Opinion
School & District Management Commentary

Teachers at the Helm

By Roland S. Barth — February 28, 2001 7 min read
Community is like a ship; everyone ought to be prepared to take the helm. —Henrik Ibsen

Recognizing the untapped potential and power of teachers-leaders.

Proponents of school reform, from all sides of the educational debate, would like to see schools transformed into cultures hospitable to widespread human learning and leadership. Such schools would foster in students and adults alike a disposition towards independent, insatiable, lifelong learning. But how to “walk the talk”? How to move in the real world of masking tape and worksheets towards this ambitious vision?

I believe the first step in reforming the learning experiences of young people is to reform the learning experiences of the adults responsible for young people’s education. For, as Albert Schweitzer said: “Example is not the main thing in influencing others. It’s the only thing.”

I once helped put together an unusual activity on shared leadership and decisionmaking for a group of educators. We enlisted a sturdy sailing schooner, Bowdoin, then under the command of the Hurricane Island (Maine) Outward Bound School. Teams consisting of teachers, principals, and superintendents, representing school districts from throughout Massachusetts, came to Boston Harbor and shipped aboard for the day.

While the vessel was tied to the dock, the Outward Bound crew demonstrated how to get the many sails up and the anchor down, where the charts were stowed, how to read the compass and run the engine. The brief orientation attended to, we then sailed out into Boston Harbor and abruptly dropped both sails and anchor. Our mission for the day, we were instructed, was to sail the schooner back to the Charlestown Naval Yard by 4 p.m. Then the crew went below into the cabin—and the learning began!

How does a group of 60 people, largely unacquainted, possessing abundant egos and varied backgrounds, get organized and fulfill a very complex task? Who does what? Who leads? Who follows? Who watches? Meanwhile, tugboats blasted, destroyers powered close by, recreational vessels buzzed around us, and all the while jetliners, landing at Logan Airport, skimmed over the Bowdoin‘s masts. The pressure was on. The boatload of educators was at risk. A high- stakes test. Rather like a school.

After a prolonged period that could only be described as “chaos,” the suggestion was offered by a teacher that we might find out who on board remembered any of our dockside instructions. Had anyone been listening? Could anyone recall, for instance, in what order the five sails were to be raised? Was the anchor to be raised before or after the sails? Next we took inventory of our collective sailing experiences. Did anyone know how to read a nautical chart? Could anyone relate the chart to the compass and actually navigate? Was anyone familiar with the “rules of the road” with respect to other vessels? Did anyone know how to sail? And so it went. After an hour or so, chaos slowly began to give way to some heady and hearty conversation, even collaboration.

As it turned out, an elementary teacher was teaching a unit on map and chart reading; a high school teacher raced sailing dinghies and was well-acquainted with “right of way.” Another teacher had recently been on a windjammer and taken several turns at the helm.

So, as most of the principals and central-office officials stood by, observed, and received orders, the teachers took over. The sails were raised, and then the anchor. And a small band of public school teachers, providing clear leadership and deft seamanship, brought the Bowdoin and its occupants safely into the dock at the naval yard. It was 4 p.m.

‘Ask the teachers—for a change. They’re on the front lines. Forget the bureaucrats and politicians and statisticians. Ask the teachers. They know the daily drama of the classroom, a drama beyond measurement.’

Frank McCourt,
author of Angela’s Ashes
and former classroom teacher.

Our little band of educators then spent the next several hours in groups, reflecting on our passage and what we had learned from it about shared leadership in schools. We talked about whether it was rank (like “superintendent”) that denoted special expertise in, say, navigation, or whether it was prior experience, or having listened during the instructions and being able to remember, or possessing the personal authority to be taken seriously. Well into the dark hours, the cabin brightened by the glow of the ship’s kerosene lantern, we considered how our experience sailing the Bowdoin back into port resembled the work we do in schools to promote youngsters’ learning. Finally, before we set out for home, we brainstormed, in light of our day on Boston Harbor, about how each team would now go about its work.

One incontrovertible piece of learning from the day was that you don’t have to be or to become a principal or a superintendent to influence the course of a vessel—or a school. In fact, rank in the hierarchy has little relevance when it comes to school-based reform. Reformers are those who know something about the organization, have a vision leading to a better way, can enlist others in that vision, and can mine the gold of everyone’s craft knowledge to discover ways to move towards that vision. Frank McCourt, the author of Angela’s Ashes and a former classroom teacher, suggests: “Ask the teachers—for a change. They’re on the front lines. Forget the bureaucrats and politicians and statisticians. Ask the teachers. They know the daily drama of the classroom, a drama beyond measurement.”


There was another bit of learning from that day on the Bowdoin. As part of our assessment of teacher productivity in our profession, the group suggested that we should ask: “Is the real teacher showing up? Is all of the teacher showing up, as it did on the Bowdoin, or is much of the whole left at home each morning?” We are all capable of our best and our worst. Teachers who give their best most of the time offer schools, in addition to classroom instruction, their leadership. It is in teachers’ hands, every bit as much as in the hands of the principal and central office, that possibilities for school-based reform reside.

Indeed, taking leadership to improve the school lies at the heart of what it means to be a professional. There is no shortage of opportunities for every teacher to demonstrate professionalism by leading the school, a few tough steps at a time, towards improvement.

With increasing frequency these days, teachers are evaluated on the basis of how successful they are in getting their students’ test scores to rise. Perhaps a more fundamental criterion would be to examine how helpful teachers are, as members of the school community, in providing leadership that will improve the culture of the school and make it hospitable to everyone’s learning.

There is no shortage of opportunities for every teacher to demonstrate professionalism by leading the school, a few tough steps at a time, towards improvement.

For, as we know, more than anything else, it is the culture of the school that determines the achievement of teacher and student alike.

Our day at sea aboard the Bowdoin vividly manifests the untapped potential and power of teacher-leaders. Yet, the culture of most schools and school systems provides precious little support for teacher leadership. Few teachers who take the initiative to lead are welcomed by fellow teachers or by administrators. The teacher who steps in and assumes leadership, and distinguishes himself or herself from the others, violates a basic taboo of many schools and districts— and consequently pays a dear price.

Yet, when teachers’ leadership is withheld or rejected, there are incalculable costs to both teacher and to school. For without teachers’ leadership, all too few vessels get their sails up, their anchor raised, and make it safely into port. And the life of a teacher becomes limited to the classroom—a rich and crucial life to be sure, but not enough for most teachers and most schools.

If the purpose of schools is to promote learning and leadership, a good school should be more like a boat. There is much to learn at sea.


Roland S. Barth, a former public school teacher and principal, was the founding director of the Principals’ Center and a senior lecturer on education at Harvard University’s graduate school of education. He is now an educational consultant living in Maine and Florida. This essay has been adapted from Learning by Heart, published this month by Jossey-Bass Publishers. Copyright (c) Jossey-Bass Publishers 2001.

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A version of this article appeared in the February 28, 2001 edition of Education Week as Teachers at the Helm

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