For over twenty years, several mathematics education initiatives (Campbell et al., 2003; Martin et al., 2011; Strutchens & Martin, 2013; and others) have been exploring teacher leadership as a mechanism for preparing and supporting teachers to make classrooms equitable for all students. In this blog, we share three case studies of teacher leaders. Each teacher participated in TEAM-Math, a National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded targeted math science partnership (DUE #0314959) whose goal was to improve grades K–12 mathematics teaching and learning in east Alabama, focusing on improving mathematics achievement and engagement across demographic groups (Martin et al., 2011). The three teacher leaders then became members of one of TEAM-Math’s Teacher Leader Academies (TLAs), centered on secondary teachers and supported by add-on funding to TEAM-Math and one for elementary teachers funded by NSF’s Robert Noyce Teacher Scholarship Program (DUE #0934821).
Developing teacher leaders to help facilitate change in their schools’ mathematics programs was a major component of the TEAM-Math partnership (Martin et al., 2011). Teachers were identified as school- and district-level teacher leaders by their principals and district personnel. They were provided professional development for the following roles and responsibilities: a change agent for individual teachers or groups of teachers, a vanguard for reform, a leadership intermediary, and a record keeper of events (Lord & Miller, 2000; Martin et al., 2011). Table 1 lists details related to each role.
Table 1: TEAM-Math Teacher Leaders Roles and Responsibilities
The partnership provided quarterly, half-day workshops for the teacher leaders, focusing on general development of leadership skills and their roles. In addition to the half-day workshops, teacher leaders were required to participate in professional development activities with other teachers in the district and also attended special break-out sessions designed for them. Some teacher leaders provided professional development for the project, and in this capacity they were required to attend train-the-trainer sessions. Appendix A describes the professional development TEAM-Math provided to teachers and teacher leaders.
The TEAM-Math TLAs built on the work of TEAM-Math. TLA teacher fellows received an annual stipend, tuition reimbursement, and professional development focused on leadership development. Participants were required to continue employment as mathematics or elementary teachers in high-need school districts; attend quarterly leadership workshops; complete TLA-sponsored graduate-level courses in mathematics education and mathematics (see Table 2) to enhance their knowledge of the field; keep a log to demonstrate their emerging leadership skills in applying their new knowledge and insights in designing and providing support for their own school and district mathematics programs, and optionally in surrounding schools and districts; collaborate with university faculty to provide support to preservice teachers seeking initial certification; and complete or show progress toward earning an advanced degree (Strutchens & Martin, 2017).
Table 2: Graduate Courses Offered to Fellows
Note: The content courses listed were mainly for the elementary fellows. Secondary fellows selected content courses that were offered by the mathematics department for all graduate mathematics majors. Both sets of fellows took the mathematics teaching and learning courses together which led to mutual understanding and respect of each other’s roles in the mathematics education of students.
The teacher leaders whose cases we share in this blog (names are pseudonyms) participated in one of the teacher leader academies. We believe their journeys are important as they portray different paths that teacher leaders may take. The three cases are drawn from a larger Noyce Track 4 study (DUE #1758452 and 1758462) of three Mathematics Teacher Leader (MTLs) projects that had initial funding from NSF’s Robert Noyce Teacher Scholarship Program (Track 3: Master Teaching Fellowships). The central research question for the larger case study was, “What are the components of projects designed to prepare MTLs?”
The Case Studies
As a high school student, Mrs. Champion knew that she wanted to become a teacher. She completed a bachelor’s of elementary education at Auburn University which led to her teaching kindergarten for 15 years and first grade for 5 years. Over the course of her career, Mrs. Champion served as a mathematics instructional coach, elementary mathematics specialist, and regional K-5 mathematics specialist. As a teacher leader, Mrs. Champion had the opportunity to support preservice and in-service teachers, administrators, and community members in the effective teaching and learning of mathematics.
She credited her growth as a mathematics teacher educator to her participation in the TEAM-Math project and the TLA. Her experience as a TLA fellow encouraged her to pursue a position as a mathematics instructional coach to advance the mathematics teaching and learning opportunities within her school. As a teacher who regularly shared resources, materials, and teaching strategies with her colleagues, Mrs. Champion realized that other teachers in her school recognized her capability as a teacher leader before she became an instructional coach. As part of her duties, she also led mathematics professional development for teachers, such as summer workshops on Number Talks and monthly grade level meetings focused on implementing the standards for mathematical practice (Council of Chief State School Officers, 2010).
In addition, Mrs. Champion was often called upon to assist teachers with students who struggled with mastering mathematics and other content areas. Serving her school in these multifaceted ways led her to seek a position with a broader impact on elementary mathematics teachers–she became a K-2 mathematics specialist with the Alabama Math, Science, and Technology Initiative (AMSTI). Mrs. Champion enjoyed working with mathematics coaches, teachers, administrators, and students in this role. After several years with AMSTI, she retired. During her final interview Mrs. Champion provided her perspective on teacher leadership: “…a leader is one who sets up opportunities and experiences so that growth can take place. And also, provides choices.”
Dr. Green graduated from Auburn University with a degree in secondary mathematics education. She had been a high school mathematics teacher for nearly 20 years, with all but the first year at the same high school. She became involved in TEAM-Math as she began her career and earned her master’s degree. Subsequently, Dr. Green joined the secondary TLA and earned her Ph.D. in mathematics education. She chose classroom teaching over other career options, stating, “My heart is still very much in the classroom.” She did, however, take on several teacher leader roles.
Dr. Green believed that her involvement in the TLA had a significant impact on her development as a teacher and a teacher leader. She pointed to the impact of the mathematics content courses she took, as well as the emphasis on the use of technology. She learned mathematics in ways she had not previously experienced, helping her to fill in “gaps in her knowledge.” This encouraged her to strive to provide her students with a more connected understanding of mathematics that she did not develop as a student. The TLA also provided useful knowledge that she has incorporated into her leadership activities, as shown by the following quote:
Dr. Green has taken on a wide range of leadership roles at her school and beyond. She sees herself as a valuable resource to other teachers based on her classroom practice, stating, “A teacher leader has to practice it for herself first, then share with others.” She feels she serves as a role model through her willingness to continue to innovate and improve her teaching. Another leadership role that Dr. Green has found most rewarding is working with secondary mathematics teacher candidates, including mentoring them during field experiences in their methods courses and clinical residencies. Auburn University uses a paired placement model in which two teacher candidates are placed with the same mentor teacher during the clinical residency (Strutchens et al., 2022). Dr. Green says that the model enables her to serve as a mathematics teacher educator for the pair and helps her “keep her skills sharp.”
Dr. Green has also been active in teacher leadership activities beyond the classroom. This began early in her career when she led professional development workshops for the TEAM-Math project. Subsequently, she worked on a project that developed materials for a senior-level course being offered in the state and more recently served on the committee that developed new mathematics standards for Alabama. Her involvement in writing the standards served as a turning point as she became more engaged in advocating for the positions taken in standards. The knowledge of mathematics education research that she developed during the TLA was central to the arguments she made.
According to Dr. Green, the TLA and related experiences have provided her with knowledge and support that enabled her to engage in many dimensions of mathematics teacher leadership. This quote effectively summarizes her leadership stance:
Dr. Bold received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mathematics education from Auburn University and started on his Ph.D. in mathematics education while he was in the secondary TLA. He also has a M.S. in applied statistics from another university. He taught in public middle and high schools for ten years before becoming a teacher educator, as well as serving as an adjunct instructor at a community college. When asked to describe himself in four words, Dr. Bold said, “alternative, diligence, open-mindedness at times, and patient.”
As an undergraduate teacher candidate at Auburn, Dr. Bold did well during his internship, and his practices aligned with the program’s goals for teacher candidates. He reflected on his first year of teaching, stating that he faced a dilemma “between teaching how he was taught to teach at Auburn University and teaching the way he had always been taught as a K-12 student.” He tried to satisfy his administrators, parents, and others in meeting the students’ needs and helping them to be successful learners of mathematics.
The TLA enabled Dr. Bold to reflect on his practice. He felt that the required weekly journaling, which focused on teaching and working with other teachers, helped him to improve his practice. Similarly, being a part of the TLA helped him to prepare for his current job as a mathematics teacher educator at a college. He felt that his experience as a mentor teacher for teacher candidates participating in the paired placement model provided the best preparation:
As a teacher educator, he focuses on the intersection of mathematics and science, which is statistics. He wants his teacher candidates to help students to be able to use mathematics as a tool to understand the world, to be able to use real life applications of mathematics, and to connect mathematics to social justice issues. In addition to working with teacher candidates, Dr. Bold also enjoys working with in-service teachers. His goal as a leader is to support in-service and prospective teachers; moreover, he also mentioned he would like to become a leader of teacher educators.
Dr. Bold noted that the TLA’s encouragement of fellows to present their work outside of Alabama was key to his development as a leader, helping him to rethink his ideas beyond his own classroom. He realized that the world was bigger than his own classroom and that there were other teachers interested in learning and growing who he could impact in a positive way. He also gained a broader perspective of mathematics education and has been able to network at the local, state, and national levels.
Finally, Dr. Bold was involved in a curriculum book project early in his career as a mathematics teacher educator and is currently involved with writing a series of grade band books focused on implementing social justice lessons in the mathematics classroom. When asked to define a teacher leader, he said,
The cases of Mrs. Champion, Dr. Green, and Dr. Bold show the importance of purposefully preparing teacher leaders. Each one described the positive impact that the TLA had on their respective careers. They gained content, pedagogical, and research knowledge related to the profession, and the TLA helped them to expand their network of people who had similar beliefs about teaching and learning. Moreover, they shared the importance of being challenged to think about leadership beyond their classrooms and school buildings, utilizing their skills at the district, state, and national levels. Each one emphasized the importance of mentoring teacher candidates and new teachers. While each of the three cases followed a different trajectory in their growth as teacher leaders, the TLA provided them with the opportunities to reach their full potential as leaders by purposefully placing them in environments and situations that cultivated their growth.
To close, we share effective characteristics of teacher leaders and best practices for fostering the growth of each of the characteristics.
We hope that you consider our strategies and the successes of the three teacher leaders as you develop your own programs.
Blog author Marilyn Strutchens is a 2023 ARISE blog series editor. Read one of her blog choices by a team from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and West Chester University, The Rock Cycle as a Metaphor for Developing STEM Teacher Leaders, and watch for an upcoming blog by Dr. Kwame Owusu Daaku, University of West Florida.