Teacher-Led Reforms Have a Big Advantage-Teachers: The Experiences of Three Teachers Show That a Reform Effort Gets a Boost When It Is Supported and Spread by Teachers

By Stanulis, Randi N.; Cooper, Kristy S. et al. | Phi Delta Kappan, April 2016 | Go to article overview

Teacher-Led Reforms Have a Big Advantage-Teachers: The Experiences of Three Teachers Show That a Reform Effort Gets a Boost When It Is Supported and Spread by Teachers


Stanulis, Randi N., Cooper, Kristy S., Dear, Benita, Johnston, Amanda M., Richard-Todd, Rhonda R., Phi Delta Kappan


When I first heard about the push for discussion-based teaching, I was not thrilled. Rhonda, our professional learning community leader, was really passionate and kept talking about how it's going to be wonderful, and it will change your classroom. I was one of those people who sat back and said, 'It's just the flavor of the month. The next thing will come along before I even start. It's a lot of work. I'm not doing it. My class is working fine.' But through Rhonda constantly pushing and constantly telling us, 'Yes, you want to try it. This is what it can do,' I slowly gave in. She did a guest lesson for my class, and my kids just loved it. They took off with it. So, I was like, 'Wait a minute. You may be on to something here. Let me try that.' Now, I have seen a huge improvement in my class. Discussion-based teaching allows students to talk, it allows them to be heard; the kids feel like they have a say. To see them explain ideas to each other and get it, to communicate with that respect, that evidence, and have that academic talk, to help each other, it is amazing.

--Amanda M. Johnston, coauthor

Who is best positioned to improve teacher quality in schools when many teachers believe things are working fine, and reforms are simply "the flavor of the month"? Who and what will make a veteran teacher try something new--really try something new? We argue that the answers to these questions rest in teachers themselves. That is, teachers improve teachers--themselves and one another--by engaging in teacher-led reform driven by teacher leaders (Margolis & Huggins, 2012).

Becoming a better teacher by learning and implementing new ways of teaching requires time, effort, persistence, and a belief that new strategies will enhance student learning. But when educational leaders try to improve teachers and teaching from the outside by bringing in reformers to transform how teachers engage in the core business of teaching, reforms rarely stick because the first transformation that must occur is in the perspective of initially resistant teachers like Amanda. This transformation in perspective comes in part from teachers working to improve the quality of teachers and teaching in their own schools by developing a common vision, trust in teacher leadership, and openness to learning. Teachers who promote change can have a lasting effect because the power of teacher leadership comes from helping teachers come together to improve "for their own reasons and in their own ways" (McGhan, 2002, p. 539).

Leading change from within is complicated work. Research shows that teacher leaders must build professional and respectful relationships with colleagues through ongoing communication and feedback that demonstrate their trustworthiness and instructional expertise (York-Barr & Duke, 2004). Teacher leaders also must develop agency to work with the principal, build community, support teachers, and determine, implement, or make manifest a schoolwide vision for instruction (Margolis & Huggins, 2012). But teacher leaders typically have their own classrooms to run and are less likely to press forward if their colleagues resist changes.

Teacher leadership is garnering recognition as a successful reform approach, and more teachers are stepping forward to lead. The stories of those stepping up to the challenge illustrate how and why teachers are best positioned to improve the quality of teaching, and they show what it takes to improve teaching through teacher-led reform. In this article, five Michigan-based educators--two university professors and three teacher leaders--share our stories.

Randi & Kristy: Capacity building

We are part of a team working with high-poverty urban charter schools in Detroit to enhance use of discussion-based teaching, an approach that puts student conversation at the center of classroom interactions (Stanulis, Little, & Wibbens, 2012). Discussion-based teaching provides students across grade levels and content areas with regular opportunities to talk about their learning. …

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