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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

Teacher Leadership as a Disruptive Force

By Guest Blogger — February 16, 2014 4 min read
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Note: For the past two weeks, RHSU has featured guest bloggers from the National Network of State Teachers of the Year. For more on NNSTOY, check them out here. Today’s post is from Maryann Woods-Murphy. Maryann is a gifted and talented specialist teacher at Nutley Public Schools in New Jersey, and was New Jersey teacher of the year in 2010.

Last month, I visited the Media Lab at M.I.T., along with a group of educators from America Achieves, a classroom-based fellowship for teachers. Before I went, I expected to see fabulous technology in action and to learn about how to connect the engineering design process to my work as the elementary school gifted and talented specialist in the Nutley (NJ) Public Schools, but I didn’t expect to see a model for education and teacher leadership that would have a profound impact on my thinking.

At Media Lab I was thrilled to see robots and Legos displayed in smart, but playful workspaces. “That’s it!” I thought, “This is how education should feel for students.” As a big-picture thinker, I just had to know what theory of action drove the educational spirit I had seen at Media Lab and that’s how I found “The Principles,” voiced by Joi Ito, Media Lab’s Director.

Since teacher leaders are classroom-based professionals who are on-the-ground innovators, I thought I’d take the liberty of seeing how these 9 principles would help describe the disruptive force of teacher leadership:

1. Resilience over strength - Teacher leaders who work with peers will not always get it right. Real people in classrooms filled with children are dealing with uncertainty, high goals, and limited resources. Being a teacher leader means getting into the nitty gritty of the work with both teachers and students and that requires yielding, bouncing back, and, sometimes, failure.
2. Pull over push - I used to think that when I grew up, I would know it all. I’m still waiting and I’m pretty sure that I’m grown. “Pull” for teacher leaders means that we need to pool training resources, think in collaborative ways with our powerful networks, and pull information from sources rather than reinvent the wheel.
3. Risk over safety - Teaching is not a profession for the faint of heart. One minute in front of children with their curiosity and honest appraisal lets teachers know that this is a profession with no straight lines. As teacher leaders, who purport to lead in a collegial manner, we are building the ship as we sail. Though the familiar is cozy, there isn’t much room for hanging out in one’s comfort zone as a teacher leader.
4. System over objects - I care about teacher evaluation and about all of the little pieces that make up a teacher’s day, but none of us can live in the details all the time. As teacher leaders, we need to toggle back and forth between the big picture and the work on the ground in order to see both and to understand what needs to stay or change.
5. Compasses over maps - There is so much stress in the teaching profession now because folks are hoping for maps and hard guidelines. The big secret is that there really is no map, just a direction. In a constantly shifting landscape, one just keeps moving towards the horizon--better than hiding out in a cave!
6. Practice over theory - We yearn to see theory come alive in successful action. Our theories help us ground our work, nothing more. The data we see every day will tell us when a new theory is needed. A theory is only good as long as it’s useful.
7. Disobedience over compliance - I have to admit that this one is my favorite! The very nature of “rules” is changing in schools as we explore new ways of organizing time, space, roles, and the workday. Though we have to follow our district’s guidelines, teacher leaders continuously work with stakeholders to create better ways to help students learn.
8. Crowd over experts - Organizations like the National Network of State Teachers of the Year offer extensive information about education gathered from teacher leaders all around the nation. The power of networks is the disruptive force which I believe will ultimately topple the old hierarchy of schools and states, changing them into systems of support for empowered networks of engaged educators led by their informed and committed peers.
9. Learning over education - Socrates was famous for saying that he “knew he didn’t know” and the same should be said of everyone in the field of education. Teacher leaders and their colleagues are in the business of building habits of mind for themselves and their students that will last a lifetime, not pouring information into human vessels.

Teaching is a brave, innovative, rigorous, and heart-filled profession that offers its members a life of excitement, intellectual challenge and hope. The tide of teacher leadership has reached a crest that connects with new technologies that connect our networks. Teacher leadership is a disruptive force that challenges the status quo in schools today and it comes to us just in time.

--Maryann Woods-Murphy

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.