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Navigating Change

By Roland S. Barth — April 01, 2001 6 min read
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Recognizing the untapped potential and power of teacher-leaders.

Proponents of school reform, from all sides of the education debate, would like to see schools transformed into cultures hospitable to widespread learning and leadership. Such schools would foster, in students and adults alike, a disposition toward independent, insatiable, lifelong learning. But how to “walk the talk”? How to move in the real world of masking tape and worksheets toward this ambitious vision?

I believe the first step in reforming the learning experiences of young people is to reform the learning experiences of the adults responsible for young people’s education. As Albert Schweitzer said: “Example is not the main thing in influencing others. It’s the only thing.”

I once helped put together an unusual activity on shared leadership and decisionmaking for a group of educators. We enlisted a sturdy sailing schooner, Bowdoin, which was then under the command of the Hurricane Island Outward Bound School in Maine. Teams consisting of teachers, principals, and superintendents representing school districts from throughout Massachusetts went to Boston Harbor and shipped aboard for the day.

While the vessel was tied to the dock, the Outward Bound crew demonstrated how to get the many sails up and the anchor down, where the charts were stowed, how to read the compass, and how to run the engine. The brief orientation attended to, we then headed into Boston Harbor and abruptly dropped both sails and anchor. Our mission for the day, we were instructed, was to sail the schooner back to the Charlestown Naval Yard by 4 p.m. Then the crew went below into the cabin, and the learning began.

How does a group of 60 people, possessing abundant egos and varied backgrounds, get organized and fulfill a very complex task?

How does a group of 60 people, largely unacquainted, possessing abundant egos and varied backgrounds, get organized and fulfill a very complex task? Who does what? Who leads? Who follows? Who watches? Meanwhile, tugboats blasted, destroyers powered close by, recreational vessels buzzed around us, and jetliners, landing at Logan Airport, skimmed over the Bowdoin’s masts.

The pressure was on. The boatload of educators was at-risk. A high-stakes test. Rather like a school.

After a prolonged period that could only be described as chaos, the suggestion was offered by a teacher that we might find out who on board remembered any of our dockside instructions. Had anyone been listening? Could anyone recall, for instance, in what order the five sails were to be raised? Was the anchor to be raised before or after the sails? Next we took inventory of our collective sailing experiences. Did anyone know how to read a nautical chart? Could anyone relate the chart to the compass and actually navigate? Was anyone familiar with the “rules of the road” with respect to other vessels? Did anyone know how to sail? And so it went. After an hour or so, chaos slowly began to give way to some heady and hearty conversation, even collaboration.

As it turned out, an elementary teacher was teaching a unit on map and chart reading, and a high school teacher who raced sailing dinghies was well acquainted with “right of way.” Another teacher had recently been on a windjammer and taken several turns at the helm.

So, as most of the principals and central-office officials stood by, observed, and received orders, the teachers took over. The sails were raised, and then the anchor. And a small band of public school teachers, providing clear leadership and deft seamanship, brought the Bowdoin and its occupants safely into the dock at the naval yard. It was 4 p.m.

Our little band of educators then spent the next several hours in groups, reflecting on our passage and what we had learned from it about shared leadership in schools. We talked about whether it was rank (like “superintendent”) that denoted special expertise in, say, navigation, or whether it was prior experience, or having listened during the instructions and being able to remember, or possessing the personal authority to be taken seriously. Well into the dark hours, the cabin brightened by the glow of the ship’s kerosene lantern, we considered how our experience sailing the Bowdoin back into port resembled the work we do in schools to promote youngsters’ learning. Finally, before we set out for home, we brainstormed, in light of our day on Boston Harbor, about how each team would now go about its work.

One incontrovertible piece of learning from the day was that you don’t have to be or become a principal or a superintendent in order to influence the course of a vessel—or a school.

One incontrovertible piece of learning from the day was that you don’t have to be or become a principal or a superintendent in order to influence the course of a vessel—or a school. Indeed, rank in the hierarchy has little relevance when it comes to school-based reform. Reformers are those who know something about the organization, have a vision leading to a better way, can enlist others in that vision, and can mine the gold of everyone’s craft knowledge to discover ways to move toward that vision. Frank McCourt, the author of Angela’s Ashes and a former classroom teacher, suggests: “Ask the teachers—for a change. They’re on the front lines. Forget the bureaucrats and politicians and statisticians. Ask the teachers. They know the daily drama of the classroom, a drama beyond measurement.”

There was another bit of learning from that day on the Bowdoin. As part of our assessment of teacher productivity in our profession, the group suggested that we ask: “Is the real teacher showing up? Is all of the teacher showing up, as it did on the Bowdoin, or is much of the whole left at home each morning?” We are all capable of our best and our worst. Teachers who give their best most of the time offer schools, in addition to classroom instruction, their leadership. It is in teachers’ hands, every bit as much as it is in the hands of the principal and central office, that possibilities for school-based reform reside.

Indeed, taking a leadership role to improve a school lies at the heart of what it means to be a professional. There is no shortage of opportunities for every teacher to demonstrate professionalism by leading a school, a few tough steps at a time, toward improvement.

With increasing frequency these days, teachers are evaluated on the basis of how successful they are in getting their students’ test scores to rise. Perhaps a more fundamental criterion would be to examine how helpful teachers are, as members of the school community, in providing leadership that will improve the culture of the school and make it hospitable to everyone’s learning. For, as we know, more than anything else, it is the culture of the school that determines the achievement of teacher and student alike.

Our day at sea aboard the Bowdoin vividly manifests the untapped potential and power of teacher-leaders. Yet the culture of most schools and school systems provides precious little support for teacher leadership. Few teachers who take the initiative to lead are welcomed by fellow teachers or administrators. The teacher who steps in and assumes leadership, and distinguishes himself or herself from the others, violates a basic taboo of many schools and districts—and consequently pays a dear price.

Yet when teachers’ leadership is withheld or rejected, there are incalculable costs to both teacher and school. Without such leadership, all too few vessels get their sails up, get their anchors raised, and make it safely into port. And the life of a teacher becomes limited to the classroom—a rich and crucial life to be sure, but not enough for most teachers and most schools.

If the purpose of school is to promote learning and leadership, a good school should be more like a boat. There is much to learn at sea.


A version of this article appeared in the April 01, 2001 edition of Teacher as Navigating Change

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