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

By Nancy Flanagan — May 12, 2014 5 min read
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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.

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