An interview with Ann Lieberman, noted researcher, scholar.
ACTE: Your latest book is How Teachers Become Leaders: Learning from Practice and Research. From your research, what is the status of teacher leadership in schools today?
AL: I can't give you numbers, but I think, generally, any school district that has any kind of school-reform effort has teachers involved in leadership. It may be called different things, but they're clearly providing leadership.
ACTE: Why is it important for teachers to take on leadership roles without necessarily becoming part of administration?
AL: The reason it's important for teachers to become leaders--not nccessarily administrators, although some do--is because we do know and have plenty of evidence that teacher's learn more from one another than any other single place. That doesn't mean they don't learn from research and they don't learn from professional development efforts and everything else, but the primary way that teachers learn new ideas and how to do different, things are from their peers.
So one of the things we've learned is that teachers who become really articulate about particular ideas turn out to be people who can facilitate learning for their peers, not only in their own school but elsewhere. So, a long time ago. other people started recognizing that teachers were, in fact. taking leadership roles. I had been a teacher many, many years ago, and I realized that teachers can lead and they do it differently than adminisrators.
ACTE: You mentioned a certain level of articulateness about ideas. What are some characteristics of an effective teacher-leader, and how do they acquire those characteristics?
AL: Teachers become more articulate in many different ways, and this is part of what I've written about with Linda Friedrich and others. Teachers learn how to articulate when they are actually in a variety of projects. One of them, clearly one huge thing, is by being involved in such things as the National Writing Project, where people are working on their own writing. They're giving feedback to other people. By the time they've gone through a whole summer institute of teaching each other and getting feedback on their writing and reading research, they become very articulate about the language of instruction, the language, in this case, of writing. They realize, at least in this experience as well as in many others, that hey can Facilitate learning for adults as well as kids. Part of it is really engaging in and looking at your own work and listening to other people describe their work. Over time, instead of just doing it. as people do when they teach, they can actually talk about it as well, and they can figure out how to facilikate this kind of learning for others.
ACTE: What are some of the challenges or obstacles that a teacher-leader would face?
AL: That's a beautiful question. Well unfortunately, we still have, in many, many, many schools, the culture that everybody is the same. You're a new teacher, or you're an experienced teacher, or you're a one-year teacher or a 15-year teacher, and there's a leveling of "everybody's just a teacher." I think that's tough for people who take on different kinds of responsibilities that are seen as being different than just teaching students. That's one reason. Another is that there are schools that are really very dysfunctional, and so people are in a culture that's not caring, that's not collaborative in any way. Teachers who become leaders in those situations also have to really struggle with a culture that's not supportive of anybody.
These are the kinds of things that I think we do have in our book. For example, mentors. In California, where I live, we actually have a law that every new teacher gets access to a mentor for his or her first two years of teaching. But often, mentors are in schools that are really tough places to be in. So sometimes a mentor finds himself or herself having to advocate for the new teacher, or having to figure out how to get people who are entering teaching to feel good about being in this profession--even as the school is not very warm and welcoming.
We have one problem, which is, generally, a culture of egalitarianism, which people just kind of ingest, which makes it hard to be different. On the other hand, there are a variety of contexts which are difficult; they just put additional pressure on teachers, who are there for a variety of good reasons--to help, to facilitate, to teach, to coach--but the context itself is not particularly supportive of anything. So the teacher-leader who takes on these kinds of responsibilities has to negotiate not just his or her relationship with the teachers, but the actual culture itself.
ACTE: Are there any specific policies or initiatives that can help break down any of those barriers and be more supportive to the teacher-leader?
AL: I think there are districts and places where teacher leadership is recognized, where teachers become coaches of particular subject areas, and so it raises the expectation that this is legitimate and that our district runs with these kinds of things in mind. District policies that encourage and support teacher-leaders in a variety of ways is a help. Principals who understand that teachers are really great teachers of other teachers, who both support and encourage these kinds of things, certainly helps. Places like NOTE [National Council of Teachers of English] and large national organizations help. Certainly, federal policies that encourage teacher leadership and peer learning help. It signals to a variety of people in leadership positions that not only is this legitimate, but it's great to have teachers who lead, because they aid in helping the school reform or transform its practices for the adults as well as the kids.
ACTE: You were a keynote speaker in Beijing recently, at a conference on the teacher as researcher. Can you tell our readers a little bit about that?
AL: It was very interesting. It was on action research and the teacher as a researcher. The title of my speech was "From Action Research to Teacher Knowledge." It was really about pushing the boundaries of, "Now that you've done research in your own school, look, there's a whole bunch of other things You can do beyond this." I gave lots of other examples, including a writing project and forming a network, and doing a variety of other things where teachers come to learn about their own practice. The people in China, the government, feel like they've got a hold of the economy, sort of, and that teachers need to change. Instead of standing up in front and being the sole authority figure, they have to learn how to work and engage students in a way that's much more democratic, that assumes working in groups, building communities in your classroom. The teachers said. "We want to learn. We just don't know how."
To listen to the podcast of the full interview with Ann Lieberman, visit www.acteonline.org/podcasts.aspx.