Leaders of the Pack

By Nancy Flanagan — December 07, 2009 2 min read
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Live From NSDC, St. Louis-- At lunch, I sat next to three teachers from Iowa. Their school district has adopted a new formal peer coaching program, and they were attending a day-long session to learn about the model. Which is why, they said, the district popped for funding a national conference; they were very excited about the wealth of professional learning opportunities as well as the speakers and the exhibits. For the next few days, they’re in the leadership club. They will be held accountable for bringing back and rolling out some specific skills and information. In the meantime, their perspectives have been honored and their ideas stretched.

And that’s the way teacher leadership is usually defined: through roles, competencies, titles and tasks. Someone is chosen to lead, and they are trained to lead specific initiatives. My afternoon session, however-- “Accomplished Teachers as Leaders and Advocates"--had a different focus.

The presenters were pushing participants to explore their own leadership skills and capacities with a variety of interesting tools and ideas--a more flexible and organic conception of teacher leadership. What we’re learning about today is turning a disposition or desire for leadership into an action plan--as opposed to mastering pre-defined leadership skills.

I’m greatly enjoying this deep wallow in ideas about teacher leadership. I learned that of four leadership dimensions--action, structure, caring and meaning--I am most moved by meaning. There was a good discussion about what moves teachers to lead, what’s uppermost in their minds as they try to turn their passions and compulsions into action. Are you constantly thinking about the people you’re leading? Do you need a master plan, with checklists and indicators of progress? Does a lot a talking and no action make you crazy? I can only speak for myself--but I have to know why I’m doing something before I can plunge in, heart and soul.

An interesting point in the session--the facilitator asks “why aren’t there more teacher leaders?” The room explodes with thinking: Roles get in the way of what really matters. Teachers are shy, and worried about being seen as too big for their britches (it’s the “caring” folks saying that). There are hierarchies and rules in the way--the teacher’s good idea has to go through the department chair and the curriculum council before it becomes action. Teachers don’t recognize that what they’re doing is leadership.

And then a teacher says “Teacher leadership is very risky” and the room quiets down, heads nodding. A sobering moment. These are hard questions to answer. In many ways, it’s safer to be in a skill-based training than an open-ended seminar like this. But--taking risks is good. Right?

A version of this news article first appeared in the Web Watch blog.