Sunday / May 26

Who Is An Educational Leader?

There is an infamous activity that teachers have done with students where they ask them to ‘draw a scientist’ and students of all ages will usually draw a white male in a lab coat. If we were to ask educators, ‘Who is an educational leader?’, who would they describe?  Most likely, many educators would describe a school principal, superintendent or other senior administrator.

Search for articles on school leadership and you will find an abundance of articles about the role of principals and superintendents. Yet at school meetings, district professional learning events and national conferences, professional learning supporting change initiatives is often led by teachers, early childhood educators, curriculum consultants, instructional coaches, and others not in formal leadership roles. The work of leading and managing schools can involve many individuals who may not hold formal leadership positions. Distributing leadership beyond school and system administrator roles allows change recipients to become change leaders in their school and their district.

Embedding change leadership throughout the levels of an organization or school can shift ownership of the change. No longer is the change viewed as an external reform, mandated from the top-down; instead it becomes part of the school culture. Educators, supported by those in formal leadership positions, assume responsibility for spreading and deepening the change themselves. This teacher leadership co-exists with the continuing formal leadership of individuals, such as principals, superintendents and government officials.

In an analysis of research on teacher leadership, York-Barr and Duke (2004) observed that ‘promoting instructional improvement requires an organizational culture that supports collaboration and continuous learning and that recognizes teachers as primary creators and re-creators of school culture’ (p. 260; italics in original). They have organized the conditions that influence teacher leadership and collaboration into three categories:

  • School culture and context – Schools with a strong focus on learning and inquiry, encouragement for taking initiative and an expectation for teamwork, shared responsibility, and an expectation of professionalism were schools in which teacher leadership could flourish.
  • Roles and relationships – Teacher leaders thrive when there are high degrees of trust amongst peers and with administrators, colleagues recognize and support one another, and teachers are given leadership opportunities that are aligned to the learning process as opposed to administrative or management tasks.
  • Structures – School-based, participatory structures that support learning and leading and are embedded in teachers’ daily work.

A team of education consultants in our school district carefully considered how to support teachers and administrators in creating and sustaining a culture of collaboration and inquiry in their schools and created our own school-based learning structure. The professional learning model we created, Lab Class, combines the ‘teacher as researcher’ approach of collaborative inquiry with descriptive observation and analysis of student learning in the classroom. Lab Class grew out of our work as instructional coaches and consultants using collaborative inquiry as a professional learning model with educators. Educators told us they wanted to ‘see it in action’ and ‘get into one another’s classrooms.’ As a result, the Lab Class model was created to combine the elements of collaborative inquiry with purposeful classroom observation and analysis of student learning. During Lab Class, teachers engage in professional learning using research and professional resources to determine next steps. The timeframe can range from a few months up to a school year, the number of participants can range from as few as three teachers to large interschool groups of twenty teachers and teachers’ assignments can range from Kindergarten to Grade 12.

By using a collaborative inquiry model to determine a specific area of inquiry, and through repeated observation and analysis of student learning with time for professional reflection and learning, Lab Class allows participants to move beyond superficial classroom observation to a more rigorous investigation of teacher practice, student learning, and the conditions that make learning possible. Teachers reported that Lab Class created an environment where they felt safe to take risks, learn, make mistakes, receive feedback and refine their teaching practice. Teachers took leadership roles in determining the area of focus for the inquiry, for collecting and analyzing data, and for developing strategies to communicate their learning and their students’ learning with other teachers in their school, their district, and beyond.

In Lab Class, the leadership for professional learning, documentation and analysis of student learning, planning next steps and communication and sharing of the learning shifts from formal leaders to the teachers. The formal leaders such as consultants and coaches, become co-learners with the teachers.

Distributing leadership beyond school and system administrator roles allows change recipients to become change leaders in their school and their district. Developing a cadre of knowledgeable and confident educators as change agents and informal leaders who can support their colleagues will deepen and sustain change and learning in the organization.

 Expanding our view of ‘who is an educational leader’ allows schools and districts to develop a cadre of knowledgeable and confident educators who can support their colleagues and deepen and sustain change implementation for many years to come. Who are the potential educational leaders in your school? What professional learning models is your organization currently using to create a culture of collaboration and learning?


York-Barr, J. & Duke, K. (2004). What do we know about teacher-leadership? Review of Educational Research, 74(3), 255-316

Written by

Lisa Cranston, Ed.D. is a retired educator and author of Lab Class: Professional Learning Through Collaborative Inquiry and Student Observation. She has over thirty years of experience as an educator and has taught grades kindergarten to four, worked as an instructional coach for literacy and mathematics, and as an educational consultant for kindergarten and primary grades.  She has also provided induction for new teachers and support for their mentors. Lisa has presented at district and regional meetings as well as at local, provincial and international conferences.

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