Education Opinion

Lead? Follow? Mostly, Get Out of the Way

By Nancy Flanagan — July 27, 2010 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Teacher leadership is hot. On paper, anyway. You can read about teacher leadership everywhere, from inspirational essays of the Parker Palmer variety--to dry, prescriptive how-to books published in the education press full of suggestions for creating formal, paid leadership roles for teachers. There are networks of teacher leaders and courses especially designed to develop teacher leaders. Leadership, it seems, can be studied, mastered, replicated, even purchased as credit hours.

What we don’t have, right now, is a rich collection of popular-media stories, documenting and confirming the impact of the teacher’s voice on educational change on a bigger stage. We know that teachers are leading in schools and classrooms--re-structuring the 2nd grade curriculum or sharing their innovative unit on cell division with the other biology teachers. What we don’t have--yet--is an organic, grass-roots movement, a common understanding of how teachers’ craft knowledge and intellectual expertise could productively inform policy creation.

Note: When someone pursues a graduate degree in “educational leadership,” the assumption is that the mission is becoming a principal or advancing further up the administrative ladder. It seems that there is a difference in common definitions of a school leader and a teacher leader. One of the two is powerful and important--and the other is handy force to help school leaders run a more effective ship.

I was working a booth at the AACTE conference a few years ago, handing out materials on teacher leadership initiatives, when a teacher educator dropped by to kibitz. Her college, on the West Coast, had a full-blown masters program in teacher leadership. Very exciting, she said--a core of five innovative courses on cutting-edge aspects of goal- and data-driven leadership. Teachers loved the work--they felt energized by the discussions on organizational dynamics, change theory and creative collaboration. They felt smarter and better prepared to engage their colleagues in the work of improving curriculum and instruction, more confident about mentoring novice teachers.

Then, she said, they go back to school the next day and aren’t allowed to try out their new skills and ideas. Well, I thought. We have a disconnect somewhere, don’t we?

In a wonderful essay, part of a TIME magazine feature, Michael Elliot notes that leadership is one of our current national obsessions. Other cultures see the concept differently:

But leadership, at least in the way that it's understood in the U.S., is not an idea--or even a word--that travels very well. It's remarkably hard to convey in French, while Germans routinely go through linguistic contortions to avoid reminding themselves that the natural translation of leader is Führer.

Elliot deftly summarizes essential leadership qualities in all fields. They’re pretty simple: It’s what you do, not how you look. Know the people you’re leading. Public speeches and op-eds don’t matter much. Persist. Take responsibility when you’re wrong.

Since I learned that Arne Duncan had arranged a Town Hall meeting on Sirius/XM to talk about his new policy proposals, including a hand-picked studio audience filled with a cross-section of teacher leaders, I have wondered what kind of teachers would be invited. The teachers who are so ready and anxious to lead that they pay to earn a degree in leadership that won’t net them a title or a raise--or even the opportunity to share their expertise? The ones who’ve come up against policies which make their work harder, not easier?

I also wondered what Duncan would think about Elliot’s essay. Does he truly know the people he’s now leading--not just the chattering class, but garden variety teachers, across the country? Does he understand that his speeches are hot news inside the Beltway, but it’s teachers who will experience the long-term impact of enacting policy shifts--everything from more testing to the threat of losing jobs they love?

And what would happen if an appealing, market-based policy turned out to be flat-out wrong? What if it took millions to improve a single school? What if it emerged that we were firing the wrong teachers? What if the Billionaire Boys were leading us down the wrong path and the hedge fund managers were backing the wrong charters?

What does Elliot suggest the great leader does when he discovers he’s wrong?

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land 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.