Hal Portner
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Are you an Informal Teacher-Leader?

When teachers have the desire and take the initiative to use their talents to accomplish something they believe in -- something that will make a difference not only in the classroom but also in the hallways, grounds, and the school community as a whole -- they are Informal Teacher-Leaders.

by Hal Portner
Regular contributor to the Gazette
October 1, 2008

In the educational lexicon, the term “school leader” generally refers to the role of administrator. Although there are many notable exceptions, traditionally in schools, “leader” has meant the principal who communicates directives about curriculum and instruction from the top layer of a hierarchy downwards. This model suggests that teachers will logically listen to evidence on the need for change, lean new procedures, and follow directives from the top to carry out the changes. As education consultant Charlotte Danielson points out, however, in practice this rarely happens because schools, like most organizations, operate as informal networks rather than hierarchies, with most organizational members feeling more connected to a few colleagues than to nominal leaders.

Administrators who recognize the reality of collegial networks and the advantages of collaborative leadership, recruit or assign teachers to leadership roles by appointing them as team leaders, department chairs, and curriculum developers. These assignments are, of course, valuable and most often productive. Under such formal arrangements, however, teachers tend to serve as much as "representatives" as they do as "leaders." Teachers can also lead, and lead effectively, as informal leaders.

Are you now or do you aspire to be an informal leader? Before you can answer this question, you need to know what I mean by the term, Informal Teacher-Leader.

Let’s start with a little “hands-on” activity. Cut a strip of paper – oh, about an inch wide – from the long edge of an 81/2” x 11” sheet of paper. Print the word TEACHER on one side, like so:

Print LEADER on the other side.

We see the two words – “teacher” and “leader” – as separated; one on each side of the strip of paper. We also tend to think of the role “teacher” and “leader” as separate, each on their own side of the education continuum.

Now twist the paper strip a half-turn and staple or tape the ends to form a Möbius Strip. It will look like this.

Now the two words are on the same side of the strip – a Möbius Strip has only one side! When we look at “teacher” and “leader” through the magic lens of the one-sided Möbius Strip, and understand that leaders, as Dale Brubaker, Professor of Education at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro defines the term, are those who use their talents to help others use theirs, the two roles literally are the same; they are synonymous (which is why I hyphenate the two words). Simply put, teachers, by the very nature of what they do, are leaders. When teachers have the desire and take the initiative to use their talents to accomplish something they believe in -- something that will make a difference not only in the classroom butalso inthe hallways, grounds, and the school community as a whole -- they are Informal Teacher-Leaders.

What do informal teacher-leaders look like?

Informal teacher-leaders are teachers first; most do not desire an administrative job. Instead, they emerge from among their teaching colleagues as they see an opportunity for improvement or notice a need. Such leadership does not happen by chance or by invitation. It happens only when they commit to their vision and plan for (rather than hope for) successes.

These teachers aren’t leaders because they have been assigned a role or position; rather, they earn their leadership through their work with their students, their colleagues, the school, and community. Such informal teacher-leaders hold a vision, share it with others, and focus their energy and the energy of others toward the achievement of that vision. In the process, they change the culture of the school. And because they are doing something they believe in – when what they are doing sits well with their set of values and is relevant to their lives – they do it better; they do it with passion.

What are some barriers to informal leadership?

A lack of support and encouragement from school administrators and teaching colleagues often poses the biggest obstacles to teacher-leaders. Teacher-leaders in general may feel uncomfortable with the "egalitarian nature of teaching" and feel that they may not be able to gain acceptance and respect. Such a culture can breed resentment and hostility from colleagues toward teachers attempting to exhibit leadership. In addition, teachers aspiring to emerge as leaders may blame the administration for failing to support their leadership aspirations, thereby engendering an even more hostile environment. However, teacher-leaders who create and shape their own roles actually receive more support and experience greater success than those who are less willing and able to take the initiative.

Your principal can help you overcome those barriers.

Empower your principal. Help him or her to be a leader of leaders. Let the principal know your vision. Ask for support. Show how your actions will resonate with his or her beliefs and values. Indicate how and where you have or can get the wherewithal to accomplish what you want to do. Detail how your actions will benefit students and the school.

Take Risks Taking on the role of informal teacher-leader implies change; change implies risk. This maxim places "Teachers as Leaders" on the perplexing horns of a dilemma. After all, risk-taking can be foolish -- even harmful. Yet, taking a chance is sometimes called for in order to accomplish a needed goal. You might well ask yourself, "Do I dare take risks?" The answer is a resounding “Yes!” provided your decision is an informed one.

Risk-Taking Ground Rules

Before you decide to take the risk of becoming an informal teacher-leader, take the time to inform your decision by testing it against the following two criteria.

  1. Look at the moral and ethical implications of taking the risk. In the medical profession, doctors take the Hippocratic Oath which begins "First, do no harm …" The same holds true for teacher-leaders. While we all may make mistakes, our laudable efforts to lead do not include the right to threaten our own or someone else's physical, emotional, or psychological health or safety, or to infringe on the rights of others. If taking a particular risk may cause harm, don't take the risk.
  2. Consider whether taking that risk would violate the formal or informal policies, practices and perceptions in your school. Most schools operate within a set of official or formal policies and procedures that fall under such categories as curriculum standards, discipline protocols, and ordering supplies. There are also unofficial practices working within virtually all schools that have as much to do with how a school functions as do the formal ones. These are culture (this is the way we do things around here) and tradition (this is the way we've always done them). So if taking the risk flies in the face of such issues, don't do it -- unless you want to change those conventions. Always let wisdom and decorum prevail.

Some examples of informal teacher-leadership

  • The Dumas Public School District is located in one of the nation's poorest regions, the Arkansas Mississippi Delta. Dumas has a history of promoting teacher leadership and change. The superintendent and principals have long encouraged and supported teachers who provide leadership in the development and implementation of innovative programs, particularly those to which the teachers exhibit a strong personal commitment. An elementary reading program, a mathematics curriculum alignment and revision project, and the Ventures in Education program have all been led by teachers in the district. In general, Dumas teachers report freedom to use innovative instructional strategies and programs in their classrooms and to share these ideas with other teachers. Teachers are also encouraged to bring ideas back from conferences or meetings and report their recommendations for change both at faculty meetings and individually to the superintendent.
  • Roger Wallace, a 6th grade teacher in Amherst Massachusetts, acted on the result of an informal conversation with another teacher and instituted a successful collaborative initiative that resulted in a district-wide Social Justice Commitment Position Statement that has become a guiding principle for the district’s curriculum.
  • A. J. is a first year middle school teacher in a semi-urban district. At the beginning of the year and for the first month she HATED her job. She felt inhibited … confined to her classroom and shortchanging her students who seemed to need more opportunities. She didn't want to come in to work. She was feeling overwhelmed and felt like she had made the biggest mistake of her life. Then she decided (against the advice of her mentoring teacher) to form a Drama Club and put on a musical for the school year. She also decided to start an after school tutoring program. Now, after starting these programs, she feels differently about her job. “Sure,” she admits, “there are still days when I am overwhelmed and not exactly sure what to do, but, overall I'm pretty content with what is happening. I'm also getting to know the students better because of these activities which are helping to decrease the discipline problems I was having in the classroom.”

So how about you, dear reader? Do you aspire to be an informal teacher-leader? The profession can sure use more teacher-leaders like those in the Dumas schools; like Amherst school’s teacher-leader, Roger Wallace: and like first year teacher-leader, A. J. So what are you waiting for? To quote StarTrek’s Jean Luc Picard, Captain of the Star Ship Enterprise… Make it so!



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About Hal Portner...

Hal Portner is a former K-12 teacher and administrator. He was assistant director of the Summer Math Program for High School Women and Their Teachers at Mount Holyoke College, and for 24 years he was a teacher and then administrator in two Connecticut public school districts. From 1985 to 1995, he was a member of the Connecticut State Department of Education’s Bureau of Certification and Professional Development, where, among other responsibilities, he served as coordinator of the Connecticut Institute for Teaching and Learning and worked closely with school districts to develop and carry out professional development and teacher evaluation plans and programs.

Portner writes, develops materials, trains mentors, facilitates the development of new teacher and peer-mentoring programs, and consults for school districts and other educational organizations and institutions. In addition to Mentoring New Teachers, he is the author of Training Mentors Is Not Enough: Everything Else Schools and Districts Need to Do (2001), Being Mentored: A Guide for Protégés (2002), Workshops that Really Work: The ABCs of Designing and Delivering Sensational Presentations (2005), and editor of Teacher Mentoring and Induction: The State of the Art and Beyond (2005) – all published by Corwin Press. He holds an MEd from the University of Michigan and a 6th-year Certificate of Advanced Graduate Study (CAGS) in education admin¬istration from the University of Connecticut. For three years, he was with the University of Massachusetts EdD Educational Leadership Program.


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