Education Opinion

Talent, Leadership, Blah Blah Blah

By Nancy Flanagan — April 23, 2010 3 min read
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I’m a sucker for books and articles about leadership. Especially teacher leadership, my personal life passion. Teacher leadership is an admirable, promising concept--but it’s also pretty muddled in practice. Stakeholders see teachers who want to lead through significantly variable perspectives: model instructor, union hack, principal’s pet, outspoken veteran, kid-focused go-getter.

I do workshops on teacher leadership, and often open the session with this question:

Do you have a be a good teacher (in the “mastery of instruction” sense) to be a teacher leader?

Surprisingly--to me, anyway-- opinion is often split on this question. Some teachers (especially those who label themselves leaders) think that the “coach” model works here: many top sports coaches were marginal players themselves, therefore coaching and playing--and, similarly, leading and teaching--are entirely different skill sets. Ergo, being an effective teacher leader is not necessarily correlated with being a superb classroom practitioner.

I once had a Michigan teacher use Scotty Bowman as an example of this (shaky) argument. Bowman’s own nascent hockey career was cut short by a head injury, but he went on to become one of the winningest coaches in the NHL. Resisting the urge to ask if there was a connection between teacher leadership and taking a puck to the forehead, I pointed out that what makes coaches great is a deep understanding and love for the game--plus a passion for developing and sustaining talent in the field.

The standard literature around organizational leadership is misaligned with the way schools are run. In the evergreen arguments about why schools should/should not be run like businesses, it’s impossible to ignore that fact that school leadership is almost never about nurturing human capital and initiative. I was very struck by this piece in the WSJ: The Five Mistakes You’re Making with Top Talent. I tried to imagine school principals giving their “high potentials” special perks and assignments-- extra attention to build their leadership capability and guide their career path, designed to foster satisfaction and forestall their exit for greener pastures. Doesn’t work that way.

There’s a huge disconnect between early-career leadership development in business and industry and the traditional, one-size-fits-all management of novice teachers. What would happen if, as a nation, we created policy incentives to carefully select teacher-candidates for their high potential and aptitude for leadership, then dedicated efforts in their first few years in education trying to capitalize on that promise?

Oh, wait. That’s the premise of Teach for America, isn’t it? Competitive admission, presumption of excellence, continuous attention to the development of talent and leadership--as well as the belief that “high potentials” would be not be satisfied with a long-term career in the classroom. Tania Harmon, Indiana Teacher of the Year in 2009, reported that a classmate in her graduate cohort in educational leadership said, when introducing herself, that she would be embarrassed to teach for 20 years: “I’m much more self-motivated than someone who would do that. And, I’m far too good to limit myself to that.”

Well, there you have it. Teaching as low-rent career that no self-respecting “high potential” would pursue over time. Maybe everybody wants to be Scotty Bowman, getting credit for winning games while keeping all his teeth.

I’m going out a limb here to say that you can’t truly be an educational leader until you have experienced standing in front of a classroom, panicked because you have no clue how to get your students to do what you need them to do. And you can’t be an excellent, effective teacher leader until you’ve had some on-the-fly success in that same situation. The rest is just blah-blah. Right?

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.