Brett Criswell, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Science Education, West Chester University
Wendy Smith, Ph.D., Research Professor, University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Gregory Rushton, Ph.D., Professor of Chemistry; Director, Tennessee STEM Education Center, Middle Tennessee State University
Jan Yow, Ph.D., Professor, Instruction & Teacher Education, University of South Carolina
Christine Lotter, Ph.D., Professor, Instruction & Teacher Education, University of South Carolina
Sally Ahrens, M.S., Research Associate, University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Few areas of inquiry in education have gotten more attention recently than teacher leadership. There have been numerous publications devoted to this area:
- 16,100 Google scholar entries in the decade between 2010 and 2020;
- Two comprehensive reviews of this scholarship (York-Barr & Duke, 2004; Wenner & Campbell, 2017);
- Several national (e.g., Teacher Leadership Exploratory Consortium, 2011) and state (e.g., Kentucky Department of Education, 2015) frameworks describing it; and
- Considerable funded efforts to support teacher leadership development (e.g., Noyce Track 3 grants).
Nonetheless, there is still much to be understood about teacher leadership in its contemporary form. For instance, Smylie and Eckert (2018) distinguish between teacher leader — the person — and teacher leadership — the process, and note that the literature has paid much more attention to the empirical description of leaders than the theoretical consideration of leadership. Additionally, while teacher leadership has been posited as a means to increase teacher satisfaction and therefore retention in the profession (e.g., Dauksas & White, 2010), there is little solid evidence for this relationship, nor any clear insights into what the mechanism for this would be. Elsewhere, we (Criswell et al., 2018) have defined teacher leadership as:
- An individual gains a deep understanding of educational practice, and of her or himself in relation to that practice and to the system (both locally and more broadly) within which they operate.
- Through that understanding the individual is able to work with others to develop a vision for producing innovation in the system, which, within school systems, means improving the practice of teaching and learning.
- As part of realizing that vision, the individual is able to empower others to promote change, and is able to modify and marshal available resources in a manner that ensures that this change is both productive and sustainable.
Underlying the first bullet point is the assumption that in order to function as teacher leaders, individuals must understand teaching at the level of practice and at the system level–they must evolve a professional vision that allows them to see practice and the system as leaders. In this blog, we share some thoughts on how we see professional vision impinging on teacher leadership development and, potentially, on retention.
Surveying the Landscape
The concept of professional vision was introduced by Goodwin (1994), who defined it as “socially organized ways of seeing and understanding events that are answerable to the distinctive interests of a particular social group” (p. 606). The ‘social group’ has generally been identified as the profession to which individuals belong. ‘Socially organized’ is a crucial feature because it emphasizes the fact that, like ways of functioning in any community of practice, professional vision arises from the negotiation of meaning and the creation of shared perspectives (Wenger, 1998). Thus, an individual gains and evolves professional vision through participation in the community – through engaging in and examining its practices in collaboration with others. The work of developing professional vision influences the way the members of a profession highlight, code, and produce artifacts related to key aspects of their practices (Goodwin, 1994).
It is reasonable to expect that the evolution of a teacher’s professional vision could be supportive of the development of that teacher as a leader. For instance, Thayer (1988) stated that,
Reflection is a critical capacity of teacher leaders (National Education Association, 2018). Styrhe (2010) identified a clear connection between reflection and professional vision: “Professional vision is … an important component of the skills used by what Schön (1983) calls the reflective practitioner” (p. 438). Lambert (2003) explicitly connected mentoring, professional vision and teacher leadership: “The mentoring process can develop efficacy in problem solving and decision making, offer both support and challenge, and facilitate a professional vision” (p. 427). To date, however, there is little empirical evidence linking professional vision with teacher leadership (Criswell et al., 2018).
Context of Our Work
The insights we present below were drawn from the broader scope of work involving an NSF-funded, multi-institutional Noyce Track 4 research project. The project has examined eight Noyce Track 3 programs across the U.S.–programs all designed to prepare teacher leaders designated as Master Teaching Fellows (MTFs). Those programs–some still in operation, some completed–have supported ~175 MTFs and, in years 1 and 3 (current year) of our project, we interviewed over 90% of those MTFs. The interviews (each lasting 45 minutes or more) focused on issues of school culture, views of what teacher leadership entails, the MTFs’ sense of themselves as teacher leaders, and the potential impact of the Noyce programs and the MTFs’ teacher leadership on their professional trajectories. The latter issue –influence on trajectories–relates to our project’s overarching concern for how Noyce and teacher leadership might affect the MTFs’ retention in teaching.
Those year 1 and 3 interviews have been analyzed using codes built around six domains (Professional Perception, Professional Identity, Program Features, System Features, Professional Trajectory, and Teacher Leadership), each of which had 2 – 3 codes within it. The codes were developed a priori based on relevant literature but were refined based on application to the data. As we moved through our analysis, especially of the year 3 data, we started to recognize a recurring theme in the data that was not directly linked to the domains/codes but could be subsumed by the notion of professional vision. As such we have been revisiting the data and applying this code to it. In some ways, doing this additional coding after the initial coding has been beneficial as it has allowed us to connect instances of professional vision to other codes, such as Becoming (a teacher leader) and Navigating (the school system). Below, we present insights gained by this re-examination of the data through the lens of professional vision.
Seeing the System
A recurring finding across a number of the programs we studied was that the Noyce community, as a group external to the school systems in which the MTFs operated, enabled the MTFs to see those school systems differently. For instance, a program in the southwestern U.S. focused on developing the MTFs into ‘teacher leaders as educational researchers’; one of the MTFs stated that, while she had always collected data to inform classroom practice, “having a researcher’s mindset allows you to interpret data in a way that’s much less of a knee jerk reaction to whatever is coming in.” Thus, this MTF’s opportunity to learn how to be an educational researcher, supported by the Noyce program, enhanced her professional vision to ‘see’ the data from a more scholarly and nuanced perspective. She used this not only to improve her own practice but to support changes in the practices of her school colleagues.
The southwestern MTF is now able to see classroom data through the lens of an education researcher–and assist her colleagues in doing so as well; she is strengthening her teacher leader capacities relative to Domain V of the Teacher Leader Model Standards: Promoting the Use of Assessments and Data for School and District Improvement (Teacher Leadership Exploratory Consortium, 2011, p. 18).
Extending Professional Learning to Peers
An MTF in a midwestern program had selected special education from a set of professional learning options supported by Noyce. This MTF indicated that those experiences, “made me more aware so now I understand—there was some terminology or some things that the [special education] students go through that I wasn’t aware of.” The augmentation of the MTF’s professional vision was clear: “Now I know what to look for, what to ask for.” As a result, the MTF has become more collaborative with the intervention specialist, which has been of great benefit to the special education students within the MTF’s classroom. Already positioned as a leader in the system, this MTF was then able to pass on the lessons learned to others in the school.
The midwestern MTF now understands the coding used by special education teachers, and, as a result, can recognize critical aspects of how her special needs students are functioning and collaborate more effectively with those teachers; she is becoming stronger relative to Domain III of those Standards: Promoting Professional Learning for Continuous Improvement. And the midwestern MTFs see mentoring differently and, as such, can support new and novice teachers in more effectively navigating the challenging early years in the profession; they are likewise increasing their capacity in relation to Domain III.
Developing an Asset-Based Orientation to Improve Teacher Retention
The midwestern program also furnished an example of a broader impact produced by the way Noyce supported changes in MTFs’ professional vision. The MTFs in this program are all teachers in the same urban district, which, like many other urban districts, faces significant attrition involving new and novice teachers annually (Dunn & Downey, 2018). Many of the MTFs in this program had engaged in a district-run mentoring effort for such teachers prior to their participation in Noyce. These MTFs had expressed the sentiment that before Noyce they had often seen the attrition of novice teachers as a function of these teachers’ own deficiencies. However, after partaking in Noyce, the MTFs became more cognizant of the amount of knowledge it takes for a novice teacher to be successful–sometimes magnified by the specific challenges of urban schools.
This generated more empathy from the MTFs, which changed the way they saw the process of mentoring and how they thought about engaging in it. One MTF took this further and created a pamphlet for mentoring new teachers that supplemented the information the district provided to mentors–an example of producing artifacts as part of reifying an enhanced professional vision.
Empowered MTFs through Improved Leadership Efficacy
It can be quite difficult for MTFs who see themselves as (good) teachers to make the mental shift to seeing themselves as leaders. Often, it took MTFs successfully engaging in leadership actions (often in response to opportunities provided by their respective Noyce MTF programs) to build up their leadership efficacy. A stronger professional vision can lead MTFs to a broader conception of their sphere of influence. Here are a few examples:
- One MTF elevated his advocacy for students by bringing his concerns to the district school board, resulting in changes to district policy. This MTF’s professional vision expanded their conception of their sphere of influence beyond their school.
- MTFs in one program were all given the opportunity to co-teach graduate courses for their peers. Most of them later related that this opportunity helped them to see they could develop and offer workshops for their peers that would be well-received, and help to support their peers in improving mathematics and science teaching and learning.
- One MTF came to see their introversion as a ‘superpower’ for helping to positively influence their school system. They reflected, “I’m the type of person that when I go into a new situation, I tend to sit back, and watch, and listen, and try to learn the culture before I step in most of the time…to have enough awareness of the way the whole system works in the building.” This approach let them tailor their leadership actions to fit the school culture, and to collaborate with those in formal leadership positions to effect changes, despite teaching in a district that tends to reward extroverts.
- Several MTFs came to expand their professional vision through an equity lens, using their new understanding of their students’ background experiences and cultures to develop units focused on teaching mathematics for social justice; after trying the new units with their own classes, the MTFs then sought collaborators among their peers who would also engage in more culturally responsive teaching.
The insights presented above barely scratch the surface of the different ways that the Noyce programs we studied have impacted the professional vision of the MTFs within them. The effect on their professional vision has clearly translated into their efforts to become and function as teacher leaders.
We continue to explore the relationship between evolution in professional vision and development in teacher leadership. In particular, we are striving to identify the different ways that Noyce programs affect the professional vision of their participants and the way those effects are transferred back into the MTFs’ school systems. This suggests that the teacher leadership work in Noyce programs is impacting the MTFs’ professional satisfaction and likelihood of staying in the profession. One effect for which we have evidence is that changes in the MTFs’ professional vision have positively influenced the way they see themselves as professionals, including being better able to articulate what it means to view teaching as a profession.
The Noyce programs supporting the MTFs described here were intentionally seeking to develop and strengthen the MTFs’ leadership and included a focus on helping MTFs to see the complexity of their systems, to consider how to expand their spheres of influence. Not all of the programs explicitly focused on improving professional vision, although all did focus on improving MTFs’ professional identities as teacher leaders. Nevertheless, providing opportunities for MTFs to act as leaders and engage in leadership activities had the result of improving MTFs’ leadership efficacy and, in many cases, develop their professional vision.
Noyce programs provided numerous learning opportunities to MTFs; for mathematics and science teacher leaders, in particular, it seems important for them to see themselves as content experts before they feel comfortable acting as STEM teacher leaders. Providing MTFs with many opportunities to reflect (formally and informally, singly and collectively) also helped them to develop their professional vision to see the complexity of the systems in which they work while also feeling empowered to make positive changes in those systems.
Our work is just beginning as there is still much to surface about the exact nature of these relationships. Future researchers could design and study leadership development programs that have an explicit focus on improving participants’ professional vision. Additional research is also needed to explore how professional vision can be effectively used to improve equitable STEM teaching and learning.
This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant Numbers 1758462, 1758342, 1758438, and 1758452 (a Noyce Track 4 research project). Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.