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Tackling Common Teacher Leadership Challenges

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Summer is a beautiful time of year for teacher leaders: The warm weather and time away from the classroom give them an opportunity to become inspired through rejuvenation, reflection, and collaboration. This summer, I’ve been reflecting on some of the solutions I’ve discovered recently to the common systemic problems teacher leaders face. These insights will help me once fall comes around.

Problem: Some people don't believe teachers are qualified to make decisions.

The phrase “just a teacher” is still pervasive. Many people don’t understand that staying in the classroom is not due to lack of qualifications, but instead is a choice. I have a résumé that would qualify me for a seat at almost any table where education is being discussed. However, like most teachers, I don’t like to build myself up—I prefer to build others up—which means I’ve been reluctant to talk about my credentials.

Solution: Tout your qualifications.

If teacher leaders are going to have a widespread impact, we must start letting others know more about the source of our authority. It’s time we start telling policymakers and stakeholders why we are qualified and why our input should be carefully considered.

Whenever I address a person or a group, I now make it a point to say I am a teacher and clarify my relevant credentials. For instance, if I’m discussing an issue about standardized testing, I will make sure to note I’ve written standardized test questions before. If it’s an issue on which politicians are voting, I reminded them I am the political coordinator of my local union.

Problem: Some politicians are immune to facts and research.

Over the years, I’ve learned teacher leaders can send mounds of research to politicians about an issue. We can speak from experience or present a logical argument and some still don’t budge! Many politicians have an agenda, and they will move forward with it regardless of what others say.

Solution: Get politically active.

Teacher leaders need to speak the same language as politicians. And that “language” is sometimes the number of votes you can garner. Perhaps my biggest impact as a teacher leader came last fall when I worked to help get two new school board members elected to office. I rallied the troops, knocked on hundreds of doors, made tons of phone calls, waved signs, and promoted candidates on social media. My hard work paid off, and I can now have meaningful discussions with school board members.

If you’re new to the political process, start by going to your local supervisor of elections website and finding out which positions are up for election and who is running. Then meet with these folks and find out where they stand on issues that are important to you. After you decide which candidate you are going to support, let them know and determine how you’re willing to help. If that candidate wins, you’ll have an ally. If they lose, at least you’ve showed the opposition you are a politically active constituent who shouldn’t be ignored.

Problem: School districts have few true teacher-leadership opportunities.

Last year, I wrote about how true teacher leadership involves imagination, integrity, inspiration, and independence. Unfortunately to some, “teacher leadership” simply means using teachers to deliver prescribed professional development. Outside the box ideas are quickly shot down with no recourse for teachers.

Solution: Use your local union as an impetus for teacher leadership.

Advancing an idea in your teachers’ union can be very different from advocating within your school’s or district’s administration. The difference is that unions are democratically-run institutions. If you can muster support from other teachers, then you will have an avenue to put certain ideas into action. For instance, years ago, I asked my superintendent if he would support a virtual community of teacher leaders to discuss issues. After multiple unsuccessful conversations, I turned to my local union president, who offered his full support on the project.

Problem: When you lead, you become a target.

Teacher leadership is all the rage now, publicized as a wonderful experience. However, I sometimes find myself being trashed by some of the folks for whom I’ve spent countless hours advocating. I’ve quickly realized teacher leaders have the same problem as all leaders—they are targets for criticism and insults.

Solution: Cherish praise and determine why people are criticizing you.

For every trashing I get handed, I receive scores of compliments and genuine words of gratitude. I’ve learned to cherish those words and use them as armor against attacks. Some teacher leaders may go as far as to keep those compliments in a visible place to reassure them as they do their work.

As a passionate advocate, I sometimes struggle with the idea of seeking to understand before being understood. In order to be my best as a leader, I need to see criticism as an opportunity to improve. I need to assume the best intentions of the critic. If I completely disagree with the criticism, that’s fine, but I must use the disagreement to strengthen my own stance and prepare counterarguments. Teacher leaders need to develop a thick skin, keeping in mind every innovator has to deal with people who are not ready for their ideas. We can often learn a great deal from those who critique us.

Insults spread via online comment sections and social media channels deserve special note. Insults and trolling are not about you: They usually are a power trip for someone or a performance for their friends. In most cases, an insult of this type should be ignored because it typically will not lead to resolution.

Problem: Your voice is drowned out.

Policymakers hear from countless people about countless issues. Chances are the research you just presented is being countered with research shared by someone else. Keep in mind most policymakers are not social scientists who can distinguish valid and reliable research from something of lesser quality. And frankly, research can be quickly forgotten.

Solution: Be a storyteller.

We need to make our time with policymakers memorable. As valuable as research is, it’s not always as memorable as a relevant, engaging story.

Last winter, I was speaking at a public meeting with our legislative delegation. I knew there would be scores of people speaking and that if I used my time to present research, what I said would be a blur. So I decided to tell a story about my own education. Armed with standardized test scores, discipline referrals, and report cards from my youth, I delivered an argument in the form of a personal story. Faced with 60 presenters that day, this delegation (which included the Senate President and President of the House of Representatives) spent the most time speaking with me.

What aspects of your leadership have you been reflecting on this summer? What are some of the problems you’re facing as a teacher leader? How do you plan on addressing them in the fall?

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