Educational leadership students as teacher leaders

Bobbie Greenlee
Darlene Bruner

Administrators cannot, and should not, be the only leaders in a school. The traditional view of the principal as the sole instructional leader in a school is inadequate given the emphasis on accountability and student learning results (Marsh, 2000; Pellicer & Anderson, 1995). Instead, teachers need to assume more roles and responsibilities of leadership to maximize student achievement.

Teacher leadership is not about just empowering teachers. Rather, it is about organizing the largely untapped resources in teachers to positively affect school change. The practice of teacher leadership is a shared and collective endeavor that creates possibilities for all teachers to become leaders. The literature represents a range of understandings and vague notions about the role of teacher leaders. Whatever the view of teacher leadership, it is nevertheless an inescapable force for school reform (Hopkins, 2001).

Teachers are the core professional resource in every school. As they emerge as school leaders they must be provided opportunities to innovate, develop and learn together. Research studies have found teachers participating in decision-making and collaborative teacher-principal leadership contribute to school effectiveness and significant gains in student learning (Glover, Miller, Gambling, Gough & Johnson, 1999; Katzenmeyer & Moller, 2001; Ovando, 1996; Taylor & Bogotch, 1994).

Traditionally, teachers who want to remain in the classroom and pursue graduate degrees enroll in programs to study curriculum and instruction, while those who want to be principals enroll in educational administration programs. According to Bolman and Deal (1994) teachers are “almost never provided with lenses to help them understand the nature of leadership and the complex systems in which leadership is exercised.”

Sherrill (1999) reported that teacher leader roles called for in current reform efforts need greater definition and more purposeful preparation. Hackney and Henderson (1999) propose discontinuing the separate graduate education of future administrators and teachers. “If inquiry-based democratic school leadership is to be made operational in the schools, both teachers and administrators must understand theoretically and practically what that will mean” (p. 72).

Educational Leadership programs are designed to prepare credentialed school administrators. However, many of the participants in this program wish to assume more active roles in education reform and school renewal without moving to administration. From these ranks emerge school leaders with considerable knowledge in fiscal and personnel management, legal issues, design and development of curricula, delivery and assessment of instruction and contextual understanding of leadership and policy development.


The questions we sought to answer in this study are:

  • How do Educational Leadership students define teacher leadership?
  • How do teachers actually participate in decision-making?
  • How do principals accept and accommodate Educational Leadership students as teacher leaders?
  • What is the perceived influence on decision-making and change capacity of Educational Leadership students as teacher leaders?

Participants were 108 Educational Leadership students at the local university who are enrolled in graduate program to become school principals. Using a qualitative research design, multiple participants provided experiences and perceptions from their own perspectives to inform, support or challenge assumptions about teacher leadership.

Data were collected with surveys that included open-ended questions and statements using a 4-point Likert-like scale indicating their level of involvement in leadership decisions and actions at their school. All 108 participants were surveyed with open-ended questions, while 64 of the participants also responded to the Likert-like survey.

Analysis Of Results

Perceptions of teacher leader behavior

Individual comments from participants reflected themes that identified distinct forms of teacher leadership. Teacher leaders were described as expert teachers who mentor, share ideas, help others, take on action research, take risks, and participate in professional development. Yet, others indicated that teacher leaders exercised “influence on administration”, “influence over others”, “play an important role in school decisions”, “have input on school matters”, “offers an opinion that is very persuasive”, and “have the ear of the principal.” Others presented an image of teacher leaders involved in activities “above and beyond their classroom duties” and “performed outside the scope of the classroom teacher.” There were a few comments that teacher leaders assumed positions and roles of leadership, have the benefit of increased participation on committees, and are usually “put in charge” as department heads.

Involvement in decision-making

Numerous research studies have found that teacher participation in decision-making contributes directly to school improvement (Glover et al, 1999; Katzenmeyer & Moller 2001; Pellicer et al, 1990; Taylor & Bogotch, 1994). Yet, most of the educational leadership students observed that decision-making opportunities were available for the few rather than being a collective action. The most often identified areas in which teachers participated in decision-making were scheduling, school-wide discipline, and professional development. One participant noted that teachers are involved in decisions concerning “management mostly, not leadership.”

The 64 teachers responding to the Likert survey indicated their level of involvement in teacher leadership activities. The instrument was structured on a 4-point scale with 0 as not involved; 1 as somewhat involved; 2 as involved; and 3 as very involved. These participants declared moderate levels of involvement in decision-making (1.90); however, they reported the lowest levels of involvement in influencing the school budgeting (0.85), designing school policy (1.10), and making personnel decisions (1.12). The question emerges in what ways are teachers involved in decision-making activities at their school? Participants indicate high levels of involvement in initiating school activities (1.95), leading school committees (1.95), planning for school improvement (1.76), and selecting professional development (1.71).

Principal support for teacher leadership

Most of the participants indicated that, since they enrolled in the University’s Educational Leadership program, their administrators were more likely to permit them to engage in leadership activities. Respondents reported advantages of being Educational Leadership students; they had “more one-on-one time with administration.” They stated that teacher leadership roles were enhanced by “credentials for administrators, so more information was shared,” and course “projects provided opportunities for their administrators to share with them.” These teacher leaders reported that since beginning the Educational Leadership program, their school principals more often encouraged them to gain new knowledge and skills; presented opportunities to share ideas and strategies; provided opportunities for professional development; and offered resources and time for leadership activities.

Educational Leadership students as teacher leaders

Nearly all of the participants stated that they were currently teacher leaders in their schools. Respondents indicated that they were highly involved in collaboration with peers, sharing ideas with colleagues, and mentoring new teachers. They also indicated more engaged in reflection on their own practice.

Participants’ comments suggest they are gaining avenues for leadership as a result of “the leadership skills I possess;” “I know more about ways to get around things;” and “it will be up to me to put [new knowledge] into practice.” It may be that Educational Leadership students will overcome barriers between the traditional teacher and administrative roles due to their own sense of empowerment and self-efficacy from advancing their own professional knowledge and skills.


Teacher leadership is not about empowering teachers. Rather, it is about organizing the largely untapped resources in teachers to affect school change. Teachers involved in Educational Leadership programs begin to experience teacher leadership differently. From these ranks, emerge school leaders with considerable knowledge in fiscal and personnel management, legal issues, design and development of curricula, delivery and assessment of instruction and contextual understanding of leadership and policy development.

The implication for teacher leadership resides in a shared leadership model in an empowering learning community. Many principals can easily speak the language of shared leadership but hang onto limited decision-making participation by teachers. Can Educational Leadership graduate students expect to have more decision-making avenues and take a larger role in school-based decision-making? Taylor and Tashakkori (1997) argue that teachers who have high participation and desire were empowered. The question remains, however, whether Educational Leadership graduate students are included in school decision making more because of their developing leadership knowledge and skills or because of their desire to make a difference.

While many of the participants identified administrators as a barrier to effective teacher leadership in their schools, these students indicated that their studies provided access and avenues for making connections with their administrators in productive ways. Participants reported principals support them as teacher leaders, with time and resources. Indeed, the university course activities push teacher leaders into association and dealings with the administration on issues beyond the scope of the regular teacher.

The potential for teacher leadership remains underdeveloped. School improvement efforts can be enhanced by breaking down the barriers between the two forms of leadership and preparing teachers and aspiring administrators to participate in democratic learning communities. Today’s educational reform agenda dictates that school leaders encouraged others to contribute to meaningful decision-making, moving from a hierarchical, top-down structure towards a more democratic model, in which teachers can directly influence development and change.


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Taylor, D. & Tashakkori, A. (1997). Toward an understanding of teachers desire for participation in decision-making. Journal of School Leadership, 7(Nov), 609-628.

Bobbie J. Greenlee, Ed.D.
Assistant Professor
University of South Florida, USA

Darlene Y. Bruner, Ed.D.
Associate Professor
University of South Florida, USA