Teaching Profession Opinion

Dangerous Ideas in Teacher Leadership

By John T. McCrann — September 30, 2015 3 min read
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In my last post, I shared two things I have learned as a teacher leader and researcher of teacher leadership. These had to do with the nuts and bolts of teacher leadership.

Here, I hope to explore two ideas that I find pervasive and problematic in the conversation about teacher leadership.

1. The goal of teacher leadership is NOT to make principals’ jobs easier.

I once heard a Federal Department of Education Fellow speaking at a conference on the administration’s teacher leadership initiatives say “I loved teacher leadership when I was a principal because it made my job so much easier.”

This is ridiculous.

First of all, principals make twice as much as teachers. I’m guessing that this particular gentleman was not giving up his own salary to the teacher leaders who were doing his job for him. This redistribution of his workload amounts to fraud and waste of public resources.

Secondly, and more importantly, actual leadership means having the power to generate and implement new ideas. If “teacher leaders” are simply tasked to be minions for the principal, they are not really leading.

The power of teacher leadership lies in the idea that I can recognize a problem in the course of my interactions in my classroom and use this knowledge to impact school or district policy. It is a process that must start in the classroom and then expand outward.

Unfortunately, many of us at the classroom level regularly see the inverse of the process. A superintendent, principal, or wealthy philanthropist has an idea which she or he pushes from some far away office through bureaucratic pipelines into our classrooms.

To be sure, there are times when teachers embrace an idea that comes from this type of “outside in” model. I am not necessarily opposed to teachers who advocate for this change model; however, we must recognize that this kind of advocacy is different from leading.

2. Valuing teacher leadership means valuing teachers.

There is a frightening double speak by many in the edu-discourse where the rise in popularity of teacher leadership seems to correlate with the rise in popularity of policies and rhetoric that disempower and criticize teachers.

Either teachers are community-based professionals with the opportunity to learn first-hand about the needs of the community through our day to day interactions with the young folks we serve OR we are under-functioning and self-interested, trying to get by on the bare minimum.

If you believe the former, then the obvious next step from “here’s a group of people who has unique and useful knowledge” is “let’s find ways for them to use this knowledge to help us make our schools better.” How do we do that? Teacher leadership.

If you believe the latter, then the obvious next step from “these people are trying to put one over on us” is “let’s find ways to catch them being bad and penalize them when we do.” How do we do that? Draconian teacher evaluation, scripted curriculum, and attacks on due process.

What doesn’t make sense to me is why someone who believes the latter is advocating teacher leadership. You think I am so great that I ought to have a hand in shaping policy in my school and district? Then why should I not be afforded to access basic protection from a predatory administrator? It does not take a conspiracy theorist to believe that there might be some other factors motivating these positions.

The best thing that any policymaker can do to support teacher leadership is to support teachers. This means sharing the great work teachers across this country are doing every day in every school. It means standing up and speaking out against sloppy teacher-bashing journalism and attempts to destabilize the profession.

Imagine a world where Bill Gates and Arne Duncan were pushing back against teacher-bashing alongside Jon Stewart and Matt Damon. That’s a world in which teachers would feel valued. That’s a world where teachers could all feel comfortable sharing our unique knowledge to help all students learn.

Photo 1: “Sign in Niagara Falls, Ontario, warning people not to climb over guard rail” by GeorgeLouis at English Wikipedia. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sign_in_Niagara_Falls,_Ontario,_warning_people_not_to_climb_over_guard_rail.jpg#/media/File:Sign_in_Niagara_Falls,_Ontario,_warning_people_not_to_climb_over_guard_rail.jpg

Photo 2: Teacher leaders at my school started a student activism group to fight against the school to prison pipeline. This is the kind of teacher-lead initiative that all schools need. Photo by John McCrann.

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