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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

My Teacher Leadership Fail: Up to Bat Without Practice

By Guest Blogger — November 13, 2015 6 min read
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Note: The National Network of State Teachers of the Year (NNSTOY) will be blogging this week. Today, Megan M. Allen, the 2010 Florida Teacher of the Year and current director of the Master of Arts in Teacher Leadership program at Mount Holyoke College, joins us.

I’ve been thinking a lot about preparation and skill development within teacher leadership. Why? For one reason, it’s my job now. It’s what I think about, what I research, and how I live and breathe. Another reason is because I’m constantly reflecting on the professional learning I’ve had as a teacher, what’s worked and what hasn’t, and what I’d love to do differently.

Here’s one of the things I’m ruminating on. As more and more educators are getting opportunities to participate in meaningful ways in the leadership arena, we are using a different skill set. As we shift our work from children to adults, there are some similarities to what we do in the classroom, but in many cases, we need to fine-tune our leadership chops. We’re playing a different game. There are different tools, a different kind of learning, and a shift in thinking. And sometimes, we may find ourselves up to bat when we’ve been perfecting our football game instead. Here’s a case in point.

During my year as Florida Department of Education/Macy’s Teacher of the Year, I had many opportunities to speak to teachers and other stakeholders present at conferences and work on local, state, and national issues. This was different from my past work, which was building the leadership skills of my fourth graders and working on school level committees.

One opportunity that I was asked to take involved four little letters. . . RTTT. That’s right, Race to the Top. I was asked be on the working group that was developing the proposal for the state of Florida. And when I looked over the list of members in the workgroup (that was after I picked up my heart out of my stomach), I realized that I was one of only a few educators on the list, and one of maybe two classroom teachers. Little did I know the impact that RTTT would have on my state, district, school. . . and my students.

So I did my best, but I will admit that I was woefully underprepared. How so? For one, I lacked the confidence. I hadn’t really found my voice. I didn’t know how to play on the same ball field with the big names in the room—the politicians, the superintendents, the foundation presidents. I didn’t have the background information on the impact of federal grants on education policy, and the history that federal reform had on accountability. I wasn’t fully aware of what we were putting together or the process. I was the expert in the room for how this would impact my fourth grade students at Cleveland Elementary School in Hillsborough County, but I didn’t know how to put that expertise to use. I was up to bat, and I wasn’t ready. I think I choked.

I can sit here and beat myself up, thinking that if another more prepared teacher had been in my seat, perhaps teachers and students would have had more voice. Or if I had been where I am now, with the experiences, the purposeful skill-building, and the successes and failures under my belt, I would have been more prepared. Perhaps we wouldn’t be as deep in the accountability hole as we are today in my home state. Or maybe it wouldn’t have made a difference. I can get lost in the “what ifs.”

A big take away: Leadership does not just come naturally, but can also be carefully built, nurtured, and developed. Instead of beating myself up and listing all the ways I was underprepared, this reflection fuels me to help teachers become more prepared when they are asked to sit at the figurative or physical table. I want to help teachers advocate to not only make their place at the table, but perhaps even create and set their own table.

So here’s how this has made me think differently about professional learning, policy, advocacy, and teacher leadership. We need:

  • A strong foundation in education policy. This comprises the history of education reform, the players, how we got to where we are today, as well as a deep understanding of how reforms—federal to local—have impacted the students learning in our classrooms.

  • A good understanding of the landscape that we are working in. Policy fluency. How to stay current without feeling like we are putting our head in front of a fire hose. How to use our colleagues and technology to see this landscape from multiple perspectives.

  • To know how the policy process works—really works. What this entails. How teachers can/should be a part of it.

  • Practice and coaching in communication. Written, spoken, body language— the whole shebang.

  • Knowledge of how adults learn, how to build consensus. Facilitation skills.

  • Skills to cultivate collaboration with a diverse group of colleagues.

  • Confidence. Opportunities to try out our advocacy chops in the batting cage, before we step onto home plate. Experiences that build experience. A sense of knowing that our voice does belong, that we speak for our profession and our students.

  • Networking know-how. How to learn from our peers, to learn from other teacher leaders—in person and virtually—when we have opportunities like these. That networking is a huge piece of teacher leadership, growth, and learning.

  • A deeper understanding of the power of collaboration. Even though there may be one teacher at the table, there are many teachers working collectively and heard in that one voice.

  • Finance training! What teachers need to know about budgets, funding, and money that impact our students.

  • Entrepreneurial thinking and creative problem solving.

  • Skill-building to articulate our practice in the classroom and peel back the layers behind learning and teaching. Preparing for my National Boards helped me do this. . . to really think about the nuances of learning in the classroom and to find the words to describe the complexities of what worked and what didn’t work.

And we must move away from the “anoint and appoint” model of leadership, borrowing from the words of Mark Smylie from University of Illinois-Chicago. I wasn’t the teacher for that job in particular, but there was no formal way to identify teachers who would have had the skill set for the job. Want to see a cool example of a large system that is tackling that problem? Check out what is happening in Connecticut.

We have to think about formal and informal professional learning that builds our leadership skills, through teacher-led movements like the Teacher Leadership Initiative (TLI), through the National Board Certification process, through professional learning modules around the Teacher Leader Model Standards provided through organizations such as the National Network of State Teachers of the Year, and even through formalized teacher leadership programs (my RTTT fail was the impetus for developing our program at Mount Holyoke College).

What would happen if we were strategic about building the leadership skills of our effective classroom teachers?

Here’s my guess.

We won’t be the person in football cleats who’s next at bat. We won’t even be up to bat without having batting practice. No. . .we’ll be pointing out to the bleachers before confidently stepping up to the plate.

--Megan Allen

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.