Published Online: September 10, 2013

Five Beliefs That Hold Teachers Back From Leading

Do you believe that you can have a positive impact on education beyond the walls of your classroom? If not, ask yourself why, then give a good hard look at your answers. I’ve seen teacher leaders do great things for our profession—but I’ve also observed false beliefs prevent teachers from blossoming into teacher leaders. Do any of these seem familiar to you?

1) “It’s not my job to get involved in politics.”

There is little doubt that many of the daily frustrations teachers and students encounter are the results of misguided policy. Some of these policies exist because teachers did not make themselves heard prior to their passage. When teachers are inactive politically, we abdicate our influence, usually putting the decisions in the hands of those less informed than we are. Most of us would agree that it’s important to teach students how to become responsible citizens, who keep current with the news, have conversations with their representatives, and vote. How can we claim to instill civic virtue when we do not model it ourselves?

Last year, my students watched me fight for our school by organizing stakeholders and by speaking at school board meetings and rallies. And guess what I realized? “Walking the walk” makes a much greater impact on my students than just telling them what they should do when they are older. I’d go so far as to say that it is part of our job as teachers to be active citizens.

2) “I’m not the best public speaker (or writer or fill-in-the-blank).”

Advocating for our profession means helping policymakers and community members understand what we do and how we think our schools can be improved. But many teachers start out with a deficit mindset. They say, “I can’t do that,” because they don’t have the confidence or skill to do it perfectly.

But you don’t have to be a Pulitzer Prize-winning author to write a blog post or letter to the editor. When it comes to speaking, flawless articulation is not required. Sure, there are tricks we can pick up to improve our skills over time, but knowledge and passion are the keys to powerful communication. Perfectionism will stop teachers dead in our tracks—and, paradoxically, keep us from getting any better.

My advice to teachers who want to lead is to start small. With practice, you’ll become more comfortable and ready to move on to bigger arenas.

Start with an issue that taps into your knowledge and passion as an educator. Write an editorial for your local paper, speak at a PTO meeting, or start a Facebook page dedicated to the issue. You might be surprised by the impact of your seemingly small action. Recently, I was shocked to see that a short column I wrote for my local newspaper garnered national attention.

For teacher leaders, passion must trump perfection!

3) “My administrator doesn’t want me to lead.”

Yes, some administrators don’t support teacher leadership. But there are many administrators out there who feel overwhelmed and appreciate teacher leaders’ fresh perspectives.

And there’s more common ground than we might think. Many administrators do not like unfair evaluation measures or beside-the-point standardized tests any more than we do. In fact, issues that give us headaches often give administrators migraines!

Depending on where we live and what protections our unions afford, we often have less reason to fear repercussions for speaking up than administrators do if they speak up.

For many administrators, it’s not that they don’t want teachers to lead. It’s that they don’t want to be blindsided or put in compromising positions. I never ask an administrator’s permission to write or speak. However, I ask about including information that may put him or her in a difficult situation.

4) “But I’m just a teacher.”

Some teachers don’t want to take on leadership roles because they feel like the bull's-eye on a dartboard. Consider all those memes you’ve seen or posted on Facebook defending what we do.

We shouldn’t let these perceptions prevent us from leading. In reality, teacher-bashing is not a new American sport but it is evidence of the concentrated efforts of a few powerful groups.

The 45th annual Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll noted that more than 70 percent of Americans have trust and confidence in the men and women who teach in public schools. (That’s the highest level of trust since they started asking the question!)

Bottom line: “The public” is not out to get us. The public includes our neighbors and cousins, our postal carriers and our dentists. They are our former students and the parents of our current students. They have every reason to back us up. (And even if they haven’t asked, they’re curious what we think.)

5) “My students will suffer if I’m not in my classroom.”

Leading as a teacher can mean missing some face-to-face time with our students. Meetings with district and partner organizations may not be able to convene outside the regular business day. The truth is, our school schedules are outdated and inflexible—they don’t allow as much opportunity to lead as they should.

That said, when we do miss class, do our students suffer? Many would attest that just the opposite happens—our students benefit from our absence. For example, I missed a few days of school last year learning how to be a peer coach and then peer-coaching teachers. Carefully analyzing my district’s teacher-evaluation rubric led to me to polish some of my own practices—and observing my peers gave me some great ideas that I then took back to my students and classroom.

(It helps to find a great substitute. Last year, my substitute was a retired teacher who taught lessons effectively and with his own unique twist. The kids loved him—and benefited from the change in routine.)

Teaching is a demanding profession. It is easy for us to let ourselves off the hook. We can allow false beliefs to become excuses that let us close our classroom doors. These beliefs become reasons not to raise our hands or voices. And then, having excused ourselves from involvement, we groan at the consequences of top-down decision making. Help elevate our profession by rejecting these fallacies. Jump in and lead!

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