School & District Management Opinion

Garden-Variety Teacher Leadership

By Nancy Flanagan — March 02, 2015 2 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

I’m currently facilitating an online course in teacher leadership for the Michigan Education Association. It’s a gas.

Comprised of both newbie teachers as well as three-decade veterans, it’s the perfect mix of curiosity, lively intelligence and strong opinion. And there’s so much to talk about, a never-ending policy-practice firehose of brilliant thinking, exciting innovation, incomprehensible policy-making and destructive forces.

This is not a methods course: How to Rise through the Ranks and Get Yourself a Title. I spoke at a leadership conference around that model of leadership last summer, then sat in workshop sessions where teachers said things like “I became a teacher leader in the fall of 2013" and “We don’t have teacher leaders at my school.” The presentations were focused on the structure and funding of leadership programs, crafted and managed outside the local school building.

I worry that teacher leadership is being commodified--that teachers with exceptional talents in instruction, curriculum development, mentoring, analyzing district politics and influencing decision-making will not be seen as leaders unless they have a title or a stipend. I worry even more about how formal teacher leaders are “chosen"--just whose water they’re expected to carry. In fact, I don’t see most of those teachers as leaders. They’re acolytes, and although they may believe in what they’re promoting and coaching, their impulse to lead springs from a different place.

Our topic at last Tuesday night’s course webinar was a series of articles from the Center for Michigan, ranking all individual schools, public and charter, using a complicated formula that addresses low socio-economic status as well as standardized achievement data. The Center was looking for “beat the odds” schools, which they labeled “overachieving.”

Some of the course participants’ schools came out looking pretty good using this formula--others, teaching in wealthy suburbs in schools that are typically highly ranked, not so much. We talked about the American obsession with comparisons and competitions--and the impact on a district with happy parents and high-achieving students when they’re told--hey, you’re not so special.

One of our discussion questions: Besides test scores and free and reduced lunch statistics, what other factors are important in evaluating schools? Programming, of course. Parent satisfaction. My group thought that teacher experience was important (I do, too). Then someone said: What about measuring leadership?

Consider the dramatic effect a good formal leader can have on a building or district--or how leadership churn destroys the remaining infrastructure and staff morale. Leadership is huge--but often difficult to assess, as one person’s transformative innovator is another’s irrational dictator.

What I’m most curious about, however, is the impact of garden-variety teacher leadership. A building, for example, rich with collaborative, experienced staff, who know the community, kids and families, and who are committed to a high-quality education for every child. Even without titles, national conferences and stipends, they have the trust and respect of the people they serve.

They’re the best kind of leaders. Aren’t they? Can we measure that?

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.