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Purpose and Perspectives
For decades, researchers have been writing about how to improve schools and teacher quality (e.g. Guskey & Huberman, 1995; McLaughlin & Talbert, 2006). Many have continued to concentrate on the idea that teachers and teaching are at the center of student learning, as well as prime participants in their own learning (Berry, 2013; Cochran, Smith & Lytle, 1993; Evers & Kneyber, 2016; Macdonald & Shirley, 2009). We propose that teachers’ learning and leadership requires enabling teachers to be leaders of educational change rather than solely the subjects or recipients of externally mandated reforms.
In this paper, we discuss Ontario’s Teacher Learning and Leadership Program (TLLP) – a joint government-union initiative with goals to advance teachers’ self-directed professional learning, teacher leadership, and knowledge exchange. The TLLP offers a powerful approach to teachers’ professional development that advances the concept and application of the combination of human, social and decisional capital to form “professional capital” (Hargreaves and Fullan, 2012) with positive benefits for teachers’ work and for students’ learning.
Methods and Data
The paper is based on a longitudinal mixed-methods study conducted over six years (Authors, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018). The overarching research questions examined:
• What are the impacts of TLLP projects for teachers, other adults affected, and students?;
• How is learning being shared beyond the TLLP project team?; and
• What longer-term impacts of participating in TLLP projects can be identified?
The study involved eleven research methods, including analysis of the program-related documents, observations and evaluations of provincial events for TLLP participants, analysis of TLLP participant project reports, interviews and focus groups with key individuals involved in the TLLP, surveys of TLLP project leaders, case studies of selected projects, and analysis of TLLP online and social networking activity. We analyzed secondary data that had been collected for over ten years as well as gathered a original empirical data from various sources: TLLP participants, project leaders, TLLP provincial team members in the government and teachers’ federation, teachers, school and district administrators, students and community participants.
Results and Importance
Over the years we have learned a great deal about what teachers learn, how they share their knowledge with their peers both inside and outside their schools and how their leadership skills and capacities develop when they are in charge of professional development of, by and for teachers. Several main themes emerge across the work of these teachers, revealing not only the strength of the TLLP specifically, but also the complex nature and wider lessons for professional development organized in this way.
The TLLP professional leaning and leadership experiences, our findings indicate, have significant benefits for TLLP participants’ professional growth as learners, educators, and leaders. The vast majority of the TLLP participants experience improvements in their knowledge and teaching practices. The majority of TLLP teacher leaders also report growth in their leadership confidence and improvements in their leadership skills (particularly in managing a project, problem-solving, organizing and facilitating adult learning and knowledge sharing, collaborating and sharing leadership). As their projects progress, TLLP participants become more confident in implementing new practices, sharing knowledge and practices, leading their own and others’ professional learning, leading a team, and being a teacher leader.
The impact of a TLLP project extends beyond the immediate TLLP team also. By sharing their new learning and experiences with other educators, TLLP participants not only share their knowledge with a wider network of educators, they also inspire educators to innovate and make changes in their practices. TLLP projects have a positive effect on students’ engagement, attitude, and learning experiences. Some TLLP projects help develop better connections with parents and local communities as well.
The vast majority of TLLP teacher leaders report sustaining implementation of practices, professional learning, collaboration, and sharing of resources beyond the initial funding of their TLLP project. The longer-term impact of TLLPs is enhanced also by the growth and influence of the TLLP alumni. A major longer-term impact of the TLLP is that the TLLP ‘way of doing things’ has influenced education policies, initiatives and professional learning in Ontario and is also being increasingly recognized internationally as a successful approach to teacher development.
Our findings are important for understanding the power of teachers leading their own and other teachers’ professional learning and sharing their knowledge and practices to support wider learning and improvement across education systems. These findings do not refute the role and importance of researchers, educators, and experts from the outside; however, in addition, the TLLP demonstrates the positive impact on teacher learning and leadership when professional learning starts with those who do the work of teaching and is embedded in the development of, with, and by teachers as the leaders of their own learning.