Opinion
Education Opinion

Ten Years After: Is Genuine Teacher Leadership Dead in the Water?

By Nancy Flanagan — May 12, 2014 5 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

OK. The headline was designed to lure readers. But the question remains: 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.

I asked Mary Tedrow for her take, because we have a long history of wading around in the theory and practice of teacher leadership together. Ten years ago, we co-created the Center for Teacher Leadership’s Teacher as Change Agent course, based on the belief that teachers were experts and in charge, when it came to their classrooms, but very much on the receiving end of policy--for better or worse. We built case studies of garden-variety teachers who succeeded in changing policy--at local and state levels--into the course, because we thought that’s where the real leverage occurred.

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.

If you had asked me, in 2004, what teacher leadership would look like in 2014, I might have imagined a rising national wave of unique place-based, teacher-created schools, teachers serving as ad hoc policy advisors to senators and governors, teachers sharing innovative curriculum and performance-based assessments of student work using newly available technologies. I certainly would have predicted greater delineation, recognition and utilization of the skills of top-tier, long-term veteran teachers, and a vastly more professional approach to selecting, preparing, mentoring and advancing teacher practice.

Have we sincerely pursued any of those goals, wide-scale? We certainly have more books, more websites, more opinions, more formalized, grant-funded teacher leadership programs. Everybody’s involved with a different flavor of “teacher leadership:" Teach Plus. StudentsFirst. Teach for America. The national associations. Even--get this--the federal government. And Bill Gates funds it all.

But what is the important work these teachers are leading? What are their critical goals and aims? Are they carrying water for the organizations that pluck them out of the crowd and nominate them as leaders? Or are they motivated by personal, decision-making autonomy in their work, continuously improving mastery over their craft and a deep moral purpose? (Yup--I borrowed those from Daniel Pink.)

It’s easy to claim a moral purpose. Every organization that dabbles in teacher leadership has a noble mission front and center on its web page. Everyone wants to touch the future, build a stronger America, give every child the education they deserve, yada yada yada.

The people writing copy for those websites aren’t working in grubby underheated classrooms, breaking up fights, or supervising another round of mind-numbing test prep, however. When the copy machine breaks down, they don’t have to punt, for six hours. There’s organization-defined leadership--all those fresh faces on the website, cute kids in plaid skirts and ties--and there’s the raw, unpredictable human interaction of the actual classroom, the place where the “moral purpose” rubber meets the unpaved road.

As for autonomy and mastery? I would argue that they’ve been compromised, at the very least. Chipped away in some schools, crushed in others, in the wake of test-based accountability, (profitable) new school governance models and the devaluing of teacher education and pedagogy.

I don’t see leadership emerging from systemic loss of autonomy over teachers’ core work. I see anger--lots of righteously generated fury, and pushback. The advent of Common Core Standards, with their aligned, pre-packaged commercial curricula and tests, have diminished teacher mastery to following a template.

Michigan has recently, as a result of promises made in seeking RTTT money, established a third tier of teacher certification--called the “advanced professional” certificate. I sat on the statewide commission tasked with identifying a level of certification beyond probationary teaching and continued teaching. At our first meeting, the question arose: What purpose would a third, higher level of certification accomplish?

For some of us, the answer was obvious: Identifying and using the skills of teacher leaders to shape better policy and practice. Third-tier teachers could be the go-to folks for mentoring and induction, curriculum development, peer review and evaluation, instructional coaching, grant-writing, policy analysis and program creation. School districts could keep talented teachers in the classroom, making maximum use of their expertise and leadership.

Surprisingly (to me, anyway), this was not a universally appreciated concept. Other, titled educational leaders and policy-makers sitting around the table were uneasy: Who gets to decide which teachers are leaders? Will they make more money? Have new titles? Why don’t they just become administrators?

And so it goes. We have not--by a long chalk--tapped into what expert teachers know and can do as a resource for better schools and better learning. And there are lots of folks higher up the food chain who are paying teachers--excuse me, teacher “leaders"-- to endorse policies that they find compelling.

I have a Facebook friend whose resume’ distinguishes her as an outstanding teacher leader--a fistful of awards and formal leadership roles. She recently posted a photo of herself with Arne Duncan. Underneath, her colleagues posted congratulatory comments--Look at you! And then, someone posted this: Too bad he doesn’t listen to teacher leaders. Stopped the conversation dead.

I still like the title of the course we created ten years ago--Teacher as Change Agent. I still think that’s what real leaders do--change things that aren’t working, through sheer force of creativity and energy, plus mastery and moral purpose. But--we seem to be moving in the wrong direction.

Teacher leadership--part of the reform movement or dead in the water? You tell me.

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.

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Teaching Webinar
6 Key Trends in Teaching and Learning
As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and a return to the classroom for many—we come better prepared, but questions remain. How will the last year impact teaching and learning this school
Content provided by Instructure
Teaching Profession Live Online Discussion What Have We Learned From Teachers During the Pandemic?
University of California, Santa Cruz, researcher Lora Bartlett and her colleagues spent months studying how the pandemic affected classroom teachers. We will discuss the takeaways from her research not only for teachers, but also for
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Well-Being Webinar
Trauma-Informed Practices & the Construction of the Deep Reading Brain
Join Ryan Lee-James, Ph.D. CCC-SLP, director of the Rollins Center for Language and Literacy, with Renée Boynton-Jarrett, MD, ScD., Vital Village Community Engagement Network; Neena McConnico, Ph.D, LMHC, Child Witness to Violence Project; and Sondra
Content provided by Rollins Center

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Education Hundreds of Conn. Bus Drivers Threaten to Walk Off the Job Over Vaccine Mandate
More than 200 school bus drivers could walk off the job in response to a vaccination mandate that goes into effect Monday.
1 min read
Rows of school buses are parked at their terminal, in Zelienople, Pa. Reopening schools during the coronavirus pandemic means putting children on school buses, and districts are working on plans to limit the risk.
Rows of school buses are parked at their terminal, in Zelienople, Pa. Reopening schools during the coronavirus pandemic means putting children on school buses, and districts are working on plans to limit the risk. <br/>
Keith Srakocic/AP Photo
Education Briefly Stated: September 22, 2021
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
9 min read
Education Schools Get the Brunt of Latest COVID Wave in South Carolina
In the past few weeks, South Carolina has set records for COVID-19 hospitalizations and new cases have approached peak levels of last winter.
4 min read
Two Camden Elementary School students in masks listen as South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster talks about steps the school is taking to fight COVID-19, Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2021, in Camden, S.C. McMaster has adamantly and repeatedly come out against requiring masks in schools even as the average number of daily COVID-19 cases in the state has risen since early June. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins)
Education More States Are Requiring Schools to Teach Native American History and Culture
Advocates say their efforts have gained some momentum with the nation’s reckoning over racial injustice since the killing of George Floyd.
3 min read
A dancer participates in an intertribal dance at Schemitzun on the Mashantucket Pequot Reservation in Mashantucket, Conn., Saturday, Aug. 28, 2021. Connecticut and a handful of other states have recently decided to mandate students be taught about Native American culture and history. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)