Academic Exchange Quarterly Summer 2005 ISSN 1096-1453 Volume 9, Issue 2
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Teaching Teachers to Lead: Some Lessons
Bauer is Associate Professor and Program Coordinator, Educational Leadership,
Programs designed to prepare educational leaders are under increasing pressure to include more authentic, field-based performances as a component of their programs. This paper deals with lessons learned through the design, implementation, and evaluation of a pilot program designed to promote teacher leadership in school improvement. In particular, faculty learned that students have a difficult time negotiating the demands of a performance-based program, and that this shift represented a significant challenge to reculturing the graduate student experience.
There is a renewed focus on the role of educational leaders in promoting school improvement (Leithwood & Riehl, 2003; Witziers, Bosker, & Kruger, 2003). In part, this is as a result of pressure placed on schools through high-stakes accountability policies. It is also attributable to the fact that the context for educational leadership has become increasingly complex, and that the role of school principal has changed dramatically. While in the past the principalship was defined mostly in terms of administrative responsibilities, today there is a much greater emphasis on leadership, facilitation, and the ability to enlist stakeholders in student-centered reform (Fullan, 2001; Leithwood & Riehl). Recent literature stresses that school leadership needs to extend beyond the person of the principal, that leadership should be distributed among educators at the school site (Harris, 2003; Spillane, Halverson, & Diamond, 2001). The concept of teacher leadership in school improvement has thus become a hot topic (Crowther, Kaagan, Ferguson & Hann, 2002; Katzenmeyer & Moller, 2001; Silva, Gimbert, & Nolan, 2000; York-Barr & Duke, 2004: Zepada, Mayers & Benson, 2003).
In recognition of the
shifting focus toward distributed school leadership, the State of
The purpose of this paper is to share some lessons learned while enacting one of these pilots, the St. Charles Teacher Leader Institute (TLI). The paper will be presented in two sections: First, the anatomy of the TLI will be described. Second, some lessons learned in the design and implementation of this pilot project will be shared. Issues that seem especially relevant to the redesign of leadership preparation programs will be highlighted, especially those involving the trend toward incorporating more authentic, performance-based learning activities in formal educational programs.
The TLI was a partnership program between the
The program itself attempted to fully integrate the study of school leadership with an array of field-based problem solving and school improvement activities that helped participants understand leadership and develop the ability to lead efforts to change and improve schools. The program incorporated a combination of face-to-face and field-based professional development activities equivalent to 9 graduate credit hours. Specific topics and performances were aligned with the Louisiana Standards for School Principals, which in turn are aligned with the Interstate School Leadership Licensure Consortium (ISLLC) standards. Course content and performances were designed to reflect the myriad ways teachers might act as leaders in school-wide change activities, in relation to peers as mentors and critical friends, and on district-level task forces. A sampling of required performances included such things as (1) analyzing school improvement data for all schools within a feeder pattern and preparing an executive summary of findings for use by a school leadership team; (2) conducting a series of classroom observations using a variety of supervision techniques; (3) designing and conducting a professional development workshop; and (4) working with a team of peers to develop a draft code of ethics for teacher leaders.
The TLI employed an electronic, web-based instructional support system using Blackboard and other technologies, such as the school improvement simulation, In the Center of Things, a PC-based simulation designed to help school leaders understand school improvement, planning, and school leadership. Students developed and presented a culminating web-based portfolio that provided evidence of the knowledge, skills and abilities gained in the program.
As the centerpiece of the performance-based program, each student facilitated the design, implementation and evaluation of a project that supported the attainment of an objective in his/her school’s improvement plan. To accomplish this, students worked with their principal and school leadership team to analyze relevant data, design an action plan, identify resources needed, implement and evaluate their project. En route, they presented and defended their proposal, budget and evaluation plan to the TLI steering committee, which reviewed proposals written by students using the district’s grant submission format. The BellSouth grant provided a modest budget to support improvement projects. In total, approximately $12,000 was spread between the various efforts. Moneys were apportioned based on a competitive grant application process, which provided students with direct experience with management functions, including budgeting, purchasing, grant writing, and financial accountability. Carrying out the projects also provided direct experience with planning, facilitative leadership, and conducting action research in school settings.
As leaders in their schools, students facilitated the implementation of their project, and prepared a summary report of their accomplishments and the impact of their project, which they presented to the TLI steering committee. Their reflections on the project highlighted improvement activities, consequences, impact on the school’s current and future improvement plans, and leadership skills and abilities developed through participation.
The TLI employed a support structure that included university personnel and school-based administrators. Administrators in each of the students’ schools served as mentors and facilitators of student performances. Among their duties included meeting periodically with students to discuss their progress; reviewing student work and ensuring that performances were aligned with the school’s improvement plan; providing feedback on student work; and working with students to develop a personal leadership development plan. Two full-time faculty members in educational leadership took primary responsibility for designing the curriculum and facilitating the institute. In addition to the cadre of school administrators who acted as mentors during the program, university faculty and five central office and school-based administrators from the district served as a steering committee. The steering committee participated in all phases of the institute, including recruitment and selection of students; curriculum design; selection of primary source materials; review of student work; and trouble-shooting during the course of the program.
While a comprehensive review of the evaluation data are beyond the scope of this paper, the evaluation revealed a number of important issues for faculty who are engaged in leadership development programs that feature a greater emphasis on performance-based activities in authentic school settings.
Factors promoting student satisfaction and persistence:
Initially, 25 students were offered admission to the program. Of those, 21 enrolled and completed the first semester of coursework. Nineteen returned for the second semester and completed the program; one dropped out due to illness, and the other to take a new job. Demographic data show that the majority of students (71%) were young (under 40), and the same percentage had between 5 and 10 years of teaching. All but one student indicated that they would seek the Teacher Leader certificate, and 76% indicated that they intended to continue graduate study toward certification for the principalship.
There was a consensus on almost all topics among the participants in the focus groups concerning factors that affected retention and satisfaction. These themes contribute to an understanding of retention and attrition among students preparing for leadership roles in schools. Specifically, three factors were consistently cited by students as reasons for staying in the program: incentives, principal support, and peer support.
The “incentives” cited by students included tuition support provided by the grant (which paid roughly two-thirds of the tuition) and the fact that classes were located within the school system. Though important, students felt that two forms of social support were far more critical in affecting their persistence. First, in most cases principals sought out these potential leaders to invite them to participate in the program, and then provided support for students throughout the project. Principals indicated that they were aware that program participants were under a great deal of pressure and as a result, they provided support in addition to voiced understanding and encouragement. One principal worked with a participant after school; another provided school time for teachers to work together. Principals’ awareness of teachers’ distress and support for them were powerful motivators for students to complete the program. Second, members of the cohort explained how important their colleagues had been in getting through the assigned tasks. It was clear that teachers who had participating colleagues in their schools worked together and supported each other, and that throughout the pilot, peer support became a critical component in helping students negotiate the realities of a performance-based program.
Factors producing dissatisfaction:
The most prevalent theme associated with student dissatisfaction centered on the amount of time assignments required. There was a sense that the work far exceeded students’ expectations when they enrolled. One participant said he had seen what students attending other universities had to do for their credits, and “it didn’t touch what we had to do.” Another added, “I felt like we did the reading and writing like a traditional course and the performance tasks too.” Student after student wanted to explain how the amount of work had taken time away from their teaching and their families, and expressed their concerns with a great deal of emotion. Concerns about meeting their own standards for teaching were also expressed, sometimes with a degree of anger. “I just didn’t teach as well as I usually do this whole year,” one said.
Another significant source of dissatisfaction was the degree of ambiguity students perceived as they negotiated the experience of the performance-based program. Students said they didn’t know what to expect. A probe revealed that the group felt that the substance of the assignments was not terribly difficult, but the challenge lay in the amount of work and the lack of certainty about what had to be done. The faculty said that given the nature of the project (i.e., that it was a pilot), students were invited to discuss assignments ahead of time and negotiate both the number and the form of the performances. Nevertheless, negotiating performances appeared to be too counter-culture for these highly professional teachers, who preferred instead to rely on each other for support and muddle through. Given the culture of excellence prevalent in the district and the students’ concern that they rise to their own standards, however, it was not surprising that students wanted to know exactly what to do and felt at risk when they were not sure or when the faculty was not as specific as students felt they should be on how to proceed.
The power of cohorts:
The evaluation data from this pilot project revealed the advantages and disadvantages of the cohort approach to graduate study in leadership. The social power implicit in cohorts to assist each other and encourage retention is strong, but that power also can have the effect of coalescing thought and preventing divergent thinking. These beginning graduate students believed that they had to spend too much time on the performances in this program and, as mostly young people and excellent teachers, they were not happy that as a result they had had to spend less time with their families and in preparation for their teaching. They reinforced each other over and over and it was difficult for them to get past that issue.
As teachers chosen for their excellence in teaching, they applied their knowledge of teaching to their analysis of how they had been taught. Like most teachers, they used a deficit model of teaching evaluation and concentrated on what could have been done better. And like most evaluators, they avoided evaluating the substance of the coursework. When asked directly, they reported that they found the books valuable, the professors knowledgeable, the portfolio a good way to demonstrate learning, and they acknowledged they “had learned a lot.” In summary, in spite of their complaints about the amount of time required to complete the assignments and the painful ambiguity they experienced, students felt successful and were positive about the substance of the program.
This case exposes several issues that teachers of educational administration must deal with as we strive to redesign our programs. It serves, in particular, to highlight two issues facing faculties nationwide: the call for deeper partnerships with local education agencies; and the shift from traditional, largely classroom-based instructional programs to ones featuring more job-embedded, performance-based activities.
The first lesson worth remembering from this pilot concerns the issue of partnerships. The interests of school districts and university training programs often coincide, but seldom does a mutually respectful partnership result. Often universities approach work with school districts with a sense of noblesse oblige, and school districts enter partnerships with cynicism about the “ivory tower” approach to leadership. What happened here that made the partnership work was that both parties were clear about their own goals as well as about the goals of the other partner, and both partners recognized that their goals could be met through collaboration. Within this framework of self-interest and respect, when issues arose, the parties were able to work together to find the best outcome.
From the beginning, students understood the character of the partnership and that the district had an interest in them and in their completion of the program. This gave the program standing among students that withstood their frustrations and resulted in learning that exceeds what we have been able to document and what students understand. Clear signals were sent to building-level administrators about the districts’ investment in the program, both through direct communications from the superintendent’s office and through the establishment of a shared decision-making structure to govern the project. Outside funding was very important to the success of this partnership, as well. In this project, at no time did competition over resources become an issue, and data indicate that the fact that this partnership had outside resources to attract students to the program was important to its success.
The second lesson has to do with understanding a resource of a different kind: the students’ time, energy and ability to cope with the demands of a performance-based program. To say that making the shift from a traditional to a performance-based program was a major undertaking is a gross understatement. For faculty involved in this program, this was a first effort at designing and implementing a true performance-based curriculum, and in itself this introduced a significant degree of ambiguity into the venture. By all accounts, this was well understood from the outset. What was not anticipated, though, was the degree of apprehension and confusion students experienced as a result of the shift to a performance-based format. Although faculty persistently reminded students of the “different nature” of the course design and assessment requirements, the student’s lack of reference for comparison made it unreasonable to expect that these warnings would result in a useful response. Students reflected on the undue amount of work they had to complete as compared with colleagues enrolled at neighboring universities or in their undergraduate programs. They reflected on their past experiences in university settings, and their demonstrated abilities in the past to catch up whenever they let their course work slide a bit. They also reflected on the fact that in the past, the syllabus was anything but a negotiated document, and thus sought answers to questions like “what do the faculty want” rather than “how can I demonstrate mastery of this standard.” With few exceptions, students segmented out-of-class experiences from in-class requirements, thus failing to take advantage of the fact that many of their job experiences could serve to demonstrate that they know and are able to do course-required performances. In effect, students perpetuated a parallel structure between their work worlds and their college classes, rather than seeking to integrate them and take advantage of the overlaps between their school leadership roles and a performance-based program in educational leadership. Consistent with their experiences as teachers, these professionals were so concerned about compliance that they hesitated to use their best professional judgment, both in their coursework and in applying what they learned in their work setting.
This is an extremely important lesson for university faculty in educational leadership at a time when programs are trying to make the shift from a traditional course-based, seat-time format to one that is more authentic, embedded, and performance-based. In a sense, it is reminiscent of most experience with educational change: Faculty saw the major changes to be implemented as structural in nature, and down-played the realities of organizational culture and students’ frame of reference. In this pilot program, little attention was paid to transition, helping students understand the bigger pictures associated with the new program, and helping everyone involved get up to speed with both the power and the potential of a performance-based format. The reactions of students in this pilot – their sense of overload, intolerance for ambiguity, segmentation of their work world from their university experience, and their inability to relate the concept of teacher leadership to their jobs – suggests that faculty need to spend considerable time considering reculturing as well as restructuring their graduate programs.
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