Published Online: October 17, 2012

First Person

Beyond Tokenism: Toward the Next Stage of Teacher Leadership

Six years ago, when I first joined the Teacher Leaders Network, I couldn't have even told you what teacher leadership was. Through conversations on TLN's online forum (then a listserve), I learned about this powerful concept, which was developing in response to several pressing needs. Teachers were looking for avenues to share their knowledge and provide input into education beyond their classrooms. At the same time, we felt frustration with decisions made by education leaders (from principals to politicians) that so often reflected a lack of understanding about teaching and the realities of students' lives. Teachers who served unofficially in leadership capacities lacked formal recognition and compensation for their contributions, while many early-career teachers were leaving the classroom for professions with greater mobility.

The concept of teacher leadership presented a promising, though vague, solution to this storm of unmet needs. The mostly untapped expertise of teachers seemed to hold the key to transforming our nation's public education system. In retrospect, I joined TLN at a tipping point in these conversations.

Teacher Ariel Sacks
Teacher Ariel Sacks outside her school in Brooklyn, N.Y.
—Emile Wamsteker for Education Week-File

Today, teacher leadership is a popular idea heard in nearly every corner of education. Schools are turning to teacher leaders for help with professional development. They are creating positions that allow teachers to serve in formal, often compensated leadership positions. School-based hybrid roles, in which reduced teaching loads allow practicing teachers to mentor or lead departments, are becoming more common. A handful of organizations, such as the Center for Teaching Quality, which runs the Teacher Leaders Network, and the VIVA Project, an online exchange for teachers and public officials, are helping teachers gain greater visibility in policy discussions. Even the U.S. Department of Education has begun formally seeking out practicing teachers' input.

Ironically, though, the widespread acknowledgement of the value of teacher leadership poses difficulties for teachers. The crucial question for teachers is no longer, "What is teacher leadership?" Rather, it is, "What kind of teacher leadership is worthwhile for me?"

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Teaching students is the single most important thing that happens in education everyday. That is where teachers make their biggest impact. So a leadership opportunity must provide a compelling reason to step away from the classroom—even for a day—or give up our valuable personal time. It must help teachers use their knowledge to empower their colleagues and school communities rather than present yet one more obstacle for effective teaching and learning.

Sadly, in part because of the top-down decision making structures that still pervade education, some of the teacher-leadership roles I've seen and participated in do not meet those criteria. Though well-intentioned, they end up misusing teachers' time and abilities, rather than giving them meaningful ways to contribute their expertise. To help educators evaluate new opportunities and roles, I've compiled some of the lessons and requirements my experiences and observations have taught me.

Lesson 1: Don't Become a Mouthpiece

Many of my colleagues and I have served in formal leadership roles in which we thought we would be empowered to make change but were actually used as a mouthpiece for someone else's agenda. The "someone else" is generally a school or district leader, policymaker, or agency head. Often he or she has the best of intentions but ends up simply relaying directives through the chosen teacher leaders.

I saw an extreme example of this eight years ago, when New York City was developing the role of literacy coach. For a year or two, select English teachers were taken out of the classroom on a part- or full-time basis to lead professional development. They attended workshops on the preferred curriculum method of the moment. Then, returning from the workshops, they led meetings by passing the rest of the English department scripted curriculum documents and telling us what we were expected to do. Some of what we were told didn’t make sense for our students. We asked questions, but the answer invariably was, "There's nothing we can do about it. Do the best you can." At least in the cases I observed, these coaches were not empowered, nor were they empowering the rest of us, because the agenda did not belong to them or us.

Requirement 1: Critical Thinking

Teacher leaders must be able to think critically in order for the role to be worth their time. There's nothing wrong with enlisting teachers to help implement a particular vision, but the teacher leaders have to retain the power to think critically, question the process, and contribute new ideas when applicable. At the same time, we need more teacher-driven initiatives; so ideally, teacher-leadership roles have built-in opportunities for collaboration and discussion.

Madeleine Ray, who teaches an education leadership class at Bank Street College in New York City, advises aspiring school leaders to ask themselves, "Who controls the agenda of your meetings?" The same thing applies to teacher leaders. In considering an opportunity, ask yourself, "What portion of the agenda do I set?" If someone else always writes the agenda, there's a good chance you are more of a mouthpiece than an actual leader.

Another good question to ask is, "Am I allowing other teachers' input into this work?" If you're leading a meeting, and teachers at that meeting question what you are saying, do you have the autonomy to rethink and adjust the next steps accordingly? If your answer is usually, "This is the way so-and-so wants it," then your leadership is limited. In addition, you may well lose credibility with your colleagues.

Not that the situation can't be salvaged. The great thing about the current moment in teacher leadership is that no one has all the answers. We are all experimenting. A conversation with the supervisor who's calling the shots can go a long way. This person may not realize the position you're in—or he or she may be in that same position with someone higher up on the chain. I've found it's worthwhile to be honest about the frustration I feel in a role in which my judgment is being undervalued and to see if a different balance of power is possible. If it's not, for me that's a deal-breaker.

Lesson 2: Don't Accept Tokenism!

As education organizations begin to welcome teachers into their discussions, teachers sometimes find themselves being invited to high-level policy meetings or panel discussions. And they often find that they are one of few teachers, if not the only one, present. For me, this raises suspicions. With the rising popularity of teacher leadership, sometimes groups find ways to officially acknowledge teachers without allowing us to influence their decisions.

Several years ago, shortly after President Obama was elected, I took a day away from teaching to attend a meeting at a prominent policy organization. The group was convened to generate recommendations on education for the new administration. I was one of two teachers in attendance, and we each got five minutes to speak about policies to help develop and retain quality teachers. Given the size of the group, that time allotment was actually quite generous. We each spoke up at other points during the meeting, too. At the end of the event, the moderators announced the conclusions that would be compiled into recommendations for the new president. Strangely, though, the final recommendations included nothing that was even remotely connected to anything my teacher colleague or I had said.

I can deal with disappointment—but I couldn't shake the question, "What was the purpose of my being there? Why was I given time to speak and then ignored?" Though I'll never know for sure, my conclusion was that my colleague and I were there as "token" teachers—so someone could say that teachers were involved in these decisions. More than anything, I was upset that I had missed a day with my students—only to fill a seat, not make a difference.

There are other, more subtle examples of this trend. For instance, a group of teacher leaders might be convened to provide input on a policy initiative. But then that input never goes beyond that table. The gathering gives the illusion of recognizing teacher voice but in fact the teachers are not true partners in the decision-making process.

Requirement 2: Potential for Impact

Just having their ideas heard—not acted on—generally isn't worthwhile enough for teachers to step away from the classroom, where they know they have an impact. We as teachers need to feel confident that our time and energy is going to make a difference, even indirectly, on our students and colleagues. It's not always easy to discern or measure our impact as teacher leaders, especially before the fact, and we do have to take chances on opportunities without knowing what the outcomes will be. And getting past the door, even if it is just to be a token, is sometimes the first step in real leadership. However, we can't stop there.

As hungry as we are for opportunities to advance our careers, we have to recognize that it the actual use of our expertise—not mere tokenism—that will provide the grounds for dynamic, long-term careers in education. My father once gave me some good career advice: "Whatever doesn't help, hurts." If we find ourselves in positions that look good on paper, but don't really help our students or profession, we're better off putting our energy elsewhere.

Lesson 3: Don't Sign Up for the Impossible!

On the other side of the spectrum, sometimes teachers are given almost free reign to lead a curricular or professional development initiative. This can be an ideal situation for a teacher looking to make an impact beyond his or her own classroom. It feels good to be trusted. At the same time, the conditions surrounding the role can make or break it.

Let's say I'm offered a paid position to mentor new teachers at my school or in a consulting role at another school. But what if neither the teachers nor I have time in our schedules to meet or conduct observations? I'm going to have a difficult time fulfilling the responsibilities of the job. Though the opportunity may present as a good career step, it may also be impossible to fulfill. And if I'm also going to be held partially responsible for the performance of the new teachers I'm assigned to, I may be looking at a recipe for disaster.

Or let's say I'm appointed English department chair, charged with raising the student-achievement levels in a high-stakes tested subject schoolwide. Based on my teaching experience and research, I determine that students need to read more. If I'm told there's no funding for classroom libraries and sets of books for English teachers, I've again found myself in an impossible setup. While there may be multiple ways to arrive at a destination, without appropriate resources, my expertise becomes less potent.

Finally, sometimes we find ourselves agreeing to leadership opportunities that take our attention away from teaching, but have nothing to do with our skill sets or career paths. A friend of mine recently found herself managing the high school application process for the entire 8th grade at her school, on top of full-time teaching. She was not professionally qualified for the position, but she stepped in when she was asked. Later she realized she was doing two people’s jobs for only one salary. This took a toll on her personal life and her classroom teaching, and had little to no positive impact on even her own career.

Requirement 3: Time, Resources, & Support

I believe teachers are particularly well-suited to create innovative solutions to complex problems at the school, district, and national levels. However, we are not inexpensive silver bullets that can overcome everything. Though we sometimes pull this off in our own classrooms, we generally need what everyone else does to do our jobs well: time, resources, and support.

When taking on new leadership roles, teachers often need to develop new skill sets. Teacher-blogger Stephen Lazar points out that the skills of a great teacher are usually not the same as those of an effective teacher leader. No matter how successful we are in the classroom, it takes time to grow into new roles, and we need support through that process.

Working in a helping profession makes us vulnerable to the urge to take on more than we can handle. Likewise, in a profession with no clear career ladder, it's easy to see any opportunity as a good one. Educators hiring teacher leaders should ask themselves, "Does this teacher have the time, resources, and support to do this well?" And as teachers, we should ask ourselves the same thing before signing on. If we have misgivings, we need to air these and speak up for what we need to be successful. In the long term, the skill of asking for what we really need will serve us more in our careers than martyrdom, or anything close to it. Just as we teach our students to self-advocate, we need to remember to do so for ourselves.

Over the last five years, education has moved a long way toward empowering teachers to lead the transformation of schools and our profession. But we are still in a perilous transition period, where the right structures or mindsets aren't always in place to support the roles we dream of. We will get there, though. We just have to think even more critically about the leadership roles we take on, continually reflect on the impact of each layer of our work on our students and colleagues, and advocate for what we need to reach our potential as teachers and leaders.

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