Leadership, Teaching

Promoting an Activist Teacher Identity

Empowering teachers as leaders and learners

What does it mean to be a professional teacher? What is the work of professional teachers? How do we construct our understandings of teacher professionalism? These are all questions I explore with pre-service teachers in my undergraduate teaching – most just two or three years removed from being high-school students themselves. They find navigating the complexities of their transitioning teacher identity an arduous task. In their weekly blog posts, they have many of their own ponderings: “How do we as teachers voice our opinions in a professional manner?” “How do we learn professionalism?” “Should teachers be allowed to self-regulate?”

These questions are precisely the reason I moved from being a K-12 educator to being a professor of education – to challenge future generations of teachers to question traditional notions of the work of professional teachers and promote the development of an activist teaching identity. Teacher activism, however, has not always been appreciated. We often see this reflected in the media (and sometimes in research) when teachers are undertaking labour action or negotiating new contracts. Thus, it is important to note that activism in teaching is not just about overt actions like strikes and work-to-rule situations. Rather, an activist teaching identity implores teachers to embrace their collective voice and refuse to yield to narrow, managerial, understandings of teacher professionalism.

For some time now there has been increasing recognition that, in an educational climate of accountability measures and increased top-down control, there is a need to position the work of teachers as extending beyond the classroom and situate teachers’ role in education within the broader context of schooling. For instance, Sockett stated:

“Professionalism requires that we go beyond the classroom performance or classroom activity as descriptors of teaching acts to the complete and complex role a teacher fulfills. Public education needs teachers who able to not only shine in the categories mentioned within the classroom but are also able to undertake the demands of partnership with other professionals, of collaborative leadership, and of a wider role within the school.”1

Hargreaves and Goodson2 proposed the idea of “post-modern professionalism.” They believed that teacher professionalism should encompass engagement in collaborative cultures to solve problems of practice, rather than simply implementing the mandates of others, and self-directed professional learning rather than compliance with the “endless change demanded by others.”3 They advocated for increased professional discretion and opportunities for teachers to engage in curriculum and assessment matters. Sachs4 also re-defined teacher professionalism with her notion of “transformative professionalism.” Here, professional teachers are seen as broadly contributing to the quality of education; they advocate for equitable policies that challenge the status quo, their purview is extended to include debates over the purposes of schooling, and their success is judged on more than students’ performance on standardized tests.

These frameworks and others like them promote democratic understandings of professionalism. Unlike managerial notions of professionalism, which firmly place teachers at the bottom rung in a hierarchical chain of command, democratic professionalism is rooted in teacher empowerment. Here, the lines between those at the top and those at the bottom are blurred, positioning teachers as engaging in higher levels of reflection and taking an inquiry stance in examining educational practices and policies. Teachers are encouraged to participate in innovative leadership opportunities and self-directed professional learning experiences such as teacher networks, action research projects, and collaborative inquiries. It is this kind of understanding of the work of teachers that will propel the teaching profession into the next century.

There is a saying that “the best teachers should stay in the classroom.” This is an outdated way of thinking. While the work they do in classrooms with students is undoubtedly the core work of teachers, we need to reframe our understanding of the daily work of teachers to better support them in doing that core work. The best teachers need to collaborate with other teachers and share their experience and wisdom to enable other teachers to reach their full potential and grow the profession collectively. This is what Hargreaves and Fullan refer to as social capital – professional experiences that allow teachers to learn with and from one other. They argue:

“Some of the most powerful, underutilized strategies in all of education involve the deliberate use of teamwork – enabling teachers to learn from each other within and across schools – and building cultures and networks of communication, learning, trust, and collaboration around the team as well.”5

Teachers cannot engage in that kind of mutual learning and teamwork when they spend their whole workday delivering curriculum in isolation from other educators. In Singapore, teachers sometimes spend less than half their workday teaching in the classroom. The remainder is spent engaging in myriad learning and leadership experiences. This has the dual purpose of capitalizing on the wealth of knowledge teachers bring to the larger system and continuing to develop their teaching and leadership skills.

We need to re-imagine teachers as leaders, learners, and policy actors whose influence goes beyond the walls of any one classroom.

By contrast, our recent study, The State of Educators’ Professional Learning in Canada,6 found that while many teachers have access to high-quality learning experiences, much of this work is done outside of the school day – an add-on to an already onerous list of professional responsibilities. Issues of time, workload and work intensification were identified as major challenges and concerns, with Canadian teachers and school leaders reporting from 48 to 59 working hours per week, compared to an average work week of 38 hours across 35 countries in the Teaching and Learning International Survey.7 Further to this, opportunities for teachers to make active choices over the content and type of professional learning they engage in are important. Approaches to develop teacher leadership, where teachers lead their own and collaborative professional learning, can be beneficial for professional knowledge and practices and for students’ learning experiences. This is the driving force, for example, behind Ontario’s Teacher Learning and Leadership Program8 and Saskatchewan’s Facilitator Community.9 Both programs position teachers as not only leaders of their own learning but leaders of the learning of their peers.

If we really want educators to be the change agents and 21st century proponents our students desperately need, we need to re-imagine teachers as leaders, learners, and policy actors whose influence goes beyond the walls of any one classroom. We need to create hybrid teacher leadership roles that allow teachers to work both in the classroom and in other capacities to lead learning across the profession. As demonstrated in the international examples cited earlier, it is possible for teachers to enact and espouse expanded notions of what it means to be a professional teacher. In doing so, these teachers are laying the foundation for the continued promotion of activist teaching identities that challenge our understanding of a typical day in the life of a teacher. While there are examples of this kind of teacher learning and leadership across Canada, it is not the norm.

What kind of impact can we expect from professional learning that is an add-on to an already full day or week of teaching? What other ways of organizing the work of Canadian teachers might better acknowledge the important role ongoing professional learning serves in teacher development? How might educational systems better leverage the leadership, knowledge, and skills of teachers? What opportunities exist to grow the social capital of educators? These are important questions to ponder as we continue to grapple with ongoing tensions around teacher autonomy and professionalism.


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Illustration: Drante (iStock)

First published in Education Canada, March 2018



1 H. Sockett, The Moral Base for Teacher Professionalism (New York: Teachers College Press, 1993), 8.

2 A. Hargreaves and I. F. Goodson, “Teachers’ Professional Lives: Aspirations and actualities,” in Teachers’ Professional Lives, eds. Goodson and Hargreaves (London: Falmer Press, 1996), 1-27.

3 Ibid., p. 21.

4 J. Sachs, The Activist Teaching Profession (Philadelphia: Open University Press, 2003).

5 A. Hargreaves and M. Fullan, Professional Capital: Transforming teaching in every school (New York, NY: Teachers College Press and Toronto, ON: Ontario Principals’ Council, 2012), 89.

6 C. Campbell, P. Osmond-Johnson, B. Faubert, et al., The State of Educators’ Professional Learning in Canada: Full report (Oxford, OH: Learning Forward, 2017).

7 Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), New Insights from TALIS 2013 – Teaching and learning in primary and upper secondary education (Paris: OECD, 2014).

8 A. Lieberman, C. Campbell, and A. Yashkina, Teacher Learning and Leadership: Of, by and for teachers (London & New York: Routledge, 2017).

9 P. Osmond-Johnson, “Leading Professional Learning to Develop Professional Capital: The Saskatchewan Professional Development Unit’s Facilitator Community,” International Journal of Teacher Leadership 8, no. 1 (2017): 26-42.

Meet the Expert(s)

Pamela Osmond-Johnson

Associate Professor of Educational Leadership with the Faculty of Education at the University of Regina; Associate Dean, Student Services and Undergraduate Programs

Pamela Osmond-Johnson, PhD, is Associate Professor of Educational Leadership with the Faculty of Education at the University of Regina and is currently Associate Dean of Student Services and Undergraduate Programs. Her scholarship focuses heavily on the work of teachers and teachers’ organizations, in the areas of professional learning and educational reform more broadly.

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