Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

From Votes to Dialogues: Clarifying the Role of Teachers' Voices in School Renewal

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

From Votes to Dialogues: Clarifying the Role of Teachers' Voices in School Renewal

Article excerpt

Everyone agrees that teachers' voices should be heard in their schools. But what does that mean? And how can teachers' voices be used to improve student learning? Mr. Allen offers insights from his experience with the League of Professional Schools.

AS VERONICA drives home from school, her brow is furrowed in thought. She taps idly on the steering wheel as she reflects on how the opportunities afforded her this year have stretched her thinking, tried her resolve, and ultimately added new purpose and power to her teaching practices. For the first time in years, she feels that she is moving forward in her quest to become a master teacher. As a result of her progress, Veronica has been able to document encouraging gains in her students' learning. Today her school -- committed to honoring teachers' voices -- provided her with yet another challenging and stimulating opportunity to grow professionally. Today Veronica voted on whether students should be allowed to wear hats on Fridays. Oh, boy.

As a result of the teacher empowerment movement that began in the mid- 1980s and continued through the 1990s, it's rare these days to find a teacher, administrator, college professor, parent, politician, or consultant who doesn't believe that teachers should have a say on issues that affect the life of their schools. In fact, it's rare these days to find a school that hasn't found a way for teachers to take on various leadership roles within the school. Unfortunately, it's also rare these days to find a school in which teachers' voices are central to renewal efforts that examine the school's instructional practices with the express goal of improving student learning. Perhaps the current calls for democratic schools and schooling1 will encourage us to take another look at why many schools have stopped far short of their goals to empower teachers.

Why has this happened? Why do we seem content with such limited results from such a potentially powerful idea? First, we in education have failed to define what it means for teachers to have a voice in their schools' efforts to better educate students. We have a vague notion that teachers need to have opportunities outside of their classrooms to exert their will as professionals, but we haven't gotten specific about what that would actually entail. Second, we haven't clarified what we think should be the result of expanding teachers' sphere of influence in their schools. We seem to think that if teachers express themselves outside of their classrooms and find it satisfactory, then the initiative is an unqualified success. In short, we act as if we have a common understanding of what it means for teachers to have a voice in the life of their schools and what happens when they do. But we don't.

What Do We Mean by Voice?

Over the years, researchers and policy makers have written about various types of voice using descriptors such as little, strong, powerful, and final. They have described situations in which teachers have had a majority say in school or district decisions and others in which teachers have had a minimal say.2 These are familiar terms but that doesn't mean that we all agree on their definitions. I hold that school administrators and staffs need to carefully describe the type of teachers' voice they want to nurture and specify what results they hope to gain from doing so. Otherwise, their efforts will be ill defined, leading to confusion between the means -- hearing teachers' voices -- and the desired end -- school renewal that benefits students.

Definition and Types of Voice

Since 1989, I've worked closely with member schools of the League of Professional Schools (LPS).3 The mission of LPS is to promote the school as a democratic learning community that is student oriented and that focuses on improving teaching and learning for all. One of the key requirements for a school to become a democratic learning community is for it to honor teachers' voices in school renewal efforts. …

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