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Working alongside teachers and leading collaboratively

Written by Christina Cantrill
January 22, 2012

Lieberman and Friedrich write about how teachers in their study uses many phrases to describe the often behind-the-scenes work of leadership. These include “working alongside” other teachers and leading “collaboratively” … also “grass-roots” “helping people find their strengths” “teacher to teacher” etc. They write, “teacher leadership is equalitarian and respectful of teachers’ knowledge.”

In my research and interviews, this came up in various ways. I saw these five teachers being explicit about these collaboration as well as noticed them working “behind-the-scenes”.

For example, in relation to the significance of the work that she does online, Lacy talked about relationships being key. She said ”the significance … about talking with teachers [online] are the relationships. … [and the] sustaining or availability to touch back to people.“ Her online activities demonstration this whether she is tweeting out something said by a colleague, sharing a resource with another, celebrating a success, or giving feedback to a colleague on their work.

Meenoo talked about teacher leaders she looks up to being “generous and curious” and she said that “teacher leaders are generous not only when they do something well, but when they fail at something.” During the course of my research, Meenoo was profiled in an article of the New York Times Learning Network about twitter chats, Teachers Teaching Teachers, on Twitter. In her interview, Meenoo was quoted as saying,

Teachers have collective wisdom and we can crowdsource some of common issues we all face in the classroom. By participating in these peer-to-peer forums, teachers are really teaching other teachers. They are willing to share their expertise and are also willing to learn from other teachers. There is real power and potential for positive change in education in these niche communities.

And, in my interview with her, Meenoo also named that it can be hard work to do.

it’s hard to do [these] things in thoughtful and in meaningful ways that not only allows you to follow your own questions but also helps others .. learn along with you.

Paul, reflecting on his work as well as the weekly nature of #engchat that Meenoo facilitates and the relationships that Lacy mentioned, said that he feels “an important part of leadership … is always being there.” He goes on further to explain, “People knowing they can do something else for awhile and then come back and reconnect.“

Lacy responded to this idea and related it to the way a community like the writing project is also there for teachers. Here is a conversation about this between Paul and Lacy:

Paul: … those of us who are [online] all the time allow other leaders to come up and down. If everyone came and went then it would be really confusing. So having some established places allows for people to come up and be a leader for a few weeks and then pull back.

Lacy: I was … thinking about the idea of space and some kind of organization that allows people to flow in and out. And I was thinking about the writing project as that kind of idea, not [just] as a physical space but this common project that allows people to come in and out and have this connection.

Paul also talked about “minding the gap” as an essential part of teacher leadership. He described it in this way,

there are a lot of exploratory and wonderful things that I see other teachers doing that I’d like to do too. But if I can’t do it with relatively free tools [and] if I can’t imagine my colleague next door doing it … then that is not the most important part of my work. …

Bud began with a reflection his own learning and then brought this back to the various ways that he continues to share his learning:

I came to blogging because I was trying to figure out a way to make writing instruction relevant for my high school students. Along the way I rediscovered why writing was important to me.

He then goes on to say that he is also now intentionally using the tools and spaces in such a way that might model for others, and demonstrate what he “would like to see in the discourse” such as “sharing stuff, wondering about things, writing, play.” 

As Chad talks about agency and creating spaces where teachers have “permission to speak” as something important to his leadership, he was carefully not to say that he was giving permission to others but rather that,

‘permission to speak’ are spaces where people give themselves permission … where people come and realize they do have permission to speak and they can claim that authority for themselves. And it’s all going to be okay.”

And, in the “working alongside” model, he says “teacher leaders shouldn’t be concerned with sharing their discoveries so much as they should be concerned with helping others make their own moral and intellectual discoveries.”

During my interview with Meenoo too, she elaborated more on being a teacher leader in a way that I think is both self-reflective and mindful of the ways others start to emerge as leaders. She said, “you don’t just wake up one morning and [say] ‘I’m a teacher leader’! Someone had to trust you and give you that space … you are really scared at first, and you have the support whether that is local support or someone across the country. And I think that more teachers need that.” She spoke about teacher leaders that she respects being those who are also willing to push back sometimes and that this kind of questioning has shown her the depth of the work as well as the respect for each other and the craft of teaching.