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Curriculum & Leadership Journal
An electronic journal for leaders in education
ISSN: 1448-0743
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Empowering teachers for school improvement

Allen H. Seed
Assistant Professor, Instruction & Curriculum Leadership, University of Memphis. Email: aseed@memphis.edu

If we want high-level, deep learning for students we have to have highly skilled and intellectually able teachers. That means attracting, developing and retaining teachers who have those qualities, and giving them working conditions that inspire them and offer them a chance to soar (Hargreaves in Sparks, 2004).

The relentless push for accountability and standardisation in the United States moves too many schools and teachers toward tightly controlled curriculum and the accompanying de-professionalisation of teaching. In a time when schools and teachers are judged by their student’s test scores and too many good teachers are leaving the profession, we must look at better ways to improve schools than prescriptive curriculums and deskillingteachers (Apple, 1993). In this article I shall describe one way that counters the prevailing responses.

Empowerment of teachers is a desirable ingredient of school improvement. Empowered teachers have ‘the autonomy to make decisions about curriculum, pedagogy, and assessment’ (Wasley, 1991, p 20). Teachers who are empowered become risk takers by experimenting with new ideas, reading new books, and attending and planning professional development activities in order to survive and thrive in the current high-stakes school climate (McCarty, 1993). They also take on new roles such as team leader, action researcher, curriculum developer, and in-house trainer (Boles & Troen, 1992).

Empowerment encourages teachers to take risks and new roles. Similarly, administrators must attempt new ways of doing things that empower teachers. Administrators must provide assistance in changing the schedule, staffing, and assigning students (Wasley, 1991). They also need to develop structures for school governance that foster teacher participation in the decision- and policy-making activities of the school (Marzano, 2003). This can include utilising new meeting formats, such as concerns based faculty meetings where issues and topics are rank ordered and then dealt with in that order. This meeting format provides teachers the opportunity to become much more engaged in the decision-making process (Simpson, 1990).

The administrators I last worked with empowered teachers by allowing us to form teams, developing a flexible block schedule for us, and building a daily team planning period into the master schedule. They also supported teacher empowerment by acting as a buffer between the local Board of Education and negative community members while aiding the teams in the scheduling and use of facilities. In interviews conducted with these administrators, they spoke about the flak they had taken for the teams, especially from negative community members (Seed, 1994). Another area where they were particularly helpful was in arranging the use of different facilities for the teams. The auditorium, the cafeteria, computer laboratories, and the media center were used frequently by both the 7th and 8th grade teams for various group activities. These administrators also sponsored and promoted voluntary meetings called 'Faculty Forums' to discuss educational issues and trends.

Schlechty states that the best argument for teacher empowerment is the benefits it provides students because it 'promises to yield better decisions and better results' (1990, p 52). According to Sarason (1971), empowered teachers will assume more responsibility as a result of their involvement in the school’s decision-making process, that teacher morale will improve, and that better solutions to problems will be generated.

At the last school in which I taught, team members frequently cited their ability to change the daily schedule as the most empowering aspect of their work. Changing the schedule was called ‘flexing’. One method of ‘flexing’ involved rotating the core classes so that students would be seen by the teachers (and the students would see the teachers) at different times of the day. Instead of having cores 1, 2, 3, 4 in order, the schedule might go cores 3, 4, 2, 1. Another method of ‘flexing’ was to shorten the core classes from seventy minutes to fifty-five minutes, and to hold all four classes in the morning so that special activities, such as learning to dance and march practice for ‘Glory Day’ (the culmination of our unit on the Civil War), could take place after lunch. This flexibility minimised disruptions formerly caused by school assemblies and standardised testing. It also provided for a ‘change of pace’ which, although welcomed by both students and teachers, is almost nonexistent in most schools, and is just one way of moving ‘out of the box’ of schooling (Seed, 1999).

While the empowerment of teachers can reap numerous benefits, there are problems that should be pointed out. Administrators often had to take flak for the decisions the teams made. One instance of this occurred when the 8th grade team spent a large amount on transportation to an end of the year celebration. Several parents were angered by the lack of funds left in the class treasury due to this expense. Another concern the principal voiced to me was the amount of time it took to make decisions under these new conditions. Teachers also encountered problems as they learned to navigate through unfamiliar territory. As a result of our newly granted autonomy, we found ourselves spending a large amount of time on a broader variety of concerns than we had previously. Much of our work involved developing new ways to deal with issues, such as discipline, which had previously being the responsibility of an administrator.

However, if we truly desire to improve our schools so that we encourage and retain highly qualified teachers, we must examine better ways to do things than script the curriculum and deskill teachers. Empowering teachers is an idea whose time has come. I have personally experienced the benefits of being included in the decision-making process of the school. While the results were impressive for us and our administrators, the results for our students were even more powerful.





Apple, MW 1993, Official knowledge: Democratic education in a conservative age, New York, Routledge.


Boles, K & Troen, V 1992, ‘How teachers make restructuring happen’, Educational Leadership, 49 (5), 53–56.


Marzano, RJ 2003, What works in schools: Translating research into action, Alexandria, VA ASCD.


McCarty, H 1993, ‘From deadwood to greenwood: Working with burned out staff’, Journal of Staff Development, 14 (1), 42–47.


Sarason, SB 1971, The culture of the school and the problem of change, Boston, Allyn and Bacon.


Schlechty, P 1990, Schools for the 21st century, San Francisco, Jossey-Bass.


Seed, AH 1994, Teachers in change: A case study of a team of teachers in a changing school, (Doctoral dissertation, Miami University, 1994).


Seed, AH 1998, ‘Free at Last: Making the Most of the Flexible Block Schedule’, The Middle School Journal, 29(5), 20–21.


Simpson, GW 1990, ‘Keeping it alive: Elements of school culture that sustain innovation’, Educational Leadership, 47 (8), 34–37.


Sparks, D 2004, ‘Broader purpose calls for higher understanding’, Journal of Staff Development, 25 (2), 46–50.


Wasley, PA 1991, ‘Stirring the chalkdust: Tales of three teachers in the midst of change’, The Coalition of Essential School. Teachers College Record, Fall, 28–58.



Subject Headings

Teaching and learning