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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, Peter DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. Former superintendent Michael Nelson is a frequent contributor. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Teacher Leaders: Who Are the Best Ones?

By Peter DeWitt — May 25, 2014 4 min read
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Very often, real change happens from the ground up, but unfortunately too many school leaders only recognize change from the top down.

We detract or contribute to the negative conversation around teaching in our professional or personal lives. Our words matter, and when we talk with friends, acquaintances at parties or colleagues at work, we contribute to the conversation one way or another. And I have to thank a friend for making me think about that...

Education Teacher blogger, and friend, Nancy Flanagan recently wrote a blog called, Ten Years After: Is Genuine Teacher Leadership Dead in the Water? It was posted a few days ago, but since reading it on Facebook, I have not been able to force it out of my mind. Nancy begins by writing,

Has practice-based teacher leadership come a long way in the last decade--or has the concept become co-opted and marginalized by all the organizations and funders that want to own it? Teacher leadership has been a hot issue for more than two decades, but the dialogue around its definition and mission has clearly shifted."

As a former school leader, I believe she is right. Many school leaders cherish the wisdom of their teachers, and not only call them colleagues, but treat them as though they are leaders when it comes to educating children. Unfortunately, just as many disregard the wisdom their teachers may have. They demean them by saying, “They don’t know any better,” because they read the latest and greatest idea in an educational journal, and believe the new idea du jour is the way to go. They are always looking for the new flavor of the month.

I loved being a school leader. Not because I thought I had power over everyone. I was careful in my approach to leadership and power thanks to a first grader. Yes...a first grader. When I taught first grade I had a student tell me they knew why I wanted to be a teacher. When I asked why, he said, “Because you get to tell everyone what to do.” At that moment I realized I needed to be a better teacher.

Over the years I was a principal, I learned how to be a better leader from my students, staff and parents. I realize that sounds very “Oprah,” and quite hokey, but it is true. My staff let me know when I was going down the wrong path, and they helped make my ideas better. It wasn’t perfect. Some of my ideas were better! But so were some of their ideas. Over time, and through a lot of hard work, we had to figure it out...and I think we did.

But too often, school leaders feel as though their ideas are better so they dismiss their teachers, and treat them like children. Or worse, they agree with their staff in person, and rip them apart in administration meetings. That’s not fair, and it contributes to the negative dialogue about teachers.

Teachers As Leaders?

Nancy Flanagan said it best in her blog, when she wrote,

We made the assumption that teachers who had good ideas, informed and honed by experience, were best positioned to influence policy. We thought teachers could and should gain control over their own core work: curriculum, instruction, assessment and managing a classroom. We thought teacher leadership, as a movement, was just out of the gate--at the cutting edge of a push to fully professionalize teaching."

In many schools, that probably is the case, but in other schools teacher leaders only mean “Yes” people for those in charge. If you do not think that is true, I want you to hold judgment until your next district initiative. Who is there at the meeting? Supporters of the initiative, or a well-balanced mix of people? Who makes the coveted place on the committee? Non-tenured teachers? Or those who always agree.

Recently, a teacher from a southern state wrote to me stating that she visited another school in a neighboring district because one of her assistant superintendents wanted her to see a school in action that adopted the initiative her district was about to adopt. Not only did she notice that she was surrounded by people who would never argue with the assistant superintendent, she said the district they visited were on a watch list by the state and had to adopt the new measures.

Is that teacher leadership? Is that educational leadership?

What Have We Done?

Over the past few years, the teachers we believed were the most creative are now being told they need to change their instruction. Instead of focusing on growth, way too many schools are asking teachers to focus on change. The sad part is that those teachers may already be changing, but the school leaders didn’t take notice because it wasn’t the change they wanted.

I am so tired of hearing teachers being told that they are not good enough because their teacher prep programs were awful when they were in college, or that they just don’t know what the latest and greatest new initiative is. Over the years, we have watched as teachers are told they are not good enough, and then they get kicked a little more by being told that, “They can’t help it. They just didn’t know any better.” And too often it comes from leaders who spent very little time in the classroom.

Do you know how we get teachers to be teacher leaders? We get them by not kicking them when they are suffering from more crazy initiative fatigue due to initiatives that won’t help improve student learning. We get them from asking for their perspectives, even if we may not agree. We get teacher leaders by realizing that they not only have advanced degrees in education, but they have more classroom experience than many school leaders.

Very often, real change happens from the ground up, but unfortunately too many school leaders only recognize change from the top down. And if teachers need to change so much...might school leaders need to change as well? Pay attention school leaders...your best teacher leaders may be the ones who disagree with your changes.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground 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.