Pathways to Teacher Leadership: Emerging Models, Changing Roles
reviewed by Ellen Wexler Eckman - March 23, 2015
Title: Pathways to Teacher Leadership: Emerging Models, Changing Roles
Author(s): Marya R. Levenson
Publisher: Harvard University Press, Cambridge
ISBN: 1612506542, Pages: 176, Year: 2014
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Marya Levenson begins Pathways to Teacher Leadership: Emerging Models, Changing Roles with a broad definition of teacher leadership: teachers are leaders when they act to improve instruction, strengthen the culture and organization of schools, or speak out on policies and practices that affect schools (p. 2). In the first three chapters, Levenson provides brief descriptions of teachers from very distinctive types of secondary schoolspublic, suburban, rural, city-charter, and mission-driven. The individuals she portrays as teacher leaders have accepted additional responsibilities beyond their classrooms (e.g., organizing prom, advising student extracurricular activities, assisting with teacher reflection groups), developed an action research project, and/or were mentored into semi-formal leadership positions. For some of these teachers, the reader learns about their career trajectories; for others, one is left to speculate about whether they continued as teacher leaders, grew into formal leaders, or left the education field entirely.
In Chapter Four, Levenson focuses on the role principals play in developing and supporting teacher leaders by describing the work of three female principals: one at the large suburban Boston area high school that is mentioned in the earlier chapters, another at a small NYC urban high school, and the third at a Boston area charter school. Based on the portrayal of these principals, Levenson concludes, teacher leadership becomes a high priority in a school only if it is a significant priority for at least one person who has power and access to resources (p. 95). Her viewpoint seems to be that it is the principals who advocate, develop, and nurture teacher leaders, with time, training, and mentoring; it is also plausible that the teachers themselves seek leadership opportunities beyond their classrooms.
In Chapters Five and Six, Levenson describes some alternative models for school leadership, such as a small teacher led alternative school in Ohio and teacher cohort led schools in Massachusetts. She argues here that teacher leadership should not be created by asking teachers to volunteer their time and efforts as informal leaders on top of their demanding work as classroom teachers (p. 116). She is especially critical of charter and turn-around schools that place first and second year teachers in leadership roles without sufficient experience, support, or resources. She also recognizes that being a good teacher is not sufficient preparation for being a teacher leader; teacher leadership demands new skills and dispositions (p. 119). Finally, she questions whether teacher leadership can be sustained when the teacher leaders or their supportive principals leave the school.
In the conclusion, Levenson acknowledges that these secondary school teacher leaders are really serving in informal or semi-formal leadership positions (p. 141). She notes that the teachers in their first or second year in charter or mission-driven schools are required to take on numerous roles beyond their classrooms. Only a few of the teachers receive released time, additional pay, or recognition for being teacher leaders; instead, they assume these quasi-administrative responsibilities on top of their regular teaching loads. Levenson concedes that this model is not sustainable for individual teachers or their schools.
While this book provides a useful overview of teacher and principal leadership roles, I was troubled by many limitations. First, Levenson provides descriptions of teachers and principals from very distinct types of secondary schoolsa suburban high school in the Boston area, a rural/suburban high school in western Massachusetts, a mission driven urban school (p. 38), a high performing charter school (p. 39), a Boston pilot-school, and a co-led alternative school in Ohiowithout providing sufficient information on the individual schools and how they were selected. The reader is left to determine the most significant elements for creating and supporting the development of teacher leaders: the type and location of a school, the role of the principal, or even the universities attended by the participants? This latter point is noteworthy as Levenson frequently mentions that the interviewees are from liberal arts colleges and universities in the Northeast and were participants in the Consortium for Excellence in Teacher Education hosted by Brandeis University, where she is a professor.
Secondly, Levenson limits the research to secondary school teachers because, as she argues, most elementary school teachers have support from mathematics and literacy coaches, though she readily admits that many of these coaches have been eliminated by budget cuts (p. 12). Levenson indicates that secondary school teachers are more interested in leadership and more constrained by their lack of feedback from colleagues when compared to their elementary school colleagues (p. 12); unfortunately, Levenson does not substantiate these claims.
Levenson also fails to adequately address the role gender plays in educational leadership. The teachers and principals that she portrays as teacher leaders or supporters of teacher leadership are all female. Only a few male teachers are even described: one is a co-leader who Levenson characterizes as assuming the usual principal roles of discipline and facilities management in the teacher-led school (p. 104); another exhibits an interest in teacher leadership, but then leaves education after four or five years; and another three male teachers are described as serving as department chairs in the large suburban high school. Interestingly, Levenson includes a lengthy parenthetical comment in Chapter Three, where she argues, women educators who want to become leaders may need to be supported as they learn to be selective about which tasks they agree to assume (p. 67). It is not clear why this is a parenthetical remark rather than an issue that should be explored in more depth.
Levenson also fails to acknowledge the dominance of the traditional path to administration: the move along a career path from teacher, to department chair, to principal, and then superintendentthe same career path that Levenson followed. Is teacher leadership or informal and quasi-leadership (p. 141) the way female teachers become leaders in their secondary schools, rather than being recognized and rewarded as formal leaders and administrators?
I would have preferred if the research in the first three chapters had been expanded and more completely examined so that the nuances of school and state contexts and leadership opportunities were more clearly delineated. If Levenson had followed the participants for a longer time period, we would have learned how they developed and practiced their leadershipwhether in or outside of their classrooms, as department chairs, principals, or superintendents, or if they even remained in education.
The final two chapters on new organizational models and current educational policies could stand on their own. They present a clear challenge from an experienced teacher, administrator, and professor to the educational reform movements that do not truly value the role of the teacher. Levenson offers a comment from Marc Tucker, president of the National Center on Education and the Economy, that summarizes her stance on these educational reforms: It is not possible to make progress with your students if you are at war with your teachers (p. 127).