growth. The individual should be honoured, valued and supported, within the holistic collective of the organisation and the system.

On professional learning: My #AERA16 presentation slides

Yesterday I presented a paper in Washington DC at the American Educational Research Association national conference, in its 100th year. This particular paper outlines my PhD’s general findings around professional learning for teachers and school leaders. It was great that more than 50 people turned up to the session, in which four papers on professional learning, including mine, were presented. The papers were a complimentary combination that really spoke to each other; I learned a lot from my co-presenters. We had plenty of generous feedback and robust discussion which spilled out into the hallway for almost an hour after the session ended, and then beyond.

My full paper will be available in the online repository when the 2016 papers go live. In the meantime, here are copies of my presentation slides. The slides were designed for me to talk to, not read from, so much of the content is thin. That is, they’re light on text and light on references (see the paper for more depth), but you’ll get a sense of my main points. Of course I didn’t get through them all and ended up skipping over the participant quotes (19 slides in 12 minutes? What was I thinking? #overexcited #lessonlearned).

If you’re interested in more, my dissertation, which looks at professional learning in more depth, as well as its interactions with professional identity and school culture and change, can be downloaded here.

From my experience so far I can highly recommend the AERA national meeting. It’s a friendly conference with an impossibly wide range of interesting and important work being shared, and connections being made.

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Teacher efficacy, agency & leadership #aera16

iconic Abe

iconic Abe

This afternoon I spent 3 hours at two round table sessions at AERA in Washington DC, hearing about and talking about teacher leadership and agency. Then on the way home from drinks with Sarah Thomas, who I know through Twitter and Voxer, I stumbled across the #satchatOZ chat on Twitter which was talking about teacher leadership. So whilst I’m jetlagged and brain-exhausted from a day of conferencing, I want to get my raw thoughts down before they’re overrun with tomorrow’s thoughts (with some of my photos, because: DC).

Three terms that came up today in the two roundtable sessions I attended were: efficacy, agency and leadership. Self-efficacy is about how well someone thinks they can do something; a self-belief in their own capacity. Agency is the capacity to act as well as the acting itself; to be an agent is not just to have the internal capability to do, but to actually do the doing. I wonder, can someone be an active agent, capable of action and change, without the self-belief in their capacity to do so? Possibly. Can someone have a sense of self-efficacy, but without the agency to be effective? Probably.

Leadership, meanwhile, is a slippery word. People can be leaders by name or position, but this doesn’t guarantee that people are led by them. Leadership and agency are not just individual, but also collective. Can someone be a leader without a followership? A leader can be defined by their title, but more often they are defined by their influence on others, their organization or the system in which they operate. Teachers without official positions of responsibility can be, and are, leaders in their fields. They are active agents who effectively translate their beliefs and purpose into reality through deliberate and effective action.

In leadership and agency in schools, context is a key consideration. The holonomous* environment of a school is one in which the sum and the parts are inseparable. If schools want teachers to be reflective, growth-focused and agentic, they need to trust in their teachers and provide an environment in which risks and exposing one’s vulnerability are ok. In a culture of teacher-scoring and fear, teachers are less likely to be agents of positive growth and more likely to be compliant servants to a punitive system. Movements like #flipthesystem, which are explored in Jelmer Evers and René Kneyber’s book, advocate for further teacher voice and action in education reform. Localised reforms like my school’s teacher growth model are practice-based examples of in-school teacher leadership in action.

In the introduction to Linda Darling-Hammond’s presidential AERA address this afternoon, she was described as identifying as a teacher, but having become a researcher so that she could be a strong voice listened to by policy makers and powers that be. She saw research as a way enact and propel change.

DC daffodil cityscape

DC daffodil cityscape

While I didn’t frame my PhD research through the lens of teacher leadership and agency, it could be seen through that lens. I explored teachers and school leaders’ perceptions of identity, learning and school change, within a particular context. That context was the coaching intervention I was leading at my school, a formative growth-based model of teacher growth and development.

What emerged from my study, when looked at in terms of teacher leadership and agency, was that teachers are deeply tied to their senses of self within their senses of their context. That is, teacher self-efficacy and agency develop when teachers feel an individual purpose, an alignment with context and that they are empowered with voice and influence in their own organization. In this case, the school empowered teachers to be active agents with a voice in school reform. Additionally, the formative aspect of the coaching model for growth was fiercely protected; teachers are not scored and judged, but are able to collect lesson data and participate in coaching conversations in order to grow themselves. This kind of trust requires some relinquishing of power from those at the traditional hierarchical apex.

As someone who connects with others on Twitter and writes on this blog, I think that technology and social media give us tools to develop our teacher voice and engage in conversations about education. I know of teachers who would be considered leaders both in their schools, and in the wider land of education, due to their public thinking, writing and advocacy. I also know those who are known more for their leadership in the social media or conference arenas, than in their own day-to-day school contexts.

As others have noted, Twitter flattens hierarchies and empowers users. Bonnie Stewart’s research into academic Twitter found that there are different spheres of, and criteria for, influence on Twitter than in higher education institutions. The same is true in other educational contexts. Government ministers are drawn into public conversation with teachers on the ground. Social media and blogging can be leveraged by teachers to allow them voice and agency, to advocate or agitate. As Greg Ashman and Rory Gribbell note in their recent blog posts, bloggers can and have been agents of political and educational change, a pluralistic chorus of voices to which people are listening.

Teachers can and should be advocates for their students and their schools. They can and should pursue research and opportunities to understand, revise and reimagine what is known in education. Those leading schools and systems in official roles can encourage teachers’ growth and leadership by questioning traditionally hierarchical power structures and considering more distributed and inclusive ones. In this way, teachers can be encouraged to lead within their contexts, instead of feeling as though they are fighting against the system or preserving their survival within it.

 

* Check out Costa & Garmston’s 2006 Cognitive Coaching text or my PhD dissertation for discussion of holonomy.

mural at the Library of Congress

mural at the Library of Congress