Standards Opinion

Teacher Leaders as Agents of Change

By Anthony Cody — January 17, 2012 4 min read
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Patrick Ledesma offers an interesting window into the world of “teacher leaders” in his post this week. I share some history with Patrick. He and I met about eight years ago when we were both members of Apple’s Digital Edge project. More recently, we were both active in the Teacher Leaders Network. Last year, we exchanged ideas in a lively dialogue related to his perspective as a Teacher Ambassador Fellow with the Department of Education.

In Patrick’s latest post, after describing some of the projects he has been involved in, he suggests that “teacher leadership, as a concept, remains undefined.” The title of his post asks “What is Missing in Teacher Leadership? A Roadmap & Destination

He suggests a handful of avenues for teachers to expand their leadership - but I am afraid I am still missing the destination he has in mind.

For me, teacher leadership cannot be an end in itself. The “seat at the table” will be just that, if we cannot bring about a shift in the relationships teachers find ourselves in today.

So before we begin discussing roadmaps, let’s see if we can agree on the terrain in which we find ourselves.

Our schools, and the teachers who work there, are in the midst of a mammoth effort to centralize control over education. In the past decade, starting with NCLB, we have seen the Federal government intervene in every school in the nation through mandates to improve test scores. This project is now being compounded by efforts to create common national standards, and common assessments to go along with them. Federal policies are requiring states to implement these standards as a condition of receiving assistance, and likewise requiring states to create systems of teacher and principal evaluation that incorporate test score results. Even teacher preparation programs will soon be required to be judged and subjected to rewards or punishments based on the test scores yielded by the teachers they produce.

Non-profit foundations are now funding a huge array of organizations that are active in the educational sphere. Most have aligned their priorities along similar lines, and are funding projects accordingly. These priorities are also largely aligned with the policies of the Department of Education, and are also designed to enhance opportunities for the expansion of various private enterprises in the education arena, from charter school networks, to test and curriculum publishers. There is an increasing synergy across these sectors.

Meanwhile increasing numbers of our students are suffering the effects of poverty, but we have been professionally chastised for mentioning this as a factor affecting their achievement. We have been silenced as vocal advocates for equity, because this could be nothing but an excuse for our own inadequacy.

That is the terrain as I see it. What does this mean in terms of a roadmap for teacher leadership?

The most obvious and well-paved road takes an accomplished teacher in the direction of the projects described above. The organizations with funds to pay to teachers to be professionally active are drawing their support from these foundations. As I related here, advocacy of groups like Teach Plus seems to be aligned with increasing the use of test scores on teacher evaluations, and diminishing due process and seniority rights for teachers.

The more traditional road of teacher leader as active professional leader within a district still exists, but priorities at the district level are set by the test-driven federal agenda, so one is enmeshed there as well.

But these two paths assume that teachers are more or less passive participants in the system, incapable of altering the course of events. If my assessment of the terrain above is accurate, how does a teacher respond? There is a third arena of teacher leadership that Patrick somehow missed. That is the realm of teacher as a leader of social change. For me, I am thinking of leadership that encompasses both a critical moral dimension, and an awareness of our responsibility to shape the institutions we participate in.

Perhaps we might term this type of leadership “teacher leader as change agent.” Unfortunately, this may not be as promising a career path as the previous two models, especially in this day and age.

Last week, my guest columnist Kelly Flynn ruminated on the reasons teachers have not been more outspoken as we have seen our schools attacked and our professionalism undermined. She offered a challenge:

The solution to the corporate takeover of the public school system lies with teachers. It always has. By not speaking up they send the message that they approve of corporate reform. For far too long they have allowed the debate to go on without them.
Silence implies acceptance.
Teachers who are afraid to speak up must remember: they have right on their side. They know what learners need to flourish in the classroom. Test prep and drill does not foster true learning. Teachers may not have the nerve to stick up for themselves, but they are rabid defenders of students.

To this I would add another concept drawn from Jon Stewart’s recent interview with White House staffer Melody Barnes. Stewart asked,

Do you think ultimately we will find ourselves changing our entire model of education? I have always found with education that individuals are the ones that make the enormous difference, and the more that you're able to empower a great teacher, a great principal, a great superintendent, can make enormous differences. How do we empower the individual to have the authority and the responsibility to make those changes, and not tie them to arbitrary objective realities or goals?

This is a wonderful reminder of the principles that I believe ought to be foundational to our work as teacher leaders. I believe the most effective teacher leaders are not those who go with the flow of corporate and non-profit dollars, nor those who drive forward federally-driven mandates for improved test scores. They are those who seek the autonomy of each and every student as a unique learner, and seek professional autonomy and responsibility for themselves and their peers. They seek out others to meet this challenge, and participate in grassroots organizing efforts as well. The teachers who are agents of change are the ones I am looking to for leadership these days.

What do you think? How do YOU define teacher leadership?

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue 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.