Tech-Enabled Teacher Leaders
How technology is redistributing school leadership
Similar to the way technology is transforming classroom practice, the use of technology has begun to disrupt traditional notions of educational leadership. This disruption will cause the education community to reconsider not just how school leadership is enacted, but also the role teacher-leaders play. With the plethora of tech resources that are now available, individual educators can connect, collaborate and share with educators throughout their school, district and beyond. In this article, the author examines how tech-enabled teachers from across the country are using a variety of technological resources to redistribute educational leadership and enhance the role teachers play in supporting the success of their schools and their profession.
Historically, the function of school leadership rested solely in the office of the school principal. This may have been by necessity rather than design, as this was where all the information and resources needed to lead the school resided. Student records, timetables, calendars, district forms, school improvement plans, even the ability to communicate with parents and community members was mediated by the principal’s office. Since many of the resources needed to affect the functioning of the school were only available to those with access to the principal’s office, it made sense that the responsibility for the implementation of school leadership remained there.
With the advent of web-based technologies, many of the key resources needed to support school leaders are now available online and can be accessed at any time, from any location and by any member of the school staff. Moreover, with the plethora of tech resources that are now available, individual educators can connect, collaborate and share with their colleagues throughout their school, district and beyond, which has increased the degree to which teachers can influence the practice and actions of classrooms other than their own. It is therefore important to examine the impact of technology on school leadership. Just as web-based technologies have served to disrupt and change the music and media industries, technology has already begun to disrupt the traditional notion of school leadership and will play a significant role in redefining it in the future. This disruption will cause the education community to reconsider not just how school leadership is enacted, but also the role teacher-leaders play in supporting the success of the school.
Tech-enabled teacher leaders capitalize on the collaborative and participatory nature of web-based technologies such as social media and video conferencing to engage in actions that intentionally influence the knowledge and practice of others. The Ontario Leadership Framework defines leadership “as the exercise of influence on organizational members and diverse stakeholders toward the identification and achievement of the organization’s vision and goals.” While this is a very broad definition of school leadership, the research of Ken Leithwood and colleagues acknowledged that there are but a few essential leadership functions that directly affect student learning and the success of a school. They are as follows:
- setting directions
- building relationships and developing people
- developing the organization to support desired practices
- improving the instructional program
Because these activities are vital to school success, it is paramount for school leaders to find ways to embed them into the life of the school. Encouraging teachers to play active leadership roles will help ensure these essential functions spread beyond the principal and are amply filled.
What follows is a look at how teachers are using technology to engage in leadership activities in each of these four areas.
While there is no denying that the principal fulfils the primary role of setting the directions of a school and conveying this vision to staff, students and stakeholders, teacher-leaders also play an important role. The principal and school improvement plan may state the goals for the school, but the fulfilment of these goals would not be possible without the contributions of the classroom teachers.
Classroom blogs are a tool used by tech-enabled teacher leaders to highlight what takes place in the classroom and to demonstrate how their actions are supporting the school vision. Over the course of the year, these blogs become an open and ongoing record of how their high expectations for the students translate into high quality work from their students. This sharing of student work examples demonstrates to all stakeholders what the school’s visions and goals mean in practice.
Including images and reminders like the one on the Room 308 in Action classroom blog (see Figure 1), provides a daily reminder to all stakeholders of what the school’s visions and goals mean with regard to student conduct and the importance of an inclusive and supportive classroom culture.
Toronto teacher Zélia Capitão-Tavares created this classroom blog (see Figure 2), to showcase student learning and provide a window for students and parents to observe what takes place in the classroom. She says that as a result, “students are able to share what they are doing at school with more confidence.” She also notes, “Parents and family members who do not have regular access to the student also appreciate the online window to peek into the learning world of the student, who is always presented as a positive contributing member in the class environment and within their own learning.” Thus, in addition to building productive relationships with families, the Room 308 blog provides a vivid example of what the school’s vision regarding student-centred learning means in practice.
Building relationships and developing people
In our rapidly changing world, it is of vital importance that school leadership supports the ongoing professional growth of educators. Teacher-librarian Alanna King, from Orangeville, Ontario, has been using Google Hangouts as a means to build relationships and stimulate growth in the professional capacities of her fellow educators. Each week she hosts an online book club, where educators can gather to deepen their knowledge and understanding of pertinent issues related to education. Hosting the session online enables educators to build professional relationships with a diverse group and to benefit from this professional development (PD) opportunity regardless of their location.
Another way to stimulate professional growth is to lead discussions about the relative merits of current and alternative practices. While a school principal may formally engage in this leadership activity during a staff meeting or PD day, these types of sessions may be too infrequent to support the ongoing professional growth many teachers desire. In an attempt to fill this leadership gap, many tech-enabled teachers have turned to Twitter as a source of weekly professional development sessions that provide them with an opportunity to discuss promising practices.
The weekly Canadian Ed Chat ( Figure 3) provides educators from across the country with an opportunity to connect and discuss relevant educational issues. The tech-enabled teachers who organize and moderate these sessions post a calendar of discussion topics in advance of the weekly gathering to ensure that participants are prepared to contribute to the conversation. Each session begins with the initiating question that was posted on the calendar. Once the session begins, teachers are asked to post their responses to the initial question and to subsequent questions that are raised. What then takes place is a dynamic conversation that examines the relative merits of current and alternative practices while also building a professional learning community where teachers can reach out to seek advice and assistance for specific classroom challenges.
Because these tech-based activities are organized by teachers for teachers, they are, perhaps, more likely than district-initiated PD sessions to address the issues most on teachers’ minds.
Developing the organization to support desired practices
Building productive relationships with families and communities relies on having the opportunity for people to interact with each other. In the past, this was solely dependent on face-to-face contact. In today’s busy world, it can be very difficult to find time to interact directly with all of the people with whom we have relationships. Fortunately, in the Web 2.0 world, educational leaders no longer have to rely exclusively on in-person interactions to build relationships. While it is best for the initial interaction to be in person, technology makes it significantly easier to maintain the ongoing contact that is necessary for a positive relationship to develop. Facebook, Twitter, Skype, Google+ and Google Hangouts are all tools used by tech-enabled teacher-leaders to enhance their relationships with students, parents, community members and colleagues.
Ongoing communication is essential for schools to be able to build productive relationships with families. For the past six years, Hamilton, Ont., elementary teacher Aviva Dunsiger has been using Twitter to create a direct line of communication between parents and the classroom (see Figure 4). Each day Aviva’s classroom Twitter feed is filled with pictures of student work, classroom activities and posts created by students.
These types of Tweets provide parents and school community members with a window into the life of her classroom. Using Twitter in this manner also contributes to the development of trusting relationships among teachers, students, and parents, which can have a significant impact on school climate and student learning.
Developing the organization to support desired practices also involves finding ways to connect the school to its wider environment. Kathy Cassidy’s Grade 1 classroom blog (Figure 5) invites the world into their classroom. This Moose Jaw, Sask., teacher successfully achieves this goal by showcasing student participation in a global read-along, posting pictures of their contribution to the community food bank, and including a link to the blog of the B.C. classroom they frequently collaborate and learn with.
Improving the instructional program
While the principal may be the formal instructional leader, it is important to acknowledge that there are many leaders within the school who provide instructional support. A day in the life of a principal is one filled with administrative imperatives, agenda juggling and organizational emergencies. Unfortunately, this can make it quite difficult to find the time to provide the support that educators require to improve the instructional program. Once again, tech-enabled teacher leaders have stepped in to address this leadership function in a manner that suits the busy schedules of classroom teachers. Using technology to facilitate the distribution of instructional leadership helps to ensure that this essential leadership function occurs frequently and throughout the building.
Blogging can be considered an asynchronous leadership opportunity to provide instructional support while also stimulating professional growth. Teacher leaders often begin blogging to support their own professional reflection, but in making these reflections public, they create an open forum for their colleagues to learn from their experience and gain insight into effective instructional practices.
Saskatchewan secondary teacher Shelley Wright’s blog (Figure 6) is a testament to professional reflection and life-long learning. The topics she blogs about reflect her commitment to using technology to create student-centred, inquiry-focused learning environments. This serves to provide instructional support for other teachers while also modelling her school’s values and practices. The comments posted to her blog, expressing appreciation for her insight and instructional support, reveal the impact Wright has had on other educators. For example, one teacher wrote:
I can’t tell you how much this article inspires me and how perfectly it articulates what I am trying to do with a new HS Social Justice course I’m teaching. I would love to take you up on your offer to help others create an inquiry classroom…
Shelley is not alone. When one considers that there are thousands of tech-enabled teachers who are actively blogging to support professional growth and reflection, it can be quite difficult to keep up with what is happening. Luckily, teacher-leaders like Doug Peterson (from Essex, Ontario) have come forward to provide assistance in monitoring these tech-enabled leaders. Peterson’s blog includes a weekly review and synopsis of interesting and highly relevant blog posts from educators in Ontario (Figure 7). With over 16,000 subscribers to his blog feed, Peterson is clearly a leader in the Canadian educational blogosphere. These numbers demonstrate the potential of technology to influence the practice and professional growth of a significantly greater number of educators than is possible through more traditional PD methods.
These examples are merely the tip of the “technology iceberg.” It should now be apparent that even without a formal leadership title, tech-enabled teachers are redistributing educational leadership and the role teachers play in supporting the success of their schools and their profession.
En bref: Tout comme la technologie transforme actuellement les pratiques en classe, son utilisation a commencé à bouleverser les notions conventionnelles de leadership en éducation, ce qui amènera le milieu de l’éducation à réévaluer tant la manière dont le leadership scolaire se manifeste que le rôle joué par les enseignants qui sont des leaders. Grâce à la pléthore de ressources technologiques maintenant disponibles, des éducateurs individuels peuvent se connecter, collaborer et partager avec d’autres éducateurs dans leur école, leur conseil scolaire et ailleurs. L’auteure de cet article examine comment des enseignants technologiquement outillés du pays emploient différentes ressources technologiques pour redistribuer le leadership en éducation et rehausser le rôle que jouent les enseignants pour favoriser le succès de leurs écoles et de leur profession.
Original photo: courtesy Ms. Cassidy’s Classroom Blog
First published in Education Canada, March 2016
1 Institute for Education Leadership, The Ontario Leadership Framework (Toronto: Queen’s Printer for Ontario, 2012). http://iel.immix.ca/storage/6/1355174216/Quick_Facts_OLF_Aug14-12.pdf
4 K. A. Leithwood, The Ontario Leadership Framework 2012: Research foundations (The Institute for Education Leadership, 2012).http://iel.immix.ca/storage/6/1360068388/Final_Research_Report_-_EN_REV_Feb_4_2013.pdf