School & District Management Opinion

Whacking the Mole Again: More Thoughts on Teacher Leadership

By Nancy Flanagan — March 30, 2016 4 min read
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My colleague Megan Marie Allen, over at Education Week’s EduGeek’s Guide to K-12 Practice & Policy is raising a lot of questions about teacher leadership:

Have you noticed the influx of teacher leadership initiatives? Teacher voice groups, districts and states implementing endorsements and certifications, and more and more formalized roles coming into fruition? Do we have a game of whack-a-mole with so many different systems, definitions, and recognitions? The focus of conversation has shifted the spotlight on teachers as levers for positive transformation in public education. It seems as though the United States is beginning to look towards educators as the guides to lead us out of the dark shadows of reform, helping us find our way back into the sunlight. We are a thousand different ships sailing over a sea towards a common goal, yet blown this way and that by the wind, with no common plan or direction.

Hmm. I should begin by saying that I am a true-blue admirer of Megan Allen’s teacher-energy and penchant for asking the tough question. Unlike teachers who are content to grab a title or award, then retire to their classrooms or offices, faux-modestly suggesting that their talents are nothing special, Allen has stepped up to the leadership plate. That’s sometimes a dangerous thing to do, as Nancie Atwell can attest.

Rambling thoughts:

  • I’m glad Allen refers to teacher leadership initiatives, a very different thing than teacher leadership itself. I’m thinking about teachers’ influence on policy and practice as described by those Facebook posts that pop up periodically--how one-room schoolhouse teachers had to keep the stove burning, haul water and keep their noses out of the ice cream parlor. How did teachers succeed then, without titles, standards, pacing guides and supervisors? That’s raw leadership. In fact, there’s never been a leadership vacuum in the classroom--the question is always where teachers are being led, and by whom.

  • I went to my first teacher leadership workshop--called “Women in Leadership"--back in 1978, before Allen was born. It was organized and led by the Michigan Education Association, and its purpose was training more women for very clearly defined and explicated leadership roles: local presidents, grievance chairs, negotiators, citizen lobbyists. The conception of leadership in those strong-union days was totally around control over workplace conditions, and autonomy in the classroom. Adequately funded public education and a great teacher in every room.

There’s been a 180-degree shift since then, with the national unions endorsing federal policy initiatives that used to be local and professional issues (Common Core, aligned standardized testing, teacher evaluation and professional development protocols, etc). State affiliates now offer “professional learning” toward leading those aims. There is much that can be said about union leadership--and whether it qualifies as authentic “teacher leadership"--but it’s worth noting that in the movement to define and build teacher leadership (which has been going on for a very long time), the top-down flow of power has never been more evident.

  • When Allen suggested that the United States is “beginning to look towards educators as the guides to lead us out of the dark shadows of reform,” I wondered if she knew about the US Department of Education’s initiative, begun in 1993 and running through the Clinton administration, to use State Teachers of the Year as that very thing: guides to better public education? The catch phrase: “Partners in--not objects of--reform.”

When George W. Bush took office, the four hundred TOYs who had built an online leadership community covering all 50 states and in daily contact with ED, suddenly found their support group in becoming “levers for positive transformation” deleted. As a member and moderator of that group, it was a powerful lesson: You can’t trust the government to sustain an important vision. Of course, in 2016, it’s not the government that’s trying to capture the influence of recognized educators--it’s wealthy funders, through the non-profits, universities and state agencies they support. And whose missions they control.

  • While it is true that more formalized roles and programs are popping up, I don’t see much movement toward actual teacher professionalism and influence over their own work. And I don’t believe it’s because the field is confusing, with hundreds of pathways to “leadership.” I would suggest that many of those pathways are just more for-profit credentialing (or, God help us, micro-credentialing), or elevating titles over substance.

I have seen any number of education organizations, with thoughtful and important goal statements on their websites, position teacher leadership as something they can somehow teach or imbue (kind of like grit, come to think of it). Yes, there is Stuff You Have to Know to become a teacher leader (teachers don’t wade around in policy-making, traditionally). Yes, it helps to collaborate with others who have good ideas. But is there a formalized pathway to leadership? In a sense, it’s an insult to excellent teachers everywhere, who have held their grade level cohort or department or buildings together through determination to maintain good programming or to mount campaigns against dumb policies. They are leaders, badge or no badge.

Allen again:

There are places that are jumping on the teacher leadership bandwagon without fully understanding what it is or what it can do. There are plans thrown into place to "do" teacher leadership, without anyone realizing that there has been informal teacher leadership flourishing in their schools for years. And those teachers who have been working informally as leaders--National Board Certified teachers, veteran teachers who lead colleagues in deep pedagogical conversations, teachers who impact others outside their own classroom for example--are overlooked. Would it be helpful if we all moved in sync?

My response:

I’m pretty sure that anyone who has served as a formal school leader realizes that some teachers--for better or worse--have more influence than others. I have seen administrators who urgently believed their most pressing goal was tamping down teacher leadership, in fact. The school leader--or legislator or “policy analyst"--who recognizes genuine teacher expertise and embraces it (even when it’s not in alignment with their policy du jour) is rare, and exceedingly valuable.

As far as moving in sync goes--I wouldn’t expect it to happen unless all the disparate leadership initiatives could see a way to make a profit and fund their teacher leadership work in perpetuity. The Gates Foundation has fingers in the teacher leadership pie, as do several other big-time funders who’d like to snag all the leadership capital and package it.

I think it would be a shame, however, for teacher leadership--the concept--to consolidate around a handful of competencies and initiatives. The best teacher leadership happens when experienced teachers get an itch to do things better. Here’s another friend, John Spencer--who sees the future of education through a very different lens than those who are busy developing leadership programs, initiatives and badges. In essence, Spencer says: Dear Teacher, You’re a Leader, if you want to be, in your own classroom. Figure it out and go for it.

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.