Ready to Lead, but How? Teachers’ Experiences in High-Poverty Urban Schools
by Susan Moore Johnson, Stefanie K. Reinhorn, Megin Charner-Laird, Matthew A. Kraft, Monica Ng & John P. Papay - 2014
Background/Context:Many strategies to improve failing urban schools rest on efforts to improve leadership within the school. Effective school-based leadership depends not only on the activities of the principal, but also on teachers’ efforts to address school-wide challenges. Research has shown that the principal is pivotal in such ventures, but we know little about how teachers conceive of their role in leadership, how they respond to opportunities provided or denied by their principal, or how they initiate leadership on their own.
Purpose: We studied how teachers in six high-poverty urban schools participate in leadership beyond their classroom. We asked: What role do teachers in high-poverty urban schools play in their school’s improvement? How do principals conceive of teachers’ potential for leadership and how do they act on it? How do teachers respond to the opportunities and constrains they encounter as they seek to exercise leadership in their schools?
Research Design: We interviewed 95 teachers and administrators in six high-poverty schools of one large urban district (two elementary schools, one K–8 school, one middle school, and two high schools). The schools, which served large proportions of low-income and minority students, had varying records of student performance.
Data Collection and Analysis: In each school, we interviewed the principal, other administrators, and a broad sample of teachers. We reviewed documents and observed day-to-day practices. After writing a structured, thematic summary for each respondent and school, we coded all transcripts and analyzed themes and practices within and across schools.
Findings: Teachers were willing and ready to address their school’s challenges. They conditionally granted their principal discretion in setting the agenda, based on the perceived authority and expertise of the principal and teachers’ opportunities for engagement as partners. When the principal took an instrumental approach to their contributions, teachers resented it, withdrew to their classrooms, and considered leaving the school. When the principal took an inclusive approach, demonstrating genuine interest in their views and contributions, teachers invested in school-wide reforms.
Conclusions/Recommendation: Although a principal may develop a strategic plan for improvement, that plan cannot simply be “rolled out.” Doing so without teachers’ contributions and endorsement likely means that the plan is incomplete and will be rejected outright or adopted perfunctorily. District administrators should select and develop principals who take an inclusive approach to teacher leadership. Policy makers and researchers should go beyond assessing the success of specific reforms and study the process of change within schools as reforms are developed and implemented.
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