Leading Together: Teachers and Administrators Improving Student Outcomes


Jonathan Eckert

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  • Front Matter
  • Back Matter
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  • Copyright


    For all of the remarkable teachers and principals I know who do hard leadership work together


    For at least forty years, school reformers have called for some form of teacher leadership in efforts to improve teaching and learning. Think tanks are now calling for leadership from those who teach. State education agencies are setting standards for teacher leaders. Growing numbers of school districts are putting teacher leadership programs in place so more classroom experts can assist in instructional improvement efforts.

    Jon Eckert’s new book, Leading Together: Teachers and Administrators Improving Student Outcomes, could not publish at a more auspicious time. Growing evidence of the relationship between teacher collaboration and student achievement is mounting. For example, John Hattie (2012), in his meta-analyses of over 800 studies, found that collective teacher efficacy was by far the most influential school-level variable in improving academic success. Collective teacher efficacy is two times as important as teachers receiving sound feedback—and is most likely to emerge when teachers build mastery in teams and principals know how to support them in doing so (Donohoo & Velasco (2016).

    Jon makes the case, with both professorial erudition and homespun homily, for a form of collective leadership that is less about management training of and the charismatic personalities of leaders, but “the hard work that teachers and administrators do with and for students that ultimately benefits our society.” He has filled his book with insights from organizational science research as well as down-to-earth case studies of schools and the educators who lead them. In doing so, Jon paints a portrait of “what” and “how” teachers and administrators are leading, and what helps and hinders them in their efforts to lead together. By reading Jon’s book, practitioners can begin to learn how to develop leadership for the work that matters most and reorganize schooling that cultivates everyone, including students, as leaders.

    In writing Leading Together, Jon logged many hours in schools and interviewed teachers of the CTQ Collaboratory as he explored how they developed the agency and the skill to lead in bold ways. As he notes in Chapter 6, “Every one of the teacher leaders interviewed cited administrative support as key to their development.” He also noted how their leadership work rested on their “sense of efficacy.” Jon makes an important point here about the need to dispense of the all-too-common “lose/win culture around leadership.” The ascent of teacher leaders does not mean the descent of principals and their leadership. Research sponsored by the Wallace Foundation puts an exclamation point on this matter: Collective leadership has a stronger influence on student achievement than individual leadership—and administrators do not lose influence when teachers gain it (Seashore-Louis, Leithwood, Wahlstrom, & Anderson, 2010).

    Jon’s book comes along at a time when teachers and administrators must serve increasing numbers of special needs students (including those living in poverty and whose first language is not English) while also facing deepening cutbacks in public education budgets. His important work emerges just at a time when a new wave of school reform is washing up on educators—one that places a premium on jettisoning the fixed school-based curriculum and moving toward personalized, competency-based, and socio-learning for every student. Jon’s portraiture serves as powerful counterfactual to the longstanding images of teachers siloed in their classrooms, and principals holding steadfast to their role as the instructional leader. He does so at a time when public educators must play a vital role in ensuring that students are the well-educated citizens our society needs. Democracy demands collective leadership—and so do our public schools.

    I am hopeful that the time has come for collective leadership to become a driving force in creating more equitable and excellent learning for students—despite the powerful forces that are at play to privatize our schools and undermine the public good of public education.

    Here is why:

    • Three in four teachers engage in informal learning.
    • Six in ten teachers use technology to find resources and colleagues to assist them in serving students.
    • One in three participate in some type of external network outside of their formal school district and charter organizations.
    • Three in four principals believe their job is “too complex”—and they are looking for and finding ways to engage with teachers and not just supervise them.

    We now know that the public still supports public education—and continues to have trust and confidence in teachers. Imagine if more of them could translate the images and evidence that Jon offers into political action.

    Jon’s book, with a bounty of exemplars, offers a roadmap for teachers and administrators to take the bold steps needed to organize schools for collective leadership in service of students. With his rich narratives and careful citations of relevant scholarship, Leading Together lets us know what collective leadership can look like and what we can do to create more of it. Read. Learn. Share. Lead collectively.

    —Barnett Berry, Founder and CEO Center for Teaching Quality


    I am optimistic about what schools will do in the coming decades. My optimism is grounded in the many classrooms across our country where great teaching occurs every day. Humble, resilient administrators, teachers, and students are doing this work. We just need to spread what is happening so that this work penetrates every classroom.

    Leadership is the hard work that teachers and administrators do with and for students that ultimately benefits our society. Leadership is what is done, not who is doing it. The work is fluid and context-dependent, which means that the work—not the position, role, or personality—dictates who leads. This work necessarily blurs the lines between teachers and administrators because it is about the work, not the position.

    This is good.

    This is needed.

    The blurring is already happening.

    For the past two decades, I have tried to do this work in schools, colleges, and in the U.S. Department of Education. Over the past three years, I also studied leadership development through hundreds of hours of observations, surveys, interviews, and focus groups with hundreds of teachers and administrators in suburban, rural, and urban—and traditional public, charter, and private schools. Mark Smylie, an educational leadership expert, and I developed a model of leadership development to use as a lens to examine schools. The stories are real. They represent challenging realities grounded in a gritty optimism. Rooted in research, this book is a tool for administrators and teachers.

    I hope Leading Together builds on The Novice Advantage: Fearless Practice for Every Teacher, a book that highlights ways that teachers can grow with one another. My intention is that this book will capitalize on that work so that schools can grow in ways that improve student outcomes.

    This book represents the hopeful evidence that I found in schools and describes the work that needs to happen to transform all of our schools. It is not a prescription with a few pieces of evidence on how to get better. It is a tool for administrators and teachers to grow together because school leadership is complex and deeply contextualized. Leadership is not synonymous with administration. It is not about the lone, charismatic leader. It is not about the superhuman teacher single-handedly fighting the system. It is about educators (in administration and in teaching) working together to improve student learning.

    I know you are busy. I have also taught long enough to know how people read. Feel free to pick and choose chapters most helpful to you given the time you have and your specific needs. If you need to read this in three- to five-minute chunks between meetings or before you fall asleep with your face in the book, you can. If you have more time, there is plenty to digest and a broad literature base to consume. Each chapter is frontloaded with key takeaways and framing questions. Each chapter has discussion questions, action steps, and “what can we do right now?” sections for teachers and administrators. There are reflection boxes embedded in each chapter. Ideally, teachers and administrators will read this together so that they can then lead and learn together.

    Chapter 1, Developing Leadership for the Work That Matters Most describes the current opportunities and challenges for developing the leadership schools need.

    Chapter 2, The “Ideal” School outlines a model for teacher leadership development derived from research in the organizational sciences for leadership development, work redesign, and teacher leadership. It describes a model, not for a perfect school, but for schools that can become ideal in your diverse contexts.

    To ground the ideal in reality, Chapter 3 to Chapter 5 offer insights from three different schools: one rural, one urban, and one suburban. For ease of comparison, the schools are all traditional public high schools, but you can apply the lessons to all types of schools; you will find supplements with evidence from all levels. These chapters address issues that affect all schools—federal policy, issues of poverty, English language learning, school safety, and equity. The insights are applicable to all different contexts, but if you are pressed for time, choose your own adventure based on your particular context.

    Chapter 3, The Rural Grassroots tells the story of a small, rural school that is allowing the leadership work to bubble up based on the identified needs of students and teachers.

    Chapter 4, The Urban Transition details the leadership work that began seven years ago when all thirteen administrators at this large, urban school were fired midway through the year.

    Chapter 5, The Suburban Blueprint describes the pervasive and increasing relational trust growing through teacher-administrator collaboration and professional learning communities that support shared leadership work in a large, suburban school.

    The final two chapters describe the opportunities, challenges, and next steps that leaders and research suggest.

    Chapter 6, Ideal Leaders, Not Solo Superheroes compiles the wisdom of teacher leaders from across the country about what was vital for their development and work in their schools. Their insights, while unique from the evidence collected in schools, point to the need for systemic development of leadership work for school improvement.

    Chapter 7, Fearless Improvement describes what schools can do to design work, build capacity, and deliver results for students. This chapter also provides the tools to move the work forward that will transform your school. If you are like me—impatient, pragmatic, and strapped for time—you may be tempted to skip to this chapter. One word of warning: if you do, you will miss some of the powerful insights from leaders doing the leadership work that has to be done. We need to know the stories before the resolution makes any sense.


    As with anything I write, this book would not be possible without the examples, support, and hard work of others. For over two decades, I have been the beneficiary of amazing colleagues—administrators, teachers, students, and parents. They influence everything I write. For this book, three schools welcomed me into their communities. The Center for Teaching Quality brought together some of the best teachers in the United States and allowed me to spend several days interviewing them and collecting evidence. I am so grateful to these schools and leaders for their honesty and examples.

    Through data collection and writing numerous drafts, I had significant help and feedback from many people. At the risk of leaving some people out, I have to specifically thank McKenna Fitzharris, Erin Bagley, Mark Hiben, Jasmine Ulmer, Joan Dabrowski, Barnett Berry, Ann Byrd, and Alesha Daughtrey. Barnett, Ann, and Alesha, thank you for always pushing my thinking, helping me think differently about collective leadership, and for making me part of your work family at CTQ. Mark Smylie, thank you for your mentorship and friendship that started around this leadership development work.

    Thanks to my colleagues at Wheaton College, particularly the education department, for giving me the time through my sabbatical to collect evidence in schools. Thanks especially to Patti McDonell, Paul Egeland, Dot Chappell, and Phil Ryken for your constant support and encouragement.

    As always, I am grateful for the Corwin team as they guided me through this process—especially Arnis Burvikovs, Desirée Bartlett, and Kaitlyn Irwin.

    Finally, my family makes all of this work possible. The providential blessing of my parents, brothers, wife, and children ground me in the reality of what is most important. Thank you, Ben, Sarah, and Grace for being the best kids I could imagine. Carolyn, thank you for always being my first editor, counselor, reality check, and best friend.

    About the Author

    Jonathan Eckert was a public school teacher outside of Chicago and Nashville for twelve years. He earned his doctorate in education at Vanderbilt University and served as a U.S. Department of Education Teaching Ambassador Fellow in both the Bush and Obama administrations. Currently, he is an associate professor of education at Wheaton College, where he prepares teachers and returns regularly to teach in the district where his career began. In addition to leading professional development across the country, he has published numerous peer-reviewed and practitioner articles on teaching effectiveness and education policy and is the author of The Novice Advantage: Fearless Practice for Every Teacher (Corwin, 2016).

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