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Rick Hess Straight Up

Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

A Handbook for Teacher Leaders

By Rick Hess — June 14, 2013 2 min read
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Was recently sent a slender new book by 2009 California Teacher of the Year Alex Kajitani (a hugely interesting guy who is well worth getting to know). Kajitani’s The Teacher of the Year Handbook spells it all out in the subtitle: “The ultimate guide to making the most of your teacher-leader role.” Katijani takes the unusual step of providing a wealth of concrete, practical advice on how teachers can go about making their voice heard beyond the walls of the schoolhouse.

While there are plenty of books calling for teachers to have more influence on policy, offering collections of classroom tips, exhorting teachers to speak up, and relating inspirational stories about influential teachers, one has to look long and hard to find much that tells teachers how to influence policy or speak up effectively.

In a pithy, low-key, and highly skimmable format, Kajitani offers advice on giving speeches, dealing with media, making conference presentations, using blogs and social media... you know, all the stuff that can help teachers contribute effectively to the public debate on schools and schooling. Because the dirty secret is that, even as teachers are frustrated that they don’t have a more influential voice on decision-making, I rarely encounter classroom educators who have a sense of how to acquire or wield that influence. (The exception here are the small networks of teachers involved with TeachPlus, Educators for Excellence, the Center for Teaching Quality, and so on -- but I think they too would find the volume more than a little helpful.) What’s more generally visible are strident spokespeople, angry blog comments, and the occasional rally -- none of which is especially likely to win allies, change minds, or alter policy.

Now, let’s be clear. This state of affairs isn’t anybody’s fault per se. Teacher preparation does little or nothing on this score, nor does most professional development. And few teachers have much experience outside of classroom and school settings, so it’s not like they’d have a lot of opportunities to cultivate those skills. So observing the problem is more of a diagnosis than an exercise in assigning blame. And that’s where Kajitani comes in. He offers practical advice on how to productively engage community leaders, journalists, and policymakers. The advice he offers may be familiar to those who spend a lot of time speaking publicly and talking to media, but it’ll be enormously useful to folks who’ve been too busy actually teaching kids to worry about such things.

When it comes to interviews, Kajitani explains the import of anticipating questions and polishing key anecdotes. He explains why teacher leaders should have business cards, what they should say, and how to use them. He offers a bunch of strategies for how to craft and deliver a great speech -- from the value of telling stories to the importance of focusing on what your audience cares about. He tells a terrific story about being interviewed by Katie Couric, offers advice on how to survive cocktail parties, and provides suggestions on how to pen blogs that will make a difference. He even offers some hugely needed advice on how to make conference attendance useful and how teacher leaders should deal with the question of being compensated for appearances and contributions.

Featuring a bunch of anecdotes and observations from other teachers of the year, the book can be easily read in an hour. Are you an educator wishing to have more impact beyond the schoolhouse? If so, I think you’ll find it an hour really well spent.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.