Education Opinion

Ten Years After: Two Perspectives on Teacher Leadership

By Nancy Flanagan — May 06, 2014 4 min read
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Ten years ago, former National Teacher of the Year (‘85) Terry Dozier pulled together a collaborative of teacher leaders to build an on-line national course on developing teacher leadership. Dozier, who served as Special Assistant to Secretary of Education Richard Riley in the Clinton years, believed that even identified teacher leaders--instructional coaches, Teachers of the Year, National Board Certified Teachers, etc.--needed additional knowledge and confidence to shape their own work through influencing education policy, and she had research to prove that conviction.

I first met Mary Tedrow when we were on the team that created the course. Mary has a rich, deep resume’ in teacher leadership work, fortified by her daily practice in a high school classroom. Her can’t-miss blog, Walking to School, is one of my favorites. Mary and I will share two perspectives on how we see teacher leadership in America, ten years after creating the Teacher as Change Agent course. Mary goes first:

“Hope is as useless as fear.” (Attributed to C.S. Lewis)

So color me useless.

I understand the sentiment. Soaring emotions engendered by both hope and fear are pretty useless in the moment. They tend to cloud reality. Pink, fluffy clouds can be as distracting as imagined

thunderbolts. Better to get real and focus on what needs to be done next.

But soaring hope is what I felt when you and I, Nancy Flanagan, met in Richmond with other identified teacher leaders to craft the VCU course on Teacher as Change Agent under Terry Dozier’s invitation.

It was thrilling to hear the same vision echoed by other teachers laboring in geographically distant classrooms: Michigan, Virginia, Florida, North Carolina.

I could see it, in my mind’s eye: competent practitioners working together to create a profession where valuable learning experiences for students is the norm, not the exception.

A true teaching profession would mean no longer risking a career by flying against district policy when the students in the classroom need something “unofficial” in order to grasp concepts, love learning, or identify and own their skills and talents.

The teachers at VCU had done that--risked it all--and then succeeded in spite of policy not because of it, and were (ironically) recognized for teaching excellence by the powers that be.

Scratch a State Teacher of the Year and you find a disrupter. Not a maintain-the-status-quo, compliant yes-man. Award winners all, we expressed feeling more like prize pigs than change agents. Our awards did not extend to invitations to help build better teachers--to pass on what we had learned about good practice at some personal cost. The prizes were just a pat on the head. We were gathered to change that.

That was ten years ago. It is a fitting time to look back and see how well we’re doing in the realm of Teacher as Change Agent.

With the rose colored glasses still on, I see movement from many quarters around the idea that teachers need to be in control of their own profession. The NEA published its report from the Commission on Effective Teachers and Teaching, a document reimagining the profession from pre-service to Master Teacher. (Disclaimer: I was on the Commission.)

NCATE has merged with TEAC to form CAEP, a new accrediting body for pre-service programs. The NBPTS remains the pathfinder in defining a profession and those who have mastered it.

The Facebook page Badass Teachers,--a grass roots response to the past decade of the de-professionalizing of teaching through high stakes assessments, closely monitored scripts and curricular maps, and the now clearly debunked VAM assessments, boasts a membership in excess of 45,000. This may indicate that the Sleeping Giant, teachers themselves, may have finally been awakened. A march on Washington is planned for July 28.

The phrase “Teacher Leader” is not a foreign one any more, having crossed the lips of the Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

But back in the real world, the past ten years in my classroom have been a bear.

Just as the ad hoc teacher group discussion with Arne Duncan on May 24, 2010 suggested, the Blueprint and Race to the Top for schools have rained reams of paperwork, more tests, and less freedom to teach on our heads--all at great expense with nothing to show for it in terms of improving teaching and learning.

If anything, teachers have had less opportunity to lead than before. This is a sad, sad squandering of potential. Our stores of creative, humanizing teacher energy have been depleted rather than invigorated.

So Duncan’s recent call for Teacher Leadership is viewed with suspicion--as potentially more head patting to keep teachers hopeful.....and quiet.

Other forces are arrayed and threaten to splinter the notion that teachers can lead themselves. The high-stakes testing industry is placing a huge bet that the Common Core Standards will fill private coffers as they engender another phalanx of tests and yet more data-collection. Duncan has historically been largely on the side of the testers.

Bill Gates, reformer-in-chief, has aligned himself with NBPTS. I can’t say I feel comfortable with that. The pendulum is still swinging in the wrong direction and I’m feeling like I’ll be watching any big changes from the sidelines.

But that heralded tipping point may come in a rush (rose-colored glasses back on) and I’m always on alert for the signs. For instance, the once unassailable CCSS isn’t looking like the sure bet it once since the pushback has some unlikely bedfellows.

This much I am certain of: changing to a profession will have to be done with teachers leading the charge, not outsiders.

And the biggest fights will be among ourselves (is that a thunderbolt I see?)

We can’t be fearful, or even too hopeful.

Either stance will take our eyes off the prize: Doing what is best for students and their learning.

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.