Education Teacher Leaders Network

Is Teacher Leadership a Zero-Sum Game?

July 24, 2007 3 min read
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In a daily online discussion group, members of the Teacher Leaders Network recently explored the question of why, despite numerous leadership opportunities for teachers at national and state levels, it can be difficult to emerge as a recognized leader within a school district or building. Although each of the following members has tried to make an impact at their school, some have encountered stumbling blocks.

Teacher John H. asked the group this question: “I really want to be a leader at the local, state, and national levels. The state and national levels are easier to break into than the local. Is it because there is so little power at the local level that nobody wants to share? Is education really a zero-sum world? Just because I am empowered, does that mean the teacher next door cannot be?”

As part of a new partnership, teachermagazine.org is publishing this regular column by members of the Teacher Leaders Network, a professional community of accomplished educators dedicated to sharing ideas and expanding the influence of teachers.

Bill: You know, John, I’ve found it to be easier—and sometimes more enjoyable—to lead away from my school than it is to lead within my school. When I lead away from the school, I don’t have to fight through people’s territorial pride and protections (ever put two hamsters in the same cage together?) to make a difference. “Turf Wars” exist in the larger world, but the area of opportunity is large enough to happily co-exist with other people in the same big cage.

It drives me crazy because I spend literally hundreds of hours giving back to my profession, and those efforts rarely directly benefit my school or county. But having tried to drum up opportunity and found people to be uninterested, I’ve moved on.

I guess that’s something I’d like administrators to know. Find your motivated teachers leaders, wind them up, and let them go!

Jon: I must admit I have rarely “led” outside of my school district, although I have offered my assistance on many occasions. Only recently have I found myself as a leader within my district.

Now I am being encouraged…to pursue membership on state and national math committees. I am realizing the impact I have made locally and I look forward to having the opportunity to lead beyond. I guess you could say I am sprouting my wings.

Susan: I agree with what you are saying about leadership away from “home” being easier to attain and more rewarding at times, but I have come to believe that my effectiveness in my own building and in my own content area at the district level is, perhaps, the most honest indicator of my leadership. After all, these people see what I do every day.

It keeps me honest and it keeps me humble and it makes a difference even if the accolades are not as impressive.

Caveat: This is through the lens of working with an outstanding group of teachers, for a great principal in a fine school system.

Linda: I think education, and life actually, at its best, is the antithesis of a “zero-sum world.” The more you have of something, and the more you spread it around, the more you get in return. It’s your choice whether the “something” is positive or negative.

And empowerment is no different. Teacher leaders and administrators who “get it” know that the more the power is shared around, the more there is to go around. By each of us building each other up, the stronger we become—individually and collectively.

In some places, accomplished teachers only shine within their own classroom walls, and this is a detriment to the potential of the school as a whole. This is what Peter Senge means when he talks about “Star Teachers” being a BAD thing for a school and for students. I had such a hard time wrapping my head around this, because (a) I love to be a star and (b) it is very hard to shine your light on disgruntled colleagues who resent the glow creeping out from underneath your door. But the effort is so worth it, and we have to make it.

We want as many kids as possible to experience the warmth the comes from being in a room where learning is exciting and active. And the best way to make this happen is to learn about how to surface each other’s inner star teacher. In my district, I’ve seen many outstanding teachers reaching out, sharing what they know, and hopefully, learning new things from the new, entry-level teachers they’re supporting. They are setting a good example of a “win-win” situation.

The more we can do that as teacher leaders—in committees, in team or department meetings, as academy leaders, members of curriculum councils, wherever we are working with colleagues—the more we can help surface and learn from each others’ strengths, and the stronger and more empowered we all become.


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