Theses Doctoral

How to Teach, Lead, and Live Well: A Qualitative In-Depth Interview Study With Eight North Carolina Teacher-Leaders Who Flourish

Saunders, Chelsey Lee

The embattled profession of teaching is like a sad song on repeat (Goldstein, 2015). For beyond a decade, research has proliferated a deficit narrative of teaching as a “revolving door” (Ingersoll, 2001, p. 514) or “leaky bucket” (Sutcher, Darling-Hammond, & Carver-Thomas, 2016, p. 2), in which at least 50% of teachers quit within the first 5 years (Ingersoll, Merrill, & Stuckey, 2014). In fact, as teacher attrition increases, the teacher-shortage crisis ravages our hardest-to-serve schools (Sutcher et al., 2016). Today, the number of aspiring teachers has dropped to the lowest it has been in 45 years (Flannery, 2016).
The curiosity driving my research was and is whether it is possible to disrupt this deficit narrative of teaching as America’s most embattled profession (Goldstein, 2015). To do so, my goals have been to learn how eight teacher-leaders describe and understand their own flourishing in their careers, if they do at all, and what are the encouragers of and obstacles to their flourishing. In other words, rather than turn up the volume on the narrative of teachers who fail, flee, and quit the profession, I wondered how, if at all, stories exist of teachers who live, teach, and lead well.
For this study, I derived the term flourishing from Aristotle’s eudemonia or the art of living well and doing well for self and others (Aristotle, 2011, line 1095b). I then crafted the beginnings of a flourishing framework for what it might mean for teacher-leaders to live the good life. Through a cross-disciplinary and integrative literature review (Torraco, 2016), I learned that flourishing most frequently includes experiencing passion, purpose, and practical wisdom in work and life. In response, I sought to examine how, if at all, eight teachers who are also leaders—both formally and informally in their schools and beyond—experience their own flourishing. To clarify, I defined teacher-leaders as teachers who I believe grew into leaders (Drago-Severson, 2016) and are “galvanized by the desire to improve and thus ensure learning for all students” and “driven to experiment, take risks, collaborate, seek feedback, and question their own and others’ practices” (Fairman & Mackenzie, 2015, p. 64). Therefore, the eight teacher-leaders for this study fit Fairman and Mackenzie’s definition. They participated in two programs that I believe are strong holding environments (Drago-Severson, 2013): North Carolina Teaching Fellows, a preservice university program for aspiring teachers, and National Board for Professional Teacher Standards, an in-service development opportunity for experienced teachers with more than 4 years of experience. To be clear, “holding environments” can be relationships and contexts that create developmentally spaces for adults to grow and feel “honored for who they are” (Drago-Severson, 2012, p. 48; Kegan, 1982, p. 115; Winnicott, 1990). The Pillar Practices of teaming, mentorship, collegial inquiry, and inviting teachers to assume leadership are four holding environment (i.e., structures) in which adults can feel well held (supported) and adequately challenged—in order to increase internal capacities (Drago-Severson, 2004, p. 88).
I chose to invite teachers who participated in two teacher-development programs (i.e., North Carolina Teaching Fellows and National Board Certification) specifically because these programs seem to provide holding environments. Researchers have shown teachers who participated in these two programs are among the best and brightest or irreplaceable teacher-leaders whom schools want to keep, or retain, in our classrooms (Henry, Bastian, & Smith, 2012; Jacob, Vidyarthi, & Carroll, 2012; Petty, Good, & Handler, 2016). In fact, all eight teacher-leaders who participated in this study stayed in the profession at least ten years despite the last decade of sociopolitical flux and rising complexity of public schools (Drago-Severson, 2016).
To facilitate this dissertation study, I conducted three in-depth semi-structured interviews and document analysis with each of the eight teacher-leaders who work in Wake County Public School System of North Carolina (32 hours), the 15th largest district in the nation (Hui, 2016). I asked them how they describe and understand flourishing, if they do, throughout their career, with close attention to three distinct points in the trajectory of their career, that is, in the beginning years (1-3 years), during the National Board Certification Process (during or after 4 years of teaching), and within the last academic year, which was also an election year (2016-2017). I also asked how they describe and understand the encouragers of and obstacles to their own flourishing. For data analysis, I coded verbatim transcripts from these in-depth interviews with Dedoose in two analytic cycles (Maxwell, 2013; Miles, Huberman, & Saldaña, 2014; Seidman, 2013). In the first cycle, I completed open/descriptive and theoretical coding, and, in the second, I looked for categories and broader themes to display the data in narrative summaries and profiles for each participant (n = 8). Throughout, I attended to research bias, reactivity, and validity threats through analytic memos, member checks, discrepant data, and inter-coder reliability with my sponsor.
Findings from this qualitative in-depth interview study and document analysis contributed to a framework of understanding flourishing for teacher-leaders. Overall, I learned that to flourish, or to teach, lead, and live well, for the eight teacher-leader participants in my study, the good life meant that they needed to prioritize the purpose of relating with students
(n = 8), as I claimed in Chapter V; cultivate connections with colleagues who share common passions (n = 8), as I claimed in Chapter VI; and reflect with their practical wisdom on their priority to teach well in the midst of the push and pull of leadership entangled in flourishing
(n = 8), as I claimed in Chapter VII.
The implications and recommendations for policy, research, and practice from these claims and findings based on these eight teacher-leader participants are as follows:
1. to re-story excellence in teaching by creating teacher pipelines, development programs, and measurement tools (policy and research) that consider holistic frames of teacher excellence to include flourishing (i.e., do the teachers believe they are committed to teaching, leading, and living well?);
2. to re-center relationships in schools, especially for teachers, by intentionally crafting spaces such as holding environments where teachers, principals, and all educational leaders can grow their internal capacities to deepen relationships with students and colleagues; and
3. to re-frame the tides of teacher-leadership and consider the practical wisdom and time it takes for teachers to discern their own priories, their own balance, and their own flow (i.e., push and pull) of leadership based on their own understanding of their ability to teach and live well.
In conclusion, I offer a beginning model and framework for teacher-leader flourishing in order for future research to explore how, if at all, teachers in different districts and states or of different demographics and levels might describe and understand their own good life.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Education Leadership
Thesis Advisors
Drago-Severson, Eleanor
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
May 15, 2018