Teaching Profession Opinion

Five Cynical Observations About Teacher Leadership

By Nancy Flanagan — November 10, 2015 4 min read
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I asked the newspapermen why they didn't publish the facts about child labor in Pennsylvania. They said they couldn't because the mill owners had stock in the papers. "Well, I've got stock in these little children," said I, "and I'll arrange a little publicity." —Mother Jones

In the past five years, I have spoken with at least a half-dozen education publishing representatives, all of whom read this blog and are interested in the possibility of a book from a new (and pre-vetted) author. None of these conversations have come to fruition—mostly because none of these publishers are interested in the book I describe to them, the book I really want to write.

Publishers are focused—rightfully so—on books that will sell. They propose books about hot topics—say, teacher evaluation or “effective” professional development. They suggest how-to books: Music pedagogy in a time of Common Core? Making music more “rigorous”?

When I say I want to write a book about teacher leadership, they hedge. Those books have been written, they say. Teacher leadership has been defined. It has been distributed, organized, re-named, and illustrated, by all the most prominent education authors, researchers, and nonprofits. What’s new? What’s left to be said about teacher leadership? It’s all been packaged and marketed.

And that’s the point.

Who’s really in charge of explaining school-embedded teacher leadership, selecting the right goals and purposes for individual classrooms? Who is inspiring teachers to find their own paths—based on the own carefully honed experience and observations—to lead?

Or do the modern-day educational mill owners have stock in the papers? Is what we’re seeing about teacher leadership in the media driven by the big cannons—the federal government, the well-funded organizations, and grant-receiving universities—rather than actual teachers working in grubby classrooms, scattered across the country?

Per Daniel Pink—aren’t real teacher leaders driven by autonomy in practice, mastery of their craft, and authentic, self-determined purpose? You wouldn’t know it, from the digital conversation.

Five cynical observations about teacher leadership in 2015:

Teachers have lost control over their own leadership. I am a member of NNSTOY—the National Network of State Teachers of the Year. I just paid my modest dues—to the New Venture Fund. NNSTOY takes Gates funding—everybody takes Gates funding—and it’s clear that the organization has a distinct agenda, re: key topics. Their resource library is carefully cultivated (“Fulfilling the Promise of the Common Core”) and their (Gates-funded) conferences and Board of Directors are studded with Big Names, rather than ordinary classroom teachers. Assuming that every teacher who becomes a State Teacher of the Year did so because of homegrown innovation and leadership, in their own classroom, it’s startling to see how very corporate this organization is—while there is lots about (pre-selected) instructional mastery and glossy aspirational language about every child having an “effective” teacher, there is a complete absence of professional autonomy.

Teachers are ripe for selling out. Teacher leaders are sick of fighting the same old battles, with no money and no time. They’re the ones who are dealing with the lack of recess in favor of test prep. They’re the ones who spent a decade crafting a reading program that works for the range of diversity in their classroom, only to have it upended by the new, mandated, Common Core-aligned program the district adopted. They’re the front-line folks who talk to angry parents, cope withyet another ill-advised legislative mandate, and buy essential supplies out of their own paltry salaries. When someone (with resources) comes along and offers them a “leadership” role, they accept, often without seeing how their voices will be used or co-opted.

Those who would like to own teachers’ voices are pursuing the best teachers, and offering them things “regular” teachers don’t experience in the classroom, in the name of leadership. Recently, I dropped in on a Twitter chat around Arne Duncan’s legacy. I was expecting a mix of opinion—federal education policy is hardly popular among the teaching ranks. I was surprised to see a string of titled teacher leaders praising Duncan’s federal teacher leadership initiative, as ground-breaking. Then I realized—these teachers have been selected. They’re not actually impacting policy (at least I hope they’re not approving the policies currently damaging public education)—but they feel recognized. Honored. Arne Duncan talks to them, albeit indirectly. The fact that he doesn’t speak for 95 percent of the teacher workforce is inconsequential.

Old models of teacher leadership are no longer vital. Teacher leaders used to be local. They acted as buffers between administrators and school boards, and those who worked in classrooms, not offices. They helped new teachers find their footing. They shared instructional ideas and assessments. They chose textbooks and negotiated compensation. Any teacher in any building could tell you who the leaders were: If you had a problem at the Round School in Hartland, Michigan, you went to Karen or Deb. They could help. This locally grounded model has crumbled, in favor of externally set norms and policies.

Formal teacher leaders are often mistrusted by their colleagues. So: Are they really leaders?

Theissues today in teacher leadership are around power and control. They’re about following funders’ guidelines, in exchange for conferences, consulting work, travel, and getting your op-ed published with a nice headshot. If you’re really lucky, there’s a small stipend. Teachers respond to modest amounts of money—for very obvious reasons.

Here’s what teacher leadership funders and functionaries are asking: Who’s been “trained” in leadership and policy and knows what topics to avoid? Who’s on our side, vis-à-vis Common Core, data use, tenure, charters and choice? Who will serve as an attractive and credible spokesperson for the profit-making issues we deem most critical?

Please—share stories of genuine leadership, the kind based on teachers who have stock in little children. We need to hear them.

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.