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Education Opinion

Teacher Leadership Growth Spurt: A Disorganized Game of Whack-a-Mole?

By Megan M. Allen — March 24, 2016 3 min read

Have you noticed the influx of teacher leadership initiatives? Teacher voice groups, districts and states implementing endorsements and certifications, and more and more formalized roles coming into fruition? Teacher leadership has made it on the Top Ten playlist of education. It’s become almost fashionable and in vouge. I’d say that if teacher leadership were a human being, she’d been drinking her milk and eating her Wheaties...like a hungry teenager, she’s going through a growth spurt and demanding attention.

First, the upside: The focus of conversation has shifted the spotlight on teachers as levers for positive transformation in public education. It seems as though the United States is beginning to look towards educators as the guides to lead us out of the dark shadows of reform, helping us find our way back into the sunlight.

But the downside: It seems like we have a game of whack-a-mole going on, where a myriad of different leadership movements are popping up but nothing is really moving in sync. We are a thousand different ships sailing over a sea towards a common goal, yet blown this way and that by the wind, with no common plan or direction.

This is something I’ve been marinating on for a while: What happens when we have 100 different pathways to “become” teacher leaders? And when someone is recognized as a teacher leader by way of one of these new formalized pathways, what happens to the teacher across the hall, who has already been doing the heavy lifting of leadership but doesn’t have the badge?

In some states, there are district-by-district plans implemented to support teacher leadership. I LOVE this idea because it lets districts adapt a plan to fit the needs of their unique context--their teaching population, student population, needs, wants, and vision. But what if each district has different requirements for “becoming” a teacher leader? Different pathways? And what do these burgeoning formalized roles do to the organic teacher leadership that is already in existence? Does this create unhealthy competition?

In other states and districts, there are across-the-board standards and competencies in place. If a teacher passes certain assessments, they have earned the certificate or endorsement. But what does this do to the teachers who are already living in the realm of teacher leadership? Do they get grandfathered in because they have spent years of the career dedicated to the profession, laying the groundwork?

Lastly, there are places that are jumping on the teacher leadership bandwagon without fully understanding what it is or what it can do. There are plans thrown into place to “do” teacher leadership, without anyone realizing that there has been informal teacher leadership flourishing in their schools for years. And those teachers who have been working informally as leaders--National Board Certified teachers, veteran teachers who lead colleagues in deep pedagogical conversations, teachers who impact others outside their own classroom for example--are overlooked.

The fact that we are having this dialogue on teacher leadership energizes me and overflows my hope bucket. But a tiny voice in the back of my mind keeps getting louder: I worry that if we have 1000 pockets of teacher leadership and that we are all thinking about it and recognizing it in different ways, we may be breeding a complex system that has a lot of gaping Swiss cheese-like holes.

I don’t have a lot of answers here, but I do have a lot of questions. I’m wondering if you are hearing the same voice in your mind. And I’d love to hear your thoughts:

What are the pros and cons of all these different systems, endorsements, and certifications?

How do we recognize the “teacher leader yeoman” who have been doing the work for years, long before teacher leadership began to grow into a more formalized and recognized living, breathing thing?

Do we have a game of whack-a-mole with so many different systems, definitions, and recognitions? And would it be helpful if we all moved in sync?

The opinions expressed in An Edugeek’s Guide to K-12 Practice and Policy 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.

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