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The new leaders on the block: Why teacher leadership and shared vision are vital to North Carolina schools

This white paper is based on Dr. Hemphill’s dissertation “Teacher Perceptions of Teacher Leadership and Shared Vision: A Correlational Study using the NC Teacher Working Conditions Survey.”

Introduction

As the landscape of public education continues to evolve, so does the leadership and vision required to meet the needs of this ever-changing academic platform. No longer is academic research focusing solely on school leadership required to lead 21st-century students and educators toward success, but rather it is concentrating on the plethora of factors that inform the development of thriving learning communities across our nation. While much of the educational discourse on leadership and vision speaks to the development of strategies, pedagogies, and leadership preparation for school leaders, there are major deficiencies in the research on teacher leadership and shared vision based on the perceptions of teachers. The purpose of this paper is to present data-based solutions related to creating thriving learning communities in our schools that will increase student success. These solutions are grounded in a new understanding of the relationship between teacher leadership and shared vision as they exist in North Carolina schools today and the implications for changes in practices and policies at the school and district level.

Background of the Problem

The model of formal, one-person leadership in North Carolina schools is quickly giving way to the development of thriving learning communities. As a result of administering the NC Teacher Working Conditions Survey (NCTWCS) over the past 10 years, school leaders and district leaders in North Carolina are beginning to seriously examine the relationship between teacher perceptions of teacher leadership and shared vision as factors that contribute to the development of NC schools as learning communities. Ladd (2009) emphasized the importance of the NCTWCS as a research tool to inform practice:

North Carolina represents an excellent state for this study of working conditions, as perceived by teachers. Not only is it a large and diverse state, but it also has made available to researchers extensive administrative data on student, teacher, school and district characteristics. In addition, it is the first state to have administered a statewide survey of working conditions to all teachers and administrators (p.14).

There exists an overabundance of research and empirical articles related to shared vision based on developing a 21st-century approach to technology in schools and quality of life in healthcare. There are also numerous qualitative approaches to teacher perceptions through surveys, interviews, and case studies on instructional leadership in learning communities. However, there is a gap in educational research and scholarship concerning quantitative analyses on teacher perceptions of teacher leadership and shared vision across specific states.

Past research suggests that the definition of teacher leadership is contextualized by each individual’s experiences in collaboration with their “professional knowledge landscape” characteristic to each individual school and district (Clandinin & Connelly, 1995, p. 27). North Carolina represents over 100 counties that boast a wide assortment of public, charter, and special education factors including, but not limited to: rural, urban, suburban, Title I, alternative, and magnet. North Carolina comes with its own unique set of needs and concerns as it relates to developing thriving learning communities that require teacher leadership and shared vision to meet the needs of the students in this state. For this reason, school leaders and district leaders must work to understand how teachers perceive these constructs within the context of NC schools based on an analysis of the NCTWCS.

In order to glean a clearer perspective of teacher leadership and shared vision as they are perceived by teachers in North Carolina, I analyzed 16,383 responses to the 2012 NCTWCS to determine which factors had the most significant effects on teacher leadership and shared vision in North Carolina schools. While the analysis confirmed that there was no statistical significance between total years employed as an educator and teacher perceptions of teacher leadership, there was statistical significance between total years employed at the current school and teacher perceptions of teacher leadership. The data also affirmed that the nature of the relationship between total years employed at the current school and teacher leadership was negative and that for every year employed at the present school, there was a decrease in teacher leadership. This supports the notion that the longer an educator stays at the present school, the less likely that individual is to see himself or herself as a teacher leader in that learning environment. Finally, the data analysis showed that for every year employed at the present school, there was a decrease in perceptions of a shared vision or an inverse relationship. Analysis of teachers versus all other school personnel (e.g., principals, assistant principals, school counselors, etc.) also rendered a negative relationship of teacher leadership and their perceptions of shared vision. These results are supported by the conceptual framework presented in the next section of this paper.

Solution

According to Mitchell and Sackney (2001), “to develop, nurture, and sustain a community of learners means creating a different culture that includes a shared vision, true collaboration, administrator and teacher leadership, and conditions that support these efforts” (p. 2). In order to conceptualize a holistic understanding of teacher perceptions of teacher leadership and shared vision in NC schools, four major constructs are analyzed: transformational leadership, teacher leadership, shared vision, and schools as learning communities. The conceptual framework illustrated below proposes a viable, research-based solution for creating thriving learning communities in North Carolina schools that can ensure increased student success.

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Teacher leadership. Teacher leadership speaks not only to the essence of developing and carrying out a shared vision within a school, but also promotes teachers as critical players in the development of thriving learning communities. The seven specific teacher leadership construct variables in the NCTWCS include: recognition as educational experts; trust to make sound professional decision about instruction; reliance to make decisions about educational issues; encouragement to participate in school leadership roles; effective processes for making group decisions to solve problems; taking steps to solve problems; and finally, teachers as effective leaders in the school. As professional development leaders, teacher leaders work to develop and maintain an inclusive school culture who foster staff development and work with others to solve problems (Neumann et al., 2012).

Shared vision. Shared vision emphasizes a teacher’s ability and tolerance for change as well as a teacher’s leadership capacity within the learning organization. Shared vision within a learning environment ensures that all stakeholders in a child’s education are focused on a central goal or mission as well as the means of achieving that goal. Within the conceptual framework, shared vision serves to direct the expectations of not only the learning environment, but also the teacher leaders carrying out this vision in the classroom. A shared vision in a learning community presents a credible, yet realistic picture of the organization that inspires the students, teacher leaders, and school leaders to work collaboratively to reach for the same future goal.

Schools as Learning Communities. Dufour and Eaker (1998) purport that what separates a learning community from an ordinary school is its collective commitment to guiding principles that articulate what the people in the school believe and what they seek to create. Teacher perceptions of teacher leadership offer insight into critical players in a learning community who manifest and translate the shared vision within a school.

The insights gained through my research will serve teacher leaders, schools leaders, and district leaders in birthing a necessary discussion on teacher leadership and shared vision in NC schools. The following outlines specific problems in practice, pedagogy, and policy along with solutions that specifically address how to tackle these perceptions.

Teacher Leadership & Shared Vision in NC Schools

Problem for School & District Leaders Solution

Strong presence of top-down leadership within the school and district setting

  • Examine the top-down leadership models within the school and district context
  • Build professional buy-in by forging educational partnerships with teacher leaders (e.g., school improvement teams, school surveys, and professional learning communities)
  • Research best and innovative practices in surrounding and like district to develop unique leadership opportunities

Lack of shared decision-making within school processes

  • Utilize teacher leaders’ insight as representatives on school and district committees
  • Revisit processes and policies specifically related to school improvement efforts at the school and district level
  • Develop strong school improvement teams with a focus on collaboration, vertical, and horizontal alignment

Lack of shared vision at the school level

  • Shift from individuality to solidarity and confidentiality to transparency in all aspects of school functions (e.g., instruction and curriculum, finances, support services)
  • Frequently seek out teacher leader insight on problems that arise within the school (e.g., think tanks, focus groups, teacher advisory council to school administrators)
  • Continuously and methodically revisit the vision throughout the school year to determine whether goals are being met and celebrate achievements

Lack of shared vision at the district level

  • Develop a strategic plan that aligns instructional goals with the district vision being communicated to all stakeholders
  • Create video modules based on the strategic plan and instructional expectations and make them available for school leaders and teacher leaders to utilize for professional development and marketing
  • Examine district professional development plans that are created with teacher leaders in mind and focus on developing a shared vision for all stakeholders with multiple forms of assessment and accountability throughout the school year
  • Seek continuous and frequent feedback from all levels (e.g., district, school, community)

Summary

The North Carolina Teacher Working Conditions Survey (NCTWCS) offered a platform for this study to delve into the perceptions of teachers and other school personnel as it relates to perceptions of teacher leadership and shared vision in North Carolina Schools. In order to achieve the goals set before teacher leaders on a daily basis, there must be buy-in and a consistent perspective on the shared vision within the school context. Not only does the increased expertise and confidence of teachers have a direct positive effect on teacher effectiveness, but also it directly affects the process through which teacher leaders and school leaders develop into thriving learning communities. Shifting from a hierarchical to a collaborative culture is necessary in bringing about balanced perception of these concepts with North Carolina schools and districts. District leaders and school leaders who work toward shared decision-making models that support strong stakeholder teams, consistent communication, and sustained opportunities for feedback from teacher leaders should fortify efforts to develop thriving learning communities in the schools across North Carolina.


References

Clandinin, D., & Connelly, F. (1995). Teachers’ professional knowledge landscapes. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

DuFour, R., & Eaker, R. (1998). Professional Learning Communities at Work: Best Practices for Enhancing Student Achievement. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.

Ladd, H. (2009). Teachers’ perceptions of their working conditions: How predictive of policy relevant outcomes? National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research, paper submitted as CALDER Working Paper No. 33.

Mitchell, C., & Sackney, L. (April, 2001). Communities of leaders: Developing capacity for a learning community. Paper presented at the Annual Conference of the American Educational Research Association, Seattle, Washington.

Neumann, M., Jones, L., & Webb, P. (2012). Claiming the political: The forgotten terrain of teacher leadership knowledge. Action in Teacher Education, 34(1), 2-13.

Ross, J., & Gray, Peter. (2006). School leadership and student achievement: The mediating effects of teacher beliefs. Canadian Journal of Education, 26(3), 798-822.

Mary M. Hemphill, Ph.D.

Dr. Mary Hemphill is the state’s first director of K-12 Computer Science & Technology Education at the NC Department of Public Instruction.