Episode 11: Fostering a Culture of Teacher Leadership

SLI Director and host Joanne Jarvis, Associate Professor Susan Lovett from the University of Canterbury, New Zealand, and SLI Principal Craig Brown, explore fostering a culture of teacher leadership and reflect on their own experiences.

Part 1

INTRO: School leaders play a vital role in providing every student in NSW public schools with a great education and the best start in life. They have a positive impact in classrooms and on their staff; they guide teacher development and engage their communities. Here at the NSW Department of Education's School Leadership Institute, our mission is to support all NSW public school leaders by providing world class, evidence-informed leadership development programs and resources.

Our podcasts will explore the key issues and challenges of school leadership. Hosted by Joanne Jarvis, the director of the School Leadership Institute - tune in and listen to our guests and colleagues share their expertise, insights and wisdom on leading with purpose and impact. Welcome to our Leadership in Focus series

JO: Hello and welcome to episode 11 of the Leadership Conversations Podcast series. I'm Joanne Jarvis and I'm the Director of the New South Wales Department of Education's School Leadership Institute. This will be a two part series where we will be exploring the importance of teacher leadership. With me today is Susan Lovett. Susan is an associate professor in Educational Leadership at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand. As the postgraduate coordinator of the leadership endorsement in the Master of Education Program, she has taken on the challenge of enthusing teachers about leadership work and deepening insights about leadership practices. Susan attributes her interest in teacher leadership to involvement in a national research study called Teachers of Promise from 2005 to 2011, with a New Zealand Council for Educational Research. Susan has continued to publish articles on teacher leadership and the connection between teaching, learning and leading.

Also with me today is Craig Brown, a principal on the School Leadership Institute team who has an incredibly keen interest in teacher leadership and will be able to offer his insights into this important topic. It's a real privilege to have you both join me today as we discuss this work.

SUSAN: My pleasure, too. This topic really matters to me, and it's one I'm still grappling with, and it's been the impetus for my academic work.

CRAIG: And hello, Susan and Joanne, great to be here.

JO: Well, thank you both. Let's start with a question for you, Susan. In an article published in the Leading and Managing Journal, you referred to teacher leadership as the sleeping Giant. So I'm really interested in exploring with you what teacher leadership is and how it is defined in academic literature.

SUSAN: The concept of the sleeping giant originates from Katzenmeyer and Muller, who began using this measure for in 1996, and it's captivated my attention since that time looking at the literature. For their work, they've actually devoted three adaptions with the same title. And the co title is about helping teachers develop as leader. So you can imagine that as an academic and a university setting responsible for the leadership endorsement, helping teachers to say that they can lead and are leading is really important work because we need teachers for the future.

We need leaders for the future. And if we don't look after teachers and that space without gaining confidence, we're missing out. And it really matters that teachers, along with other professions, are thinking, 'Well is this for me, should I try something else?' So the sleeping giant is a call for action and I find it really interesting that this call for action is still as apt as it was in 1996, and also troubles me that we haven't answered that.

And perhaps our conversation today will traverse why it has been a concept that has puzzled a lot of people, including me.

JO: Who are the teacher leaders?

SUSAN: This is an important question, and that's a puzzle. It's still puzzling people because the dominant conception of leadership is, according to those who are given a title, a named role. And we have numerous examples curriculum leaders, principals, deputy principals and so on.

So we had no difficulty in talking about how those kinds of formal leaders are because they have the title. We know who the person is and we can remember and imagine what their work might be because they are formal job descriptions. What is less clear is another kind of leadership and a kind of leadership that we would want to encourage, which is leadership that can occur from day one on the profession when teachers as colleagues are talking about practice.

And here what brings them together is the work they do for students, what's called in the literature and again, a key phrase in your program at the institute is the words moral purpose. So if you shift the focus from leader, a person, the individual with a named role, typically a formal role, to leadership is collective work where it's a more inclusive space for which many participants can join, whether they call themselves a leader or not.

And part of the problem is that we have teachers who just say, 'I'm just a teacher', and they don't see themselves as influencing their colleagues when in fact when they're making conversations about what works in the classroom, they are sharing ideas, they are making sense together. And that is a space where leadership grows at whatever kind. So we need to encourage both forms of leadership and how we use language is where I have spent a lot of my academic time, and a search to find the right words.

And I've come across the space for more inclusive, broader conceptions of leadership away from just as a formal role, described as informal or non positional, and I had trouble with both of those options because they seemed to reinforce that it's everything that's not formal, but we're none the wiser about what it is that's not formal, it's too broad and it's not specific enough.

So we have a problem. I'm not suggesting that we should abandon the concept of teacher leadership. And in fact, people have been trying very hard to gain clarity and reach consensus. And for example, with the American Educational Research Association, which tracks 12 to 15000 people each year to its annual meeting, it has a special interest group devoted to teacher leadership, and they have tried for five years to gain this clarity and consensus that I've been talking about and what they resolved was to agree to disagree, which I find fascinating. So where does this leave us? I think we have an urgent need to excite people about leadership work and what it does. And that does not mean thinking that people are a teacher at one stage in their career and then they advance into a leader role or position, but rather that they see their time in the profession being about the work that they do for students.

So that it's thinking of teaching, learning and leading together. They're not one and then the other. So there's more fluid movement where it's not just about me and my success, but a collective sense of the work that is done by everybody in making sense of practice, realising that expertise is strengthened, deepened by conversations with colleagues.

It's here that conversations about what works and why become the feeding ground for leadership influence, whether you have a name title or not. And I think what we want to do is to help every teacher to see that they have a contribution to the profession, to their colleagues in the workplace, because by golly, they need each other to be able to make those deeper meanings.

So it is about relationships. It's thinking about three words competence, relatedness and autonomy, being able to meet one's own needs, and also help other people. So leadership as collective work, leadership as the activity we do for students; leadership as practice, I think, offer a more inviting way to say what we are conveying in the policy, which I imagine you have is the statement that every teacher can be a leader.

And yet when we reward teachers as leaders with a title, we are saying to everybody else, well, you don't you don't matter here. We're not recognising you. We're not rewarding you with time and salary increment status. And that's why this notion right from day one on the profession, if we understand that leadership is something that we can all do and it's why we're in probation, we need to talk about that contribution to the wider profession so that we are connected with our colleagues.

JO: Craig, how do Susan's comments resonate with you in the work that you've been leading across schools in New South Wales?

CRAIG: I think Joanne, Susan's comments are quite revolutionary in a way, is that they're very provocative. We're working in a public school system which has a proud 175 year history, and I would say that teacher leadership has been around for all those 175 years.

And the work that my team does in schools would suggest that the concept of teacher leadership is not terribly well understood. And that is probably a result of what Susan's suggesting around how we use language and how there's this propensity within our system and I think Susan, probably other systems too, where we want to separate teaching from leading rather than saying that they are incredibly closely related.

And the fact that you can lead through teaching. But when we're out in the field, Joanne, with teachers and people that we believe are teacher leaders and formal school leaders, what we see is when we explain the concept of teacher leadership and how teacher leaders have that expanding sphere of influence where their impacting on the learning of students beyond their class and colleagues beyond themselves, those teachers and those formal school leaders instantly recognise what that concept is and the importance of that concept, because teacher leadership matters.

I think it matters at an individual level, I think it matters at a school level and it most certainly matters at a systems level. And I think that now our Department of Education has a School Leadership Institute. We have a leadership continuum where teacher leadership is formally called out and we are working in schools around identifying and developing teachers.

I think slowly that message is going to get out. But the point I'd come back to is we need to keep having dialogue with our colleagues about how teachers can begin leading as a process right from their first day in the classroom. And that leadership is not just positional. And I think there's always a danger and obstacle, if you like, that the thinking of leadership is as a position, and teaching as a separate entity that continues to be passed down from one generation of teachers to the next. And so we need a way to break that nexus.

JO: You've both called out powerfully that we're really talking about this sense of influence. And both of us have led schools and we could easily name multiple teacher leaders who have been so incredibly influential and impactful on their colleagues, but also on the students that they are serving as well.

I'm going to come back to you, Susan. Why you've referenced this already, but let's explore a little more deeply why it's important to nurture and sustain teacher leadership practices in schools.

SUSAN: Following on from the previous topic, why we need to nurture teacher leadership is that we're thinking about job satisfaction, having people excited about the work and learning as a pulse, professional learning as a pulse that should be beating hard. And if it's the lifeblood, it's the reason people turn up for work and being surrounded by colleagues who will talk about their practice, who will ask questions, who will be respectful in their conversations no matter someone's status.

That's where we need to concentrate. And it's not every teacher who finds themselves in an environment that allows them to thrive because that pulse may be toxic. It may not be safe to ask questions about practice. So tied with that is recognition and this keeps coming to the surface in conversations about teacher leadership because we may refer to formal leader titles, we are reinforcing the rewards, the recognition.

But what does that say about teachers who don't have those titles? Are they useless? Are they forgotten? What is the profession doing? Is it ignoring its obligation to everybody? So give them a nudge when they need it. So I think it behoves everybody to see their colleagues as people who have something to offer everybody and developing safe relationships can be modelled by everybody.

And it's to create sense making culture that I think is the practice ground for leadership spheres of influence and naming those, calling what leadership is all the time will reinforce it.

JO: I love the way you've used the term professional learning pulse that is conveying that sense that as those informal leadership positions are really inspiring the development of everybody, regardless of whether they have a title or not, as it creates a culture that enables everybody to flourish, doesn't it?

And I think that leadership learning can start really early on. It's even said by Katzenmeyer and Moller that it should start in a national teacher education grant. There's some difficulty there because the initial teacher education program is already chockfull and teacher education programs are blamed for the quality and supply of teachers repeatedly.

But I think our mission and it certainly rides my academic mission, has been to talk about what leadership is, the scope of it, and to try and make it sound appealing, that it's worthwhile work and that it's not just what we hear about principals toiling over, that it's stressful that standards are dropping. We need to talk it up, that the work of the profession is rewarded so that we don't put people off.

And it behoves those in workplaces and in the school setting to take their responsibility seriously that they are valuing everybody no matter what this status is. And surely every beginning teacher can be recognised for having something that they can share with other people. Might be in the technological area. And that's about having conversations, two way conversations, treating everybody as a learner to learn, a conversation rather than an expert to novice.

And that's about developing people's sense pf agency that they are shaping their futures by connecting what their colleagues

CRAIG: Susan, you raised an interesting point there around recognition and in the schools that we've worked with in the past three years, we see that teacher leaders and teachers not only seeking recognition, but they're seeking opportunities for professional learning that's meaningful to them.

They're seeking authentic and honest feedback so they can develop their skills in teaching and leading. And you just raised the notion of voice. We see teacher leaders wanting to have a voice around their core business in the classroom of teaching and learning. They are seeking that school leaders who hold formal positions recognised that they have something to offer in that sphere.

And I think those three things around recognition, opportunity and voice all speak to a trend that we've seen right across many Western jurisdictions, and that is the fact that we're not retaining our early career and middle career teachers. In fact, some figures I saw just recently from Mark McCrindle suggest that up to 66% of teachers in Australia alone have thought about leaving the profession in the last two years.

And I know you mentioned that curriculum is very full, but there's an imperative there to keep teachers in our system who are impacting on the learning of students and other colleagues.

SUSAN: I agree and I'd actually like to talk about professional learning and pick up on that pulse comment that I made earlier because perhaps why we lose losing people in the profession could signal that the kinds of professional learning and development options that they know about and are experiencing are not hitting the spot.

And perhaps there's too much of other people deciding what's good for them at a particular stage. And it's why I think deliberate and an intentional leadership learning from day one offers a lot of merit because as people develop curriculum and strategy, pedagogical strategies, if they also get introduced and exposed to opportunities where they are working with colleagues, that is the beginning of leadership work, self and others and often teacher leaders get leadership opportunities by chance or because they have a specialism advance and it's automatically assumed, 'Oh, would you be good for leading the new resource or whatever it is that's coming out?'

But these teachers may not be used to dealing with colleagues who are resistant, who are feeling overwhelmed, overworked, and wondering why this change when they're already busy.

So how do we think about professional learning and conversations with colleagues that perhaps more experienced colleagues can see themselves as brokers talking about what's available out there, what professional associations, what postgraduate study and just helping to see what's out there, but also including the school and that picture that it's not just leaving people to go outside and find their own way to leadership learning.

JO: Well, that sounds like a good place to end Part one of our two part series. Thank you, Susan and Craig, for your wonderful insights into teacher leadership. For our listeners, please follow the School Leadership Institute on X, formerly Twitter. Our handle is @NSWSLI. For New South Wales Department of Education Staff, you can access our leadership resources on the department's website. Thank you for listening.

Part 2

JO: Hello and welcome to Part 2 of Episode 11 of the Leadership Conversations Podcast series. I'm Joanne Jarvis and I'm the Director of the New South Wales Department of Education's School Leadership Institute. In this episode, we're continuing our discussion on teacher leadership with Susan Lovett and Craig Brown. Susan, in Part one, you commented on the need for leaders to be intentional about shaping the conditions for teacher leaders to develop.

So I'm wondering, Craig, have you noticed practices across schools that demonstrate this?

CRAIG: We have Joanne. And as Susan knows, we developed a framework for identifying and developing teacher leaders called the School Leadership Identification Framework. And we based that around quite an extensive literature review and a study that we did within our own system back in 2020. And it intersects very nicely with what our experiences bring to the table as experienced school leaders and one of the things that we really noted and and we've made this a feature in the framework, is that we give teacher leaders the opportunity to self-reflect on a standardised framework of leadership and then let them choose one or two leadership goals.

And importantly, choose a mentor, someone that they can have a trusting relationship with or someone that they already have a good relationship with that can guide and support their own bespoke program of individual leadership learning over the course of a time that suits them. And we get a lot of positive feedback around that. When the teacher leader is in control of their own learning with the support of significant others within the school.

JO: Susan, in the article that I read that you wrote, it's just a fabulous read. I noticed that you made the point that teacher leaders choose to lead. What do you see as the enablers for that decision to be made? And what would you identify as practices that hinder the growth of teacher leaders?

SUSAN: Well, to start answering that, it troubles me that there are teachers who are making decisions not to lead. Yes, And I've been asking myself, why is that?

Is it because they're not in workplaces that allow their potential to surface? What does that say about them, the profession and its obligation? There has been a lot of work about the conditions and they do relate to professional learning communities everybody needs to read that. What is, I think more helpful now is handing over the responsibility to teachers so that they get beyond this, ‘I'm just a teacher’ or ‘I don't want to be a leader if it means I have to be distanced from classrooms and sitting in an office or away from my colleagues’, because their relationships often change when they are one of the management team, the leadership team They can sense that there's a suspicion about their loyalty.

So this teacher leader space is close to the action. It allows them to retain those connections with colleagues. be connected to students without the trappings of being a line manager, which may not appeal to some of them. They may not want to be that kind of leader and that always surprises some of the course members when I introduce the concept of teacher leadership. That actually hasn't been one that thought about because the track to leadership work is moving up the ladder, moving up the hierarchy towards the principal and getting as far away from the classroom as and even those roles that claim be a foot in both camps, they are still rewarded with a title and in salary, sort of like master teacher or a program leader or something like that. It just shows how constrained we are by language, by rewards, when that's the only kind of leadership that seems to be visible because it's rewarded.

JO: And yet one of the really important facets that you've highlighted in your work is the fact that moral purpose plays a really critical part in our lives. I think from the moment we choose to be a teacher all the way through in our careers, we explore the relationship between moral purpose and the development of teachers into that belief that they can be influential regardless of whether they hold a formal title or not.

SUSAN: Well, that goes back to having professional conversations about practice as the norm. Whether they are in the car park or over the photocopying machine.

But schools could also think about the way that they plan their environment. So that there are places that are conducive for talk and not always reported up the hierarchy.

And that might mean that schools are intentional about what are the skills that underpin these professional learning conversations. How do you use questioning and listening skills, for example, and rapport building to show that you are really interested in what the other person has to say, that you are probing, that you are trying to clarify, that you are not taking control and showing that you are the expert and they are deficient in some way that they need to get their act together.

I find that when we talk about coaching and mentoring, which are very popular courses in any university offering leadership programs, when you start drilling down to help people raise their awareness of the skills that underpin reflective questioning about this learner for learner relationship, you help them to see how a safe and respectful, collegial relationship can emerge.

JO: You mentioned the teacher institutions. We've sort of touched on it a little while ago in this podcast, but if you had the opportunity to perhaps reshape the program, what role do you think, initial teacher training institutions have to support early career teachers?

SUSAN: Well, I think that it's about the relationships with colleagues and it's about how to talk about practice. We talk about being a reflective practitioner, and that's where I think we need to reinforce that the understandings of practice flourish, they deepen when we converse with colleagues. We have to learn how to talk about practice. if we do the, you know, ‘why aren't you doing this’ or close questioning that comes across as an interrogation. And if we are deliberate about letting the other person do the talking and we're just prompting and we are encouraging the nodding and being attentive and committed in our listening, we get far more out because the other person is articulating what they think and they are making meaning through that articulation.

JO: If you could recommend your top 2 to 3 tips for what school principals and their executive might do to create conditions for a strong teacher leadership culture in their school, what would you suggest? And don't feel constrained by the 2 to 3.

SUSAN: I think they need to think carefully about professional learning versus professional development.

Being deliberate about connecting teaching, learning and leading, naming it as a learner to learner relationship so that status doesn't get in the way that those holding formal roles are making connections with practice. They are being deliberate about being leaders of learning. So I think the connection between leading and learning needs to be first of all, it needs to be more broad, it needs to be articulated.

‘This is why I'm coming to classrooms, because I care about student learning. I'm wanting to use the information about what I see to shape options for next steps and professional learning and development.’

Being honest about that connection and getting away from those controlling managerial with the best of intentions. Because I'm not against accountability. But I think the learning is where we need to really pay attention, that we are genuine about our actions, matching the mantra that learning matters no matter who you are, whether you're a teacher, a leader with a title or a student, or take responsibility for it.


That's a very wise list. I wonder, Craig, if you can add your wisdom.


Very hard to follow Associate Professor Lovett on that one, but what I would call out from my four decades as an educational leader and what I've seen in my role in the last four years in supporting the development of teacher leadership, I think Susan's called it out already, and I'll just emphasise it - having time, making time, being intentional about giving time to those professional learning conversations that really matter.

And we all know that schools are busy places and I think the formal leaders and the teachers can get caught up in the reactionary work that can occur in schools with other colleagues and students and parents. But what I do know that if you are intentional about planning and making time as part of a formal program of teacher leadership development, those conversations will happen.

And I think they're very important. And you and Susan were talking around moral purpose. And one of the things that I take great delight in and quite intrigued by when I'm in schools talking to teacher leaders is I ask them, have they considered their why have they considered their moral purpose? And they often struggle with that to answer that question straight away.

So what we'll often do is we'll employ the three whys. You know, why does it matter to you? Why does it matter to the people around you, your students, your colleagues, your school? And why does it matter perhaps to the state, the country, the world? And when do you give them time to think about that and have that conversation in an uninterrupted way, you start to dig in and get some very, very interesting answers that help keep students at the centre of their future decision making. And I'd also argue that coming to that realisation of your why also builds resilience and it gives that fulfilment in what they're doing as a very rewarding profession.


And inherent in all that you have both said is being intentional about a practice of reflection so that is creating the time and space for people to really think deeply about their practice and the impact that they're having on those around them as well. This has been a fascinating discussion and I hope a really impactful one for our listeners as we talk about the need to develop our teachers from the moment they set foot in the classroom.

In fact, I think we've also talked about the importance of what happens when they're in the initial teacher training as well to develop those skills, to have the conversations around practices that they should have all the way through their career.

Susan, what what resources might a teacher leader have access to to support them in their reflections on their leadership development?


One recent tool is a self-assessment tool that teachers can use to determine what counts as teacher leadership or leadership by teachers. And it helps them to explore issues of of their identity, their preparation and development. So this could well form a basis for a framework for discussion with a mentor and the five features of Hunzicker's teacher leadership framework about the work needing to be student centred, like with our discussion about moral purpose earlier the collective work for students that is action oriented, that it's relevant, it's going to make that difference that it's beyond one classroom. It's not just me in my classroom. It's reaching out that sphere of influence and having a positive influence and that it's collaborative. Building into that notion of where we began our conversation saying the dichotomy between leadership according to role and leadership as collective work, this recognition that leadership occurs beyond oneself

JO: Susan. So we're very grateful for your support in this podcast series and invite our listeners to follow us on Twitter @NSWSLI. Thank you for listening.


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