Teacher Leadership is tough. There are obstacles everywhere.
Much like those who disrespect the purpose of the left lane on a freeway, inconsiderate drivers on the educational highway impede the work of teacher leaders. They slow the momentum teacher leaders build and block the lane needed to reach other teachers. These obstacles are more than just frustrating, however. They are a danger to the future of public education.
Teacher leadership has been disregarded as a worthwhile investment in schools, evidenced by the small number of states with recognized positions of teacher leadership. A 2016 study by NNSTOY focused on teacher career advancement initiatives showed few teachers are paid beyond teaching contracts for informal leadership roles. And while teacher leadership is significantly related to student achievement, few states offer hybrid positions wherein teachers can lead colleagues while still in the classroom.
So, why doesn’t teacher leadership just drive through? What’s the hold up?
Administrators are often camped in the left lane, resistant to trust in teachers who challenge the thinking of colleagues and encourage creative instructional changes. Some administrators even limit support for teachers recognized for their innovative practices. Obtaining permission to leave class to speak at a conference can be uncomfortable, even for teachers who are asked to speak. I have often thought that administrative resistance may be based on intimidation or fear of losing a strong teacher, when in fact, by supporting teacher leaders, school instruction and learning are strengthened, and teacher leaders are motivated to do more. On a personal note, I was lucky. After my state recognition, my principal moved out of the left lane and offered me unwavering professional support both in our school and beyond. But for so many, administrative obstacles are enough to discourage teacher leaders from driving through, and often cause teachers to take the exit, leaving the school, or worse, the profession. Every year, master teachers, wanting to share their expertise, leave for district coaching positions or private consulting opportunities. With few hybrid options, they see this as their only opportunity to broadly lead instruction.
Policy can seem like a semi-truck in the left lane, mostly because it’s so difficult for a teacher to get around. In many states, an absence of teacher leader career pathways is often perpetuated by policy crafted by those without educational backgrounds. Lack of teacher voice in the policy making process may also be a contributing factor. Why don’t teachers speak up? The policy semi is long and intimidating, and many potential teacher leaders drive in the shadows rather than sharing their voices with policy makers and pressuring them to change lanes. Teacher leaders must courageously pull up to the side of the policy semi: invite legislators and board members to observe you while teaching, remembering that you are the expert! Connect with policy makers via email and on social media platforms: share both your successes and discouraging experiences in teaching while posing important questions about policy.
Tradition often rolls along in the left lane, stereo playing loudly, comfortable with the systems already in place. Systems grounded in the antiquated belief that district instructional coaches are sufficient to supplement instructional leadership, ignoring the benefits of master teachers leading their peers while still experiencing similar challenges in their own classrooms. Teachers often resist instructional coaches who are not in the classroom, feeling their perspectives lack relevance. The opportunity for hybrid positions opens the left lane for teacher leaders to travel within their schools and share expertise with those more open to feedback from master teachers still in the classroom.
Teachers, unfortunately, often create the back up in the left lane themselves. Some who have tried to lead beyond their classrooms have become disheartened by the inconvenience of unofficial teacher leadership. Feeling intimidated by prohibitive policies and a lack of appreciation for teacher leaders, they fall back in the lane and assume a slower speed. Even if a teacher leader feels his or her ideas are worthy and appreciated by colleagues, the challenges of writing sub plans can be enough to discourage teachers from engaging in opportunities beyond school walls. Anyone who has spent the time to develop meaningful sub plans only to return to find their kids did not have a worthwhile experience knows the feeling of guilt that prevents you from dodging the lanes to find an alternative leadership route.
Today, a significant danger in blocking the lane for teacher leaders is that traffic for potential teacher candidates may make the drive not worth the effort. The lack of career options in teaching continues to lessen the pool of applicants in every state. Creating teacher leader career pathways is quite possibly one of the greatest recruitment and retention tools available. Not every teacher desires to be a school administrator, nor should they feel they have to in order to be challenged instructionally or enjoy career-worthy compensation. Feeling your expertise is valuable enough to be acknowledged both in pay and position can be a game changer for teachers who may be tempted to leave as well as for those considering a teaching career. We cannot be complacent with so few lane options in teaching. The future of public education demands we open more lanes for teacher leaders.
To those individuals and policies that are camped out in the left lane, move over and let teacher leaders drive through.
Allison Riddle is the 2014 Utah Teacher of the Year and a member of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year (NNSTOY). She is the Elementary Mentor Supervisor for Davis District I in Northern Utah.
The opinions expressed in Teacher-Leader Voices 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.