Teacher leaders or teacher leadership?

For most of my time as a classroom teacher, it was very rare indeed to be able to get out of school to attend a conference, and even rarer for this to involve travelling any distance or staying overnight. It therefore isn’t lost on me how lucky I have been to be able to attend the inaugural International Teacher Leadership in Miami this week.

I first heard about the conference via my Twitter feed. I spotted a tweet from the @PDiEjournal account, who were sponsoring the event, mentioning a conference on teacher leadership, and I was obviously intrigued. I then noticed that it was in Miami, and I thought probably not. However, what really caught my eye was how they discussed teacher leadership on their conference website and the fact that they described the conference as being an opportunity for “Co-Constructing a New Vision for Teacher Leadership”. Since joining SCEL, this has been my primary function. It underpinned our teacher leadership engagement work, and it still drives the development of our teacher leadership programme.

I therefore decided that I had to submit a paper and was surprised and delighted when it was accepted as part of a featured presentation session, I was off to Miami! And amazingly, it got even better from there. Firstly, getting to share the outcomes from our Scottish teacher leadership engagement to an international audience was really something. I was especially proud of the moment when I shared a postcard from a group of P7 pupils from Dunoon to an audience in Miami. Not only that, I was in the first presentation slot, and went up first within that session – so I got to focus on learning for the remainder of the conference!

The conference really was fantastic with very stimulating and varied keynotes and sessions all delivered in the context of a positive and collaborative atmosphere. I especially appreciated that with 90 minutes, each of the sessions allowed for a lot of discussion and debate… although it did make it almost impossible to choose just three out of a possible 33 sessions each day! From my perspective, there were three key themes which arose from my experience of the conference.

Firstly, there is an ongoing issue around the language of teacher leadership. Do we mean developing the leadership of all teachers? Or are we focused on the section of the teaching profession which we might designate ‘teacher leaders’? I’m confident through my work with SCEL on the teacher leadership engagement that in Scotland we are particularly focused on the leadership growth of all teachers and early years practitioners, not a select group. However, having undertaken what could have been described as a ‘teacher leader’ role in schools I also appreciate the need to support the leadership growth of these teachers also, and that this might involve different forms of professional learning. Some of the sessions I attended at the conference saw teacher leadership as we do at SCEL, but not all. Some presenters not only saw it as being about growing leadership in a small number of teacher leaders, but others went further and argued that it was about using performance data to pair these ‘effective’ teacher leaders with ‘ineffective’ teachers.

I am actually a lot clearer in my own head about all this now as a result of attending this conference. Aspects of leadership are evident in the practice of all teachers and can be grown. This includes teachers who are focused exclusively on the learning and teaching in their classrooms, but it also applies to teachers undertaking so called formal and informal ‘teacher leader’ roles which involve an increased emphasis on supporting the learning of colleagues. We are doing both in our Teacher Leadership Programme, but we need to do more I think to support the professional learning of the latter group in the next iteration.

If we can agree that we’re about supporting all teachers to develop their leadership skills, it was evident to me that I am not the only one who has seen that practitioner enquiry, or inquiry as they call it here, has the potential to support the leadership growth of all participating teachers. Whilst there were a range of different approaches to developing classroom practice shared at the conference, I felt that the teachers who were undertaking inquiries were able to strongly demonstrate impact on not only their own professional learning and leadership, but crucially on the learning of their students and colleagues also. Dr Nancy Fictman-Dana’s keynote provided a great blend of theory and examples of practice on this approach as did the session from P.K. Yonge Developmental Research School which I attended. All of this helped reinforce the enquiring approach we have taken to supporting the development of teacher leadership through our Teacher Leadership Programme and Enquire Connect Engage events.

The final theme which I think is worth sharing from the conference was the extremely strong sense of a drive for equity at the conference. This was not only evident in all of the discussions and presentations, I was particularly struck by the fact all of the examples of teacher inquiries which were shared had a very strong sense of equity at their heart also. Whilst focused on inquiring into aspects of classroom practice, they were all also motivated to address issues of equity and social justice in their classrooms and beyond. Whilst the vast majority of the examples I heard were from the US, which is obviously a different context, we in Scotland are also passionate about achieving equity, however I’m not sure if this is always as prominent in our thinking when taking an enquiring approach to our practice as I’ve seen here. When designing an intervention are we always able to clearly articulate which injustices this might help alleviate in our contexts and have we always ensured that they aren’t going to create additional injustices? I know that the answers to these questions can often be yes, but are we as consistent in this as we could be? And to what extent is the current iteration of the Teacher Leadership Programme supporting and encouraging this sort of thinking is what I’m left wondering?

As you can most likely tell, it was an extremely stimulating conference which has left me a lot to think about. I would like to thank the organisers, sponsors, presenters and attendees for a great experience and of course the team at SCEL for supporting me to be here.

You can download the papers shared at the conference and you can also look back over the tweets from the conference using the hashtag #TLconference.

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  • Thoroughly enjoyed your article on teacher leadership, Fearghal. Delighted that you could share Dunoon’s definition of a good teacher, as good as any definition that I have come across in my time. It is about time that Scotland was leading the world again!

    Re teacher leaders and teacher leadership, I still think that there is value in distinguishing between the power of voluntary sharing of expertise and experiences among teachers that may be termed collaborative learning and the line management power of, say, a head of department – particularly with regard to facilitating the meeting times that will encourage colleagues, as you were encouraged, to participate in collaborative learning in the first place!

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