THE BLOG
08/15/2014 10:34 am ET | Updated Oct 15, 2014

Teacher Leadership As Adaptive Leadership

The idea that teachers can, do, and even should take on leadership roles in transforming education seems to be gaining ground. Recent national initiatives, such as President Obama's plan to create a national Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) Master Teacher Corps and the Department of Education's Teach to Lead initiative, are indicators that this vision of teachers as leaders and catalysts of improvement has taken root at the highest levels of our educational system.

The Teacher Leader Model Standards -- developed by a diverse group of education organizations, institutions of higher education, and state education agencies -- map out a set of seven domains in which teachers act as leaders. A wide range of programs -- some located within schools or districts, others based in universities or other organizations -- seek to support and leverage teachers as leaders.

But we are still in the process of developing a clear understanding of what teacher leadership looks like, how teachers develop into leaders, and the effects of teacher leadership. While there is a growing body of knowledge about teacher leadership (see the exemplars on the Teacher Leader Model Standards for a sample), relatively little is generated by teachers, for teachers. And while (appropriately, I think) there seems to be increasing agreement that teacher leadership is a good and necessary thing to cultivate, there doesn't seem to be much clarity or agreement as to why or how, which is essential given the recent attention to (and investment in) teacher leadership and its potential for bringing about sustained improvement.

Too often, it seems as if leadership in education gets equated with administration -- those who are no longer teaching (or, perhaps, never taught at all). Arne Duncan recently tweeted "Want great school leaders? Give great teachers a chance to lead" --and then linked to a program that turns teachers into principals. I applaud teachers who seek to build on classroom experience to become effective administrators and appreciate programs that support them in doing so.

But I object, strenuously, to the implicit message that teachers can only enact leadership by leaving teaching behind. Why is it so hard for us to imagine teaching and leading as overlapping, even complementary, functions? I've written a bit about this struggle in an earlier post, but I think there is a deeper issue at stake here that is worth diving into: we (the general public) struggle with the idea of teacher leadership, because we don't really understand teaching. At all.

True, most of us have been students, quite often for 12 or more years of our lives. And because of this, it's easy to think that we've accumulated enough experience with teachers to know at least what teaching is, perhaps even how it ought to be. But schools have changed and will continue to do so. U.S. demographics have changed dramatically; students are increasingly poor, not white, and speak languages other than English as their first language.

What students need to know and be able to do to survive and thrive in the world is changing so fast it's mind-boggling. And anyone who has tried to teach and paid attention to the results can tell you that effective teaching is complex, nuanced, and, at times, overwhelmingly difficult. The big issues we struggle with in education, such as widespread inequities and keeping pace with a rapidly changing world are, in the language of Ronald Heifetz and his colleagues, adaptive challenges. Heifetz, a scholar of leadership at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and founder of the Center for Public Leadership, defines adaptive challenges as "the gap between the values people stand for (that constitute thriving) and the reality that they face (their current lack of capacity to realize those values in their environment)." According to Heifetz and Linsky:

Leadership would be an easy and safe undertaking if organizations [such as schools] and communities only faced problems for which they already knew the solutions. Every day people have problems for which they do, in fact, have the necessary know-how and procedures. We call these technical problems. But there is a whole host of problems that are not amenable to authoritative expertise or standard operating procedures. They cannot be solved by someone who provides the answers from on high. We call these adaptive challenges because they require new experiments, new discoveries and adjustments from numerous places in the organization [classroom or school].

Some problems in education can be solved by the application of current knowledge; these are the technical problems referenced in the above quote. But teachers who confront the big issues day in and day out know that prescriptive "solutions" provided from on high rarely, if ever, work. In particular, the seemingly obvious, one-size-fits-all approaches that seem to migrate from other professions like business and medicine, almost never work in education -- or not for long, and certainly not for everyone. In fact, the practice of teaching, at its best and most powerful, is always an adaptive challenge, moment to moment, as no two teachers, students, classrooms or schools are ever alike.

But adaptive challenges require adaptive leadership, that is, leadership that relies on collective intelligence at all levels of the system and a willingness of stakeholders to learn their way to solutions. In the case of classrooms, schools, districts, and beyond, adaptive leadership cannot be the sole provenance of principals and superintendents. By definition, teachers MUST be involved in adaptive leadership, and adaptive challenges cannot be overcome without them.

So what might adaptive teacher leadership look like and how can we support the development adaptive leadership capacity in teachers? There is no easy answer to this question, but a first step is recognizing that adaptive teacher leadership must be a collective, collaborative effort of teachers that results in a whole greater than the sum of its parts. It hinges on iterative processes of observation and interpretation and designing and testing solutions to identified challenges.

These activities are not foreign to teachers, and in fact are, in essence, the core activities of practitioner inquiry, action research, and other forms of teacher research that are widely practiced, if not necessarily widely respected or relied upon in the U.S.

As the Teacher Leader Model Standards make clear, there are a wide range of formal and informal leadership roles in the profession and in the broader educational endeavor. But it seems likely that the skills and knowledge teachers might need to successfully influence policymakers, for example, are radically different than those they'd need to mobilize their colleagues to study and understand how their students of color and students living in poverty are experiencing school. If different teacher leadership roles require different skills and knowledge, then it follows that there should also be different ways of supporting teachers to take on those roles. But what if teachers need to be prepared to act as leaders as new challenges present themselves? Are there common, foundational skills to all teacher leadership roles? Applying the lens of adaptive leadership suggests there are at least two: collaboration and inquiry.

In the 12 years since the Knowles Science Teaching Foundation launched the Teaching Fellows Program (a cohesive, five-year professional development experience for beginning high school science and math teachers), we have learned the importance of helping teachers (especially brand new teachers) build skills in both collaboration and inquiry. We're in the process of documenting the explicit steps we take to help teachers build these skills and use them to act as agents of educational improvement in their local contexts and beyond, and studying the effects. While we intend to invite critique and engage in broader discussions about teacher leadership once those findings are published, I'm hoping this forum might spark productive conversations now. What might be gained from framing teacher leadership as adaptive leadership? What kinds of challenges might be surmounted when teachers are supported to collaborate and engage in inquiry as foundational skills of adaptive leadership?

Answering these questions will not be easy. But engaging in the conversation can help shift the the way we think about reform -- from the top-down, outside-in endeavor that has never really worked, to a grass-roots, teacher-led effort that transforms the system from the inside out.