Leading from the start: preservice teachers’ conceptions of teacher leadership

December, 2021

Source: Teaching Education, 32:4, 371-387

(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

This self-study explored preservice teachers’ thinking about teacher leadership and teacher empowerment while enrolled in a required, graduate-level course that provided a wide range of perspectives about teacher leadership and activism.
While the effects of many courses in a teacher preparation program are observable through practicum teaching, the uniqueness of this course led to questions about how the goals of the course were being met.
To a great extent, preservice teachers may not immediately have the opportunity to act on what they have learned in this course because they are not yet in the profession and the contexts of the profession vary and are constantly changing.
This lack of a venue to observe the leadership practices of the preservice teachers in this course led the authors to analyze the original writing and policy ideas of the preservice teachers in this self-study.
Believing that a critical conception of teacher leadership is a much needed component of teacher education, this self-study sought to better understand the following research question:
What conceptions of teacher leadership do preservice teachers enrolled in a university-based, graduate-level, teacher education program express throughout a required course focused on teacher leadership?


The Masters in Education in Secondary Education at the urban university is a Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP) and state-approved initial licensure program for students who want to become English as a second language (ESL), English, mathematics, science, social studies, or world language teachers.
With guiding principles in community-engaged teaching, disciplinary expertise, and teacher leadership, the program requirements included courses in instructional planning, theories of learning, development and diversity, teacher leadership, and content-area methods as well as significant field experiences in community-engaged teaching and in secondary school teaching.
Students completed the 30–36 credit program in either one or two years.
The Teacher Leadership in Education course was a face-to-face course, ranging in class size from 9 to 20 students, that met once a week in the spring semester and twice a week in the abbreviated summer session. Throughout the course, students examined the social, political, and economic issues facing teachers and the teaching profession on a local and national level.
Students read multiple chapters from American Education (Spring, 2017), a required text for the course.
In addition, students read a variety of authors and had guest speakers that addressed a wide range of examples of how teachers lead and issues and policies that influence teaching and learning.
Class assignments included: writing weekly position papers in response to readings, student-led discussions, interviewing a practicing teacher to write a teacher portrait exploring how teachers are empowered in their work; attending a school board meeting; and writing a policy memo advocating for an educational reform.
Throughout the course, students saw a wide variety of examples of how teachers were deeply involved in improving education outcomes for students, advancing the teaching profession, and advocating for a range of education reforms.

Data collection and analysis
This research was conducted by the three authors who were all instructors of this required teacher leadership course.
Data were collected in four different sections of the course, two sections in spring 2018, one in summer 2018, and one in summer 2019.
All students were given the option to participate in the research, though data were only used by participants who had no experience teaching in the classroom.
This resulted in 31 participants, 18 females and 13 males.
Since the course is required for all students, each class included students preparing to teach a diverse array of subject areas and grade levels.
The range of ideas they cared about in education varied widely, as can be seen in the issues they chose for their policy memo assignment, which included topics such as teacher evaluation, curriculum development, and anti-racist education reform.
Data for the study originally included all student writing, but after initial analysis, only the final policy memos and teacher portraits were included.
Analyzing these two students writing assignments enabled the authors to understand educational policy issues that students believed teachers could influence, challenges they deemed significant, and how they envisioned their role as teacher leaders.
The first assignment, a teacher portrait, draws on Sarah Lawrence-Lightfoot’s (1997) portraiture methodology and requires students to interview a practicing teacher ‘in order to describe and analyze how they conceptualize their professional work and opportunities for leadership’ (Sheppard, 2018, p. 1).
In the policy memo, students provided a ‘description of the problem, your intervention, the role of teachers in the intervention, as well as the impact of the intervention on teachers and teaching’ (Sheppard, 2018, p. 2).
Each of these assignments provided students the opportunity to present their ideas about teacher empowerment and the roles teachers can play in bringing about improvements in education.

Findings and discussion
Findings from this research provided evidence of the enduring conception of teacher leadership as a school-based activity (York-Barr & Duke, 2004).
The majority of teachers centered their ideas about teacher empowerment and the role of teachers in creating education change in teachers’ classroom work and school-based leadership.
This study revealed that, by the end of the Teacher Leadership in Education course, preservice teachers were aware of the relationship between educational policies and the work of teaching and learning taking place in schools.
They articulated a vision of a professional and empowered teaching force ready to influence their students via classroom curriculum and instruction, yet whose capacities to enact their visions of teaching and teacher leadership were often impeded by outside forces beyond their control, such as school administrators and local, state, and federal policies.
A conception of teacher leadership rooted in the empowered individual working (alone or in collaboration with other teachers) to effect change in a single building is not inherently bad.
Teachers entering the profession with the goal of collaborating with colleagues to improve student learning and school culture is an excellent foundation for leadership.
Yet given the current political and economic contexts of education policy, a single school solution will be difficult to achieve, maintain, and scale-up.
Despite the barriers and at times limited scope of teacher leadership described by the preservice teachers, the findings do not represent a disempowered view of teachers or teaching.
Theirs is a paradoxical sense of empowerment: they believe teachers can enact significant social change on their own through their teaching, yet they – as teachers – are often not empowered to influence education reform because of perceived barriers created by school administrators or education policy.
Creating and teaching their own curriculum is a powerful and at times risky endeavor, one that in some cases only an empowered teacher would undertake.
This view of teachers’ role and power in society is very much reflective of the national reform discourse in education, namely that a good enough teacher can overcome any obstacle to provide an education for their students (Russakof, 2015; Teach for America, 2010).
Students’ writings also revealed that, taken as a whole, their views about what types of leaders teachers could be and the scope of their influence were fluid and contextual, often influenced by the teachers they interviewed or had worked with, as well as the readings and guest speakers from class.
Throughout students’ writings, the authors saw evidence that they viewed teaching in itself as an act of leadership and at times of resistance to the existing power structures.
Despite a range in conceptualizing the scope of teacher leadership, desired outcomes of the leadership, and descriptions of many different barriers to teacher leadership, preservice teachers were finding ways to identify with an empowered view of teachers who had genuine expertise that could be used to enact significant change.
Their writings also revealed that many students were grappling with how to make sense of their conceptions of teachers as experts and leaders when many social beliefs and education policies act as barriers to who they are trying to become.
The authors have learned so much about their students’ thinking through this self-study.
As they plan for upcoming sections of Teacher Leadership in Education, they are thinking about how to better explore ideas about barriers to teacher leadership.
The barriers are often named in their writing, but they did little to support their thinking about actions to take to challenge barriers.
So, for example, in future iterations of the policy memo, they can be more direct in requiring students to identify barriers to enacting their reforms, but also in articulating leadership strategies for confronting such barriers.
This focus on confronting barriers might also influence the types of educational reform they propose in their memos, thinking more strategically about how to address a problem.
This research has provided insight about the range of ideas that preservice teachers have about teacher leadership and the roles they envision for themselves as leaders as they enter the classroom.
More research is needed to better understand what types of teacher leaders these students become and what influences such outcomes.
As the role of teachers evolves and there is increased national attention on teachers, teacher leadership education is clearly an important resource for all preservice teachers.
Clearly, one course is not enough to support teachers’ development as leaders, yet it is a generative space for confronting assumptions about teachers and teaching and developing an identity as a teacher leader.
By requiring preservice teachers to take a teacher leadership course, we are committing to a view of teachers as professionals and providing pathways for teachers to be actively involved in leading educational change.

Lawrence-Lightfoot, S. & Davis, J. H. (1997). The art and science of portraiture. CA: Jossey-Bass.
Russakof, D. (2015). The prize: Who’s in charge of America’s schools? Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Sheppard, M. (2018). Teacher Leadership in Education [Syllabus]. Washington, DC: Department of Curriculum and Pedagogy, The George Washington University.
Teach for America. (2010). Teaching as leadership: The highly effective teacher’s guide to closing the achievement gap. Wiley.
York-Barr, J., & Duke, K. (2004). What do we know about teacher leadership? Findings from two decades of scholarship. Review of Educational Research, 74(3), 255–316 

Updated: Mar. 08, 2022