Education Teacher Leaders Network

A GPS for Teacher Leaders

By Nancy Flanagan — July 15, 2009 5 min read
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In my third year of teaching, the local union president asked me if I’d like to attend a “Women in Leadership” conference sponsored by the state NEA affiliate. He offered a scholarship—and said he thought I was leadership material. Flattered, I readily accepted. In the 1970s, lots of women were interested in re-defining female roles and responsibilities. My mental picture of leadership training for women: a roomful of young, passionate teachers, re-imagining ourselves as idea generators and role models in building better schools.

The training turned out to be the traditional skill set for teacher unionists: contracts, grievances, confidentiality, managing money, public relations, greasing the wheels. Plus a speaker from the NEA who urged young women in the audience to get involved with the union, because education was one of very few fields wide open to women who wanted to move up.

I was crestfallen. I wanted a kind of organic leadership, collaborating with colleagues. I was not interested in a worker-bee role in the union hive, diligently following the pre-established association leadership ladder: building rep, local president, regional, and statewide roles. And I said so, out loud.

One of the presenters cornered me at lunch, clutching the leadership flow chart from our binders. “Look,” she said, not unkindly, “the women running this conference have great clout over decision-making in their local districts. They worked hard for influence; they paid their leadership dues. Their colleagues trust them enough to elect them to positions of power.”

“You can go off in your own direction, but only time will determine whether you’re a shining star or loose cannon. Real leadership is built by doing jobs nobody else wants—bargaining contracts, defending teachers against wrong-headed administrators, attending meetings, taking care of business. Teacher leadership is democratic; if you want to speak for teachers, you have to earn that right.”

I held several leadership positions over the next couple of decades, both in my local EA and the music educators’ professional association, but never thought I was managing any initiative that would improve teaching, learning or schools. I was taking care of business, all right, but had little influence over what mattered most to me: innovative instruction and curriculum, school improvement, policy, building the teaching profession. I understood the importance of work done by these organizations, but opportunities to genuinely change or impact practice were proscribed by rigid organizational templates and rules.

What bothered me more was the fact that leaders in these organizations were not always good teachers. Organizational power was disconnected from exemplary practice. Awards were given to leaders for longevity and fidelity, not creativity or excellence. In fact, I knew plenty of great teachers who made a deliberate decision to avoid involvement in any leadership opportunity outside the classroom. The familiar close-your-door-and-teach attitude—accompanied by the all-purpose justification of I just don’t have time to do anything else. Of course, running a successful and imaginative classroom practice—head down, focused exclusively on your students and their needs—is more than a full-time job.

But I kept wondering: If teachers with great ideas take themselves out of the conversation and let someone else control their work, how can we ever build a true profession—set standards for exemplary practice, mentor and monitor our colleagues, develop a continuous-improvement mindset?

A New Kind of Teacher Leadership

Three things happened to expand, clarify and illuminate the concept of teacher leadership for me. First, I was named Michigan’s Teacher of the Year, and people were suddenly interested in my unique ideas about educational policy and practice. With other State Teachers of the Year, I was invited to the 1993 National Teacher Forum, and heard inspiring stories from teachers who became self-starting change agents in their schools and their states. I was not alone.

Second, I sat for National Board certification, partly to measure my practice against rigorous standards for professional teaching, and partly to get an insider’s look at the process, tools, and goals of this national assessment for quality teaching. I came away impressed—and was even more impressed with my fellow National Board-certified teachers, who overwhelmingly echoed my desire to flatten and rebuild antiquated school hierarchies, taking advantage of what excellent teachers knew and could do.

Finally, I bought the first edition of Awakening the Sleeping Giant: Leadership Development for Teachers, by Marilyn Katzenmeyer and Gayle Moller. It was my first encounter with a coherent, researched framework for teacher (not educational) leadership, presenting the multiple paths to leading from the classroom. I opened the book and read this: Before other teachers will accept a teacher’s leadership, that teacher must be successful with his or her students. Sleeping Giant became both compass and touchstone on a long and interesting journey.

That was then. Today, there are plenty of books—and blogs, courses, networks, even graduate degrees—around teacher leadership. Teach For America has built an empire by portraying two years of teaching in a high-needs school as a desirable, ground-level leadership opportunity, something I wish traditional teacher-prep programs and associations could understand and emulate. I’m not sure we’re any closer to consensus on what teacher leadership looks like or its potential to reshape education in America. But we’re certainly talking about it. Virtual communities of practitioners, like the Teacher Leaders Network, have found audiences for original thinking on how to use craft wisdom and policy ideas from the field. Teacher leadership is hot, and likely to be spotlighted as part of the new national discourse on effective teaching.

That’s encouraging. But it’s also worth remembering that at this moment, 67 people are creating national standards that will shape curriculum and instruction—the heart of what teachers do—for decades. Psychometricians, policymakers, business leaders, and higher-ed academics are writing these standards. Not teachers.

Talking about teacher leadership is not enough. There is no flow chart or graduate program that can ensure the teacher voice will be heard and valued in policy creation or decision-making. When every teacher enters the profession assuming that they’re taking the first steps toward the capacity to lead, that insights honed by experience matter, we will see an entirely new educational system. This is not a pipe dream or lofty verbiage—respect for teacher leadership guides all aspects of recruitment and practice in countries whose educational outcomes we admire. In the meantime, I recommend the third edition of Awakening the Sleeping Giant: Developing Teachers as Leaders. It’s more than a compass—it’s a global positioning system for teachers who are passionate about their practice and want to lead.

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