School & District Management Opinion

Teacher Leadership: Exception or Norm?

By David B. Cohen — October 08, 2014 5 min read
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In my travels to visit teachers and schools around California this year, I’m hoping to see a wide variety of educators and practices that we might consider exemplary. My goal is not to suggest that other teachers or schools should necessarily imitiate or mimic what works elsewhere; rather, I suggest that that it’s necessary bring together information and resources with an understanding of unique contexts and circumstances, and then make intelligent choices about the best path forwards. Beneath the surface of any particular effective work, however, there are some common conditions that I expect to see at the foundation.

I’m only three visits into my travels, but the common thread that put these three visits so early in my calendar is teacher leadership. I started in San Jose last week, in the classroom of Alicia Hinde, then began visits in the Los Angeles area this week, visiting David Berk and Rebecca Mieliwocki. Hinde is a teacher member of the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing (CCTC). Berk has been active in CTA and NEA, and particularly in advocating for National Board Certification in the NEA NBCT caucus. If Mieliwocki’s name rings a bell, it’s likely because she was the 2012 National Teacher of the Year. All three are accomplished teacher leaders whose classroom practice and external leadership activities demonstrate an important multi-dimensional aspect that I think should be essential in our profession.

As I considered what I might write about this trio of teachers, I had in mind some questions and comments I’ve heard about my project. People wonder how I choose teachers to visit in my quest for exemplary work. Is excellence is a matter of peer recognition, certification (i.e., National Board), selection for honors and awards, popularity on Twitter, or just my own personal relationship with a teacher? With those questions in mind, I started to ask myself if a teacher’s external leadership activities contribute to classroom effectiveness. But upon a moment’s further consideration, I decided that might be a secondary or tertiary concern. Rather, I’m curious about what their classroom practice brings to their leadership work. Furthermore, why don’t we consider it self-evident that teachers should be engaged in some form of professional leadership outside the classroom? It’s not that student learning is secondary at all, but rather, a question of how we build and sustain an educational system that supports all students and teachers in a number of interconnected ways. Thinking of each teacher being solely responsible for the students in one classroom will not transform schools or the profession.

Instead of highlighting teacher leaders as exceptions, I’m hoping the day will come when any teacher with more than novice-level experience will hold some type of leadership position. We have plenty of needs to fill. There are many levels at which teachers need to be engaged as leaders: school sites, districts, county or regional, state, and national. (In Professional Capital, Hargreaves and Fullan further suggest that schools should collaborate in networks with several peer schools, and districts with districts, meaning more leadership opportunities). Then, along with considering various levels, consider the types of work requiring teacher leadership. We have peer-to-peer work relating to curriculum and instruction, including professional learning communities, mentorship, peer evaluation and support. Teacher leaders should have some administrative leadership opportunities as part of effective distributed leadership practices, or teacher-led schools. We should see teacher leaders with sustained and substantive roles in district, state, and national policy development. And we should expect teachers to be continually and strategically engaged with parents and communities, operating with a whole child viewpoint that addresses all aspects of children’s wellbeing. Our unions also need leaders to step up, especially leaders interested in this full spectrum of professional needs and issues.

That’s a lot of work, and most teachers - especially here in California - are already laboring under the strain of classes that are too large, in schools that are significantly under-resourced. It will not be simple or quick, but it will be essential. In order to maintain a stable teaching profession that retains and honors experience and expertise, we need to make a teaching career attractive. Teachers in general, and younger teachers to a greater degree, are looking for ways to lead, ways to keep learning and developing new skills. In California, these issues have come to the fore in multiple policy reports produced by teachers for the policy community, and also in the Greatness by Design report by the Educator Excellence Task Force convened in 2012 by the state Department of Education.

We simply cannot keep adding to the teacher workload. The new version of our profession will require a substantial investment in school systems and teachers, and fiscal conservatives may balk at such demands. Would that they were similarly cost-conscious when it comes to war and incarceration, but actually, it’s important to recognize that we pay the price no matter what. A weaker school system just extracts its cost in different ways.

I do think that the teachers I visited have improved their practice in some ways, some more tangible than others, by virtue of their leadership outside the classroom. However, I’m not particularly invested in proving that as much as I’m committed to the idea that schools need teachers whose skill and experience in the classroom find useful purposes in broader venues, providing teacher leadership for the benefit of all our students - not just their students.

Photo: Rebecca Mieliwocki checks in with students in seventh-grade English class, Burbank, CA, 10/7/14. Credit: David B. Cohen

In one year, I hope you’ll be able to read my book about visiting great teachers and schools throughout California. To ensure the viability of the overall project - all the way from the first tank of gas to the final step in publishing - I’ve launched a Kickstarter campaign. I invite you to visit the Kickstarter page to see a video about the project and read more of the details. Feel free to share widely if you like the idea, too! (Note that Education Week is in no way affiliated with with the Kickstarter campaign.)

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