Catalytic teachers’ roles in pedagogic change
Dr Steffan Silcox is Principal, Ballajura Community College, and Neil MacNeill is Principal, Ellenbrook Primary School, in Western Australia. They are the authors of Pedagogic Leadership: The key to whole-school renewal (self-published, Perth, 2005).
Over the last few decades, successive theories of school reform have focused on the nature and quality of leadership in schools. In the late 1970s the school effectiveness movement dominated school leadership theory and practice. When this movement had run its course, theorists began to focus on the role of principals to bring about mandated changes. In the United States, particularly, this led to a focus on instructional leadership, which risked narrowing perceptions of what school leaders should do. In Australia, New Public Management (NPM) has dominated perceptions of leadership from the late 1980s to the present, generating the myth of the hero leader. As Campbell, Kyriakides, Muijs and Robinson observed in relation to the school effectiveness movement, student performance is ‘more heavily dependent on classroom factors than school factors’ (2003, p 350). School change depends heavily on teachers’ willingness to adopt new teaching practices, which in turn raises the question of how teachers themselves learn.
How teachers learn and accept changes to their practice
The popular differentiation between deep and shallow student learning also applies to teacher learning. It is now recognised that the billions of dollars spent across the world on one-day courses for teachers’ professional development have resulted in shallow learning at best.
In transforming the school’s approaches to teaching, its leadership must first define what constitutes better learning and teaching practice. However, as Guskey notes, it is primarily practice itself that changes teachers’ attitudes. Guskey argues that teachers must actually try these new practices with the students for whom they believe the practices are problematical. If the new practices succeed with those students, teachers then have the opportunity to reflect on their values and attitudes, and on the changes to them that are required as a result of this experience. Guskey found that teachers who were able to use certain practices successfully ‘expressed more positive attitudes toward teaching and increased personal responsibility for their students’ learning’ (Guskey 1989, p 444, as cited in Elmore 2002, pp 18–19).
Silcox (2003) has identified a number of phases through which school staff progress in their acceptance of the change or renewal agenda. First, they gain knowledge of, and experience with, the changes proposed and/or required of them in terms of pedagogic and curriculum practices. These desired changes are articulated by the school’s leadership, usually in the form of a sense of direction or personal vision for learning and teaching in the school. Staff then form a positive or negative attitude towards the renewal agenda based on their personal perceptions of its impact on their personal experience of teaching.
The leadership’s communication and people skills are crucial at this point as their ability to persuade coaching and mentor staff is seen to impact on the teachers’ decision to adopt the changes proposed. Once a decision has been made to implement the change agenda at the classroom level, staff will often seek confirmation from leadership about their choice and feedback on their endeavours.
Catalytic teachers and teacher leadership
Often, in implementing change, a school’s leadership will use identified staff as catalysts in the implementation of a renewal of a school’s pedagogic practices. These catalytic teachers are identified as teachers who are themselves either fully engaged or willing to engage in pedagogical and curriculum renewal at the classroom level.
Catalytic teachers are seen as leaders of their pedagogic profession. They share insights with other teachers; they take part in distributed leadership when opportunities are provided within the school context; they are groundbreakers in terms of learning and teaching practice, and have internal and, sometimes, external credibility.
Credible leaders have no trouble in identifying those staff with the desired pedagogic knowledge, skills and efficacy predisposed to change. They are those members of staff who are receptive to new ideas. They question and even challenge existing practice, and they think about their teaching and ways to improve their own and student performance.
Catalytic teachers are opinion leaders, important in establishing the critical mass for change. Such staff can become great allies in changing existing staff attitudes towards the learning and teaching function in a whole-of-school context, becoming an important ingredient in the teaching mix to facilitate an effective change reaction in learning and teaching quality.
In some scenarios it is the principal, in the role of change agent, who initially adopts the role of catalyst for renewal in their school.
Many teachers appreciate and engage with the opportunity to see desired teaching practices in operation. Being creative in fostering opportunities for such interactions of staff with these catalytic teachers is a most effective way to bring about change in pedagogic thinking within a school.
Successful strategies for school renewal and change in general often require school leaders to maintain the impetus for change and to challenge the existing school culture until staff and community beliefs move to be more in line with what is wanted or required. The Tavistock Report (2002, p 124) maintained that in promoting a journey of change, conversation, dialogue and discussion about learning and teaching and the outcomes desired are important elements that must be fostered by leadership.
The most important measure of a leader is not where he or she stands in moments of comfort, but where he or she stands at times of challenge, change and controversy. School leaders who hold an unshakable belief in and high expectations for the ultimate success of their staff and students gain far better results than those who do not hold such beliefs. Getting staff on-side with the change process is a significant challenge that every leader has faced at one time or another. The use and active involvement of identified catalytic staff who have demonstrated a change-willing orientation is one of the most successful strategies for school leaders to employ.
Campbell, RJ, Kyriakides, L, Muijs, RD & Robinson, W 2003, 'Differential teacher effectiveness: Towards a model for research and teacher appraisal', Oxford Review of Education, vol 29, no 3 (September), 347–362.
Elmore, RF 2002, Bridging the Gap between Standards and Achievement: The imperative for professional development in education [Electronic version], The Albert Shanker InstituteWashington, DC. Retrieved 11 October 2006 from http://www.shankerinstitute.org/Downloads/Bridging_Gap.pdf
Guskey, TR 1989, 'Attitude and perceptual change in teachers', International Journal of Educational research, vol 13, no 4, 439–453.
Silcox, SB 2003, 'An investigation of the roles of school principals in leading school renewal in a Western Australian school district', Doctoral thesis, Curtin University, Western Australia.
Silcox, S & MacNeill, N 2005, Pedagogic Leadership: The key to whole-school renewal, self-published, Perth.
Tavistock Institute 2002 (February), Review of current pedagogic research and practice in the fields of post-compulsory education and lifelong learning. Final report, submitted to the Economic and Social Research Council, Tavistock Institute, London.
Subject HeadingsTeaching and learning