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“Teacher Leadership in the Aftermath of a Pandemic #2: Learning lessons”, by Barnett Berry.

"It is increasingly implausible that we could improve the performance of schools . . . without promoting leadership in teaching by teachers." —Judith Warren Little (1988) --

COVID-19 has ripped off the band-aid off quite a bit of the recent efforts to fix public education — such tighter curriculum requirements and test-based teacher evaluation. In doing so the pandemic has exposed deep inequities in opportunities for young people to learn, and how top-down approaches to education reform inevitably fall short of the mark as they have not accounted for all of the out of school factors undermining student achievement.  COVID-19 also has bared how most schools are not well-organized to serve the needs of children so critical for academic achievement and life success.

The pain of school closures has made painfully visible the valuable role teachers can play in not just teaching but also caring for students. Ben shows how teachers are leading in bold ways. And Armand has pointed out technology has proven to be no panacea in the time of the pandemic, and teachers are leading the kinds of personalized, learner-centered education that every child deserves and needs.

Despite the lack of broadband access for so many students, teachers have gone well beyond their portfolio of duties to ensure their students are engaged in deeper learning as the crisis has liberated many of them to innovate and teach well-beyond curriculum mandates and scripted lessons designed to improve standardized test scores. So many are using every tool at their disposal — text, phone, television, radio, and learning management or video conferencing systems as well as virtual reality (VR). Many are experimenting with other previously unimaginable forms of pedagogies.

Granted, most countries teacher leadership is still a work in progress — in part because most teachers have too little voice in teaching and learning policies as well as limited time and space to learn from each other and spread their expertise. There are exceptions. Top performing nations, like Singapore and Finland have well-developed systems of teacher leadership. (The former is very formal; the latter is very informal.)

The pandemic has made it clear that teacher leadership can no longer be about a few classroom experts who can climb up a few rungs on yet another hierarchical career ladder. It must be viewed about teachers’ informal and collaborative work as having greater impact on school improvement than formal efforts directed by school administrators. The crisis is beginning to push school administrators to rethink siloed people and programs to serve the whole child – the academic as well as the physical and mental health of every one of our students.  It is beginning to prompt social service and health care agencies to collaborate with school districts. It is beginning to encourage the rethinking of archaic forms of organizing schooling, and getting beyondone teacher per classroom model of teaching and learning.

Over the last several years researchers have learned more about how teachers learn to lead and how their leadership improves student outcomes (and countermands current teacher shortages). In the United States, 3 in 4 teachers are engaged in learning on their own outside of school systems, and 1 in 3 are spreading their expertise in a growing array of formal and informal networks where their expertise is becoming more known to the public.

Across the globe momentum is growing as the Education Commission is now advancing new educator workforce designs that harness learning teams that use common evidence to transform teaching and learning. Teacher unions are calling for new forms of leadership systems. In the U.S., Arizona State University is demonstrating the role of teacher education can play in the redesign of the teaching profession that defines new roles for student teachers and creates team structures for in-service educators.

We see administrators and teachers together re-imagining staffing schools in more than 1.0 Full-Time Equivalents (FTEs), like we see in Singapore’s system of education and what is prevalent in higher education.  Then we begin to consider how school systems can draw on professionals from different sectors to serve the whole child — and how cross sector collaboration can free up time and money and bring together once-siloed teachers. We see a core group of well-prepared, fully licensed teachers in the middle and at the heart of the education delivery system. We expect they will meet the highest standards of practice, like our best trained and well-utilized medical doctors who work with a wide array of specialists, technicians, experts, volunteers, university faculty and students.

 The transformation of teacher leadership will come in three waves:

1.    Administrators document more carefully how teachers are leading and innovating.

2.    School districts and state education agencies recognize teachers’ expertise, and rethink schedules and calendars to ensure more classroom experts can lead without leaving the classroom, including the reinvention of assessment and accountability in education.

3.    A pre-primary-to-higher education system is unified with other community-based organizations, offering physical and social-emotional health supports, afterschool programs, and workforce development training.  

For most of its history, education has been a socially conservative enterprise. And while everyone wants schools to get better, few want schools to look any different than when they were students in them. Perhaps the crisis of the pandemic will shake us loose from our conventional wisdom and move to a system of student-centered learning and schooling driven by teachers who teach and lead.

Decades ago, Judith Warren Little, one of leading scholars of teacher leadership, made the case that it was “increasingly implausible that we could improve the performance of schools . . . without promoting leadership in teaching by teachers.”  Now, in the aftermath of COVID-19 it will be impossible for schools to teach and serve students without a bold brand of teacher leadership for a community-wide system of whole child education.

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Note: This article is one of three excerpts from “Teacher Leadership in the Aftermath of a Pandemic: The Now, The Dance, The Transformation”, by Barnett Berry, Armand Doucet, and Ben Owens. You can read the other two here: “Teacher Leadership in the Aftermath of a Pandemic #1: Taking stock”, by Ben Owens and “Teacher Leadership in the Aftermath of a Pandemic #3: Moving forward”, by Armand Doucet.


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Barnett Berry

Barnett Berry is a research professor at the University of South Carolina where he lead ALL4SC—where the assets of the entire university are marshalled to serve the needs of high need public school communities. He was founder of the Center for Teaching Quality, a non-profit incubator of teacher leadership, working with 1000s of teachers from across the globe. For over 40 years Barnett has supported, as researcher and advocate, the professionalization of teaching to advance a more equitable public education system and improved outcomes for every student. He has published widely in both peer-review and trade journals and is author of Teaching 2030 as well as Teacherpreneurs: Innovative Teachers Who Lead Without Leaving.

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