Writing as Teacher Leadership
Anne Elrod Whitney and Bernard Badiali describe the questions, goals, and attitudes within a professional writing group they helped form among teachers and university faculty. They explain how, in reflecting on the changes that took place in the group, its aims, and its activities from one year to the next, they began to see their work as "writing as leadership," and how they hold out the same hope for their students' writing as for their own -- that writing will be a tool for participation in society and for bringing about needed changes.
Many teacher-leaders define their leadership operationally: they are leaders because they are department heads, or mentor teachers, or chairs of committees, or officers in professional organizations—leaders in the official sense. Yet we know, too, that there is leadership in myriad unofficial actions: in teaching well in a time of pressures toward “teaching-to-the-test,” in standing up for a student who has exhausted many “last chances” already, or in persisting in teaching a frequently challenged text when it might be easier to self-censor.
In these instances of teacher leadership, we see teachers not only taking responsibility for the operation of organizations, but also taking responsibility on a moral level—doing things because they are the right things to do, though difficult.
We see such teachers as leaders who, in Sirotnik’s (1995) terms, “exercise significant and responsible influence.” Embedded in the term “responsible” is a sense of moral responsibility in teaching, a feeling that as teachers of language arts, we are responsible not just for getting through a certain body of content, but for doing some good and bringing about change in students’ lives where we see a need. But seeing teacher leadership in this way raises a tough question: Just what am I “responsible” to “influence”?
On a cold afternoon in December of 2008, a group of six teachers from our local district and two university faculty gathered in an elementary school library to form a professional writing group. All of us had different reasons for being there, and some of us weren’t at all sure of our reasons. We taught at levels ranging from kindergarten to university, and we represented experienced and relatively new teachers. Most of us were mentors or supervisors in a PDS (Professional Development School)-modeled teacher education program as well.
Where we stood as writers also varied. Some of us claimed writing as a passion; others of us dreaded and avoided writing. Enticed by the prospect of supporting one another as writers (or, for some, simply dragged to the first meeting by a colleague who was excited), we met monthly during the 2008–2009 school year.
At our meetings, we spent time getting to know one another, looked together at copies of a wide range of journals, tried some exercises for getting started, and met in pairs and triads to share drafts in progress. As time passed, we began to draft articles about our teaching, intending to submit them to an upcoming issue of the journal Catalyst for Change.
But as we considered adding our “voices” to the journal, many of the teachers in the group were tentative—just what did “professional writing” mean? Would we get in trouble if we advocated practices that were no longer emphasized in the school district curriculum? What if we expressed personal perspectives other than those endorsed by our colleagues? Some of us struggled with establishing a “proper” basis for the things we wished to say in the article, worrying that we needed statistics, copious citations, or dense jargon to bolster our arguments.
Together, we talked about these issues. We acknowledged that these concerns were real and that to contribute value to the educational conversation, teacher-writers must be attentive to their various readers’ expectations for evidence as well as to the implications of their words—both practical and political.
In time, we settled into a stance of simply “telling the truth” of our classrooms and experiences. That is, we decided that when we describe, clearly and critically and with attention to detail, the conditions of classroom life and the decisions we make under those conditions, we make available to others information that they would not otherwise have, and when we take an analytical stance on those experiences, we open up for readers ways of understanding that information.
In this way, we produced first drafts: accounts of successful units or lessons, of professional learning experiences, of turning points in an author’s teaching practice. We then met in a four-day writing retreat to revise and edit these pieces for submission to the journal we had targeted. Meeting for two days at a university library and for two more at the mountain home of one of the members, we spent quiet hours simply writing, noisy hours reading and seeking responses to our work, and challenging hours making tough decisions about revisions. By the weekend’s end, each group member had a piece deemed appropriate to submit to the journal. Ultimately, four of those pieces were accepted for publication.
The following fall (September 2009), we convened for a second year. The difference between our first meeting of this fall and the first one of the previous year was startling. Our numbers doubled, each one inviting, reminding, and even driving colleagues to the meeting. Even before everyone had arrived, two teachers were outlining a letter to the school board in response to a frustrating policy change in the district. When the meeting began, another spoke up to invite colleagues to coauthor a piece with her related to an ongoing curriculum controversy. Another teacher began to draft an op-ed piece, taking a stand on the general direction he saw education taking. Since then, teachers in the group have submitted pieces for publication and have sought (and gained) appointment to a school district commission on a contentious local issue. Currently, the group is working with the local newspaper to establish a monthly education-themed column that will be written by members of the group.
The changes in our group, its aims, and its activities between fall 2008 and spring 2010 are palpable. In them, we see not only a surge of energy, but also a dramatic growth in confidence. Our concerns about writing—what will audiences under stand? What will the consequences of my writing be? How will I be perceived? Do I know what I am talking about?—have not gone away, but we’re somehow not as intimidated by them. Instead, we approach our writing from the perspective of what it can do for us. There are things we wish to say and audiences we wish to address, and now, we are willing to take responsibility for that.
It is this difference that prompts us to call our work in the group “writing as leadership.” We see in our group the “exercise of responsible influence” that Sirotnik described, in all of its facets. That is, we have widened our sense of influence, imagining our writing alive in the hands and minds of readers rather than buried on our own computers or in some editor’s desk drawer. We have the audacity to expect that our words might influence someone to act, to change policies, or to take up practices based on our arguments. We have also widened our sense of responsibility, inserting ourselves into difficult conversations about education where we might once have avoided conflict or “just closed our doors and taught.”
There was a time when we might have considered, explicitly or implicitly, the writing of articles to belong to university scholars or district and state leaders—people with time, research training, and perhaps the badge of a formal title. Now we see public conversations about teaching— locally, at school board meetings and in our newspaper, and more widely, in the pages of professional journals— as ours to participate in and even instigate; we see it as our responsibility to correct misconceptions held by other stakeholders and to add our insights to the mix of ideas under consideration.
While thinking of our writing as leadership is new for us, it should have come as no surprise. In a commentary in The Reading Teacher, Patrick Shannon (1995) urged teachers to enter public conversations about teaching by writing for publication, saying “Even if you feel that you must walk softly and carry a big stick concerning your teaching and other public issues, the RT editors and I hope that you will make that stick a pencil” (p. 466). These are the very hopes we have for our students’ writing as well—that they might find in writing a tool for participation in the society in which they live, that they might describe and advocate for their own positions and experiences, that they might be able to bring about change where they see a need.
Shannon, P. (1995). Kissing and telling, teaching and writing. The Reading Teacher, 48, 464–466.
Sirotnik, K. A. (1995). Curriculum: Overview and framework. In M. O’Hair & S. O’Dell (Eds.), Educating teachers for leadership and change: Teacher education yearbook III (pp. 235–242). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.
This essay was reprinted from English Leadership Quarterly (October 2010).