Student Well-Being Opinion

Teacher Leadership vs. Teacher Professionalism

By Nancy Flanagan — October 29, 2016 3 min read
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I am currently facilitating an online course in teacher leadership—called Teacher as Change Agent—for the Center for Teacher Leadership (CTL) at Virginia Commonwealth University. Last Tuesday, Mary Tedrow, a bona fide teacher leader from Virginia, was the guest at our webinar. Tedrow has a distinguished and varied resume and said lots of smart, lively, and provocative things in her remarks, including this, in response to a class member’s question about opportunities to lead in her school:

Remember, teacher leadership is a threat to an established system.

That comment resonated in my thinking for several days. Who is truly afraid of genuine leadership emerging from practitioners?

Given the surfeit of classes, graduate degrees, nonprofits, and blue-ribbon reports on the shiny possibilities of teacher leadership, it’s a difficult concept to reconcile. My social media stream gives me daily pre-packaged opportunities to read about teachers who are leading: changing lives by staffing a brand new charter, embracing new learning management systems, talking to policy makers about ESSA, reviewing textbooks to ascertain their alignment to the Common Core, and serving on committees to develop yet another model of teacher evaluation.

And that’s just in the last 10 days.

Teacher leaders are everywhere. Often, they’re doing precisely what the established system wants them to do—accepting leadership roles and tasks pre-defined by that same system, for the distinction of being named a leader in a flat profession. Sometimes, they even get compensation or perks.

Still, there’s something compelling and authentic about Mary’s statement about teacher leadership being a threat, and the threat applies to teachers and school leaders across the board. Jump on the approved policy and programming bandwagon, and—bingo!—you’re a leader. A cheerleader, in fact.

Thoughtfully resist the churn of change, critique the intention or outcomes of any initiative, or embark on your own experience-honed plan to do right by kids, however—and you run the risk of being labeled a “rider” by no less than Ron Clark in his new book Move Your Bus.

According to Clark, riders hinder success and drag the team down--and it’s the leader’s job to recognize how members fall into categories (from drivers and runners, down to lackluster walkers), encourage them to keep the “bus” moving by “working together,” and “know when it’s time to kick the riders off.”

This isn’t exactly a new idea in teacher leadership literature. Phil Schlecty did something similar over 20 years ago with a frequently-used model that allowed for the fact that leading the pack, while an exciting and visible place to be, had its downside—sometimes turning trailblazers into saboteurs.

Schlecty, unlike Clark, never suggested that lag-behinds and questioners be booted off the journey, either. But then Schlecty was doing work on school improvement in a time before the accountability movement, when the assumption was that experience was the best teacher, and nobody was suggesting that student achievement data was the best way to evaluate teacher performance and the institutions that train educators.

I think Daniel Katz, in a terrific new piece about evaluating the institutions that prepare teachers entitled “Can Teaching Survive as a Profession?” puts his finger on what is an indisputable threat to the established system: teacher professionalism. Speaking about the cornerstone of professionalism, autonomy over our own work, Katz says:

If teachers were treated as professionals, it would be self-evident that they would have latitude in determining the needs of their students, designing instruction to meet those needs, implementing and adjusting that instruction, and assessing their success by a variety of means. Such professional autonomy is at threat in the current policy environment where teachers strongly believe that testing policies have diminished their ability to make decisions. Sadly, as Richard Ingersoll of University of Pennsylvania notes, micromanaging teaching and curriculum decisions may assist weaker teachers, but for good teachers it contributes to job dissatisfaction which contributes to turnover. Scripted lessons and little decision making probably satisfies the teacher as young and crusading short term job model many reformers favor, but it plays havoc on our ability to retain a dedicated body of professional teachers.

Now that statement is a legitimate threat to the system, as well as the foundations and organizations that are driving the “teacher leadership” bus—the one with all the weary teacher-riders that Ron Clark disparages.

Teachers may have lost a vision of reform led by authentic, unvarnished teacher thinking, instead of teacher compliance—but we haven’t relinquished the ideas of autonomy, mastery and self-determined purpose yet.

Read Katz’s piece. It’s filled with evidence and suggestions for preventing the collapse of a profession.

And ask yourself: Who is driving the leadership bus in my school?

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.