DIY Instructional Leadership (cross-post from TES)

Here’s another piece I did for TES USA, part of a series urging ed practitioners to take more control of their own professional learning — to dodge the bad stuff they’re so often fed, for one, but to lead their own way out of flawed, over-idealized practices. If we wait for those above us to bring it, after all, we may be waiting forever. Near the end, you’ll also see a plug for the upcoming researchED conference in Washington, DC. If you’re interested in the DIY pathway to instructional leadership herein, I recommend that conference as a great starting place.

When I was a classroom teacher struggling to get the best outcomes for my students, education research introduced me to the innovative new practices I needed but had never encountered in my regular continuing professional development.

As I wrote for TES a couple of weeks ago, sharing what I had learned led to leadership opportunities. Ultimately it also led to me to researching and writing a book that has allowed me to work with educators and schools in and beyond the US.

Though my DIY path had a few right-place-wrong-time fits and starts and often required long hours, I wouldn’t have it any other way. Put simply: the leadership I’m now able to do in education is informed by ideas I’ve intensely studied and personally applied.

I can now stand confidently on these ideas, but that hasn’t always been the case. I have worked, after all, as an instructional leader within larger education organizations, where many times my function was to pass on the organizations’ preferred practices, even though I knew them to be flawed.

It is with some concern, then, that I look around the education enterprise and see all the formalized teacher-leadership going on – in the form of instructional coaches, content leads, program facilitators, etc – that didn’t really exist even a decade or so ago. I know from experience that lots of well-meaning people won’t be passing on effective instruction techniques so much as carrying out what their supervisors tell them to, and I know a lot of that is just plain bad.

My experience also tells me that these aspiring teacher-leaders will be put in many highly confusing and stressful work situations due to their ‘tweener’ (read: not teaching staff and not administration) status and their addition to a system that hasn’t worked out how they should best contribute.

Viewing all this in the light of still-limited research literature on the impact of teacher leadership (which certainly hasn’t shown resoundingly positive effects on student performance, by the way), it’s actually a bit of a mystery how the idea of growing teacher leaders, content coaches, and all the rest has acquired its current high premium. It’s not from past proven successes, that’s for sure.

If you disagree, I urge you to check the available evidence and think about all the money, time, and angst being spent on these approaches. If you find any districts/schools where training teacher-leaders is strong, implementation is efficient, and kids are suddenly growing out of control as a result, do reach me through my blog and let me know. I’d love to hear about successes if they’re happening.

But while I wait on that, let’s return to the idea of DIY teacher leadership, powered by practitioners’ independent research. For I also have experiences with this leadership pathway, and these experiences have shown me definitively this: one need never ‘go into instructional leadership’ to be an instructional leader.

The information that can positively transform teachers’ classroom practices is out there, and existing collaborative structures (like scheduled teacher-teaming sessions— even just hallway conversations, to start) can be leveraged to share what’s working among willing colleagues. All it really takes is the decision to seek something new, making time to look for it, and planning thoughtfully about how the ‘something new’ can be applied.

I’ll admit the independent research was very time-consuming, difficult, and lonely. The ideas I stumbled on back then weren’t (and still aren’t) exactly ones much of the education establishment provides a lot of resources around.

I really could have used some better starting points and a better network of fellow practitioner-researchers to trade ideas with—all items available today, thankfully, through an organization like researchED, the UK-based nonprofit dedicated to building teachers’ research literacy.

I plugged in to researchED and its community after appearing at a few of their conferences to talk about my book, and the connections I made there—to say nothing of the accompanying stream of thought-partnership, new research developments, and good teacher humor now flowing through my social media feeds—make me thankful for the organization every day.

As I’ve nearly no faith left in centralized, top-down approaches to instructional improvement, the type of impact researchED has generated in the UK gives me hope that good educational practices can still be found, processed, and broadcast widely, and that we can do this ourselves, from the classroom up.

*ResearchED is holding a conference at CHEC in Washington, DC, on 29 October, tickets for the conference are on sale now. Click here for more info on the conference program and tickets—and be in touch if you have any questions. 


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