Teaching Profession Opinion

Teacher Leaders: Puppets or Powerful?

By Anthony Cody — October 20, 2012 4 min read
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New York teacher Ariel Sacks this week pointed out some of the challenges faced by teachers who wish to exercise leadership beyond their classrooms. In this essay, Beyond Tokenism: Toward the Next Stage of Teacher Leadership, Sacks points out some of the pitfalls she has experienced. These include finding one’s voice used to advance someone else’s agenda, making one into a “mouthpiece,” rather than a true leader. Another is be used as a token teacher, so nobody can say we were not consulted - yet our advice is somehow ignored. And the last is to be “allowed” to take on a monumental task, in which we have the “freedom” to do what we like, but no time or resources to actually accomplish much.

Ms. Sacks encourages teachers to reflect on the leadership opportunities that present themselves, to be sure they have the ability to actually think for themselves, and to make a real difference in the work they take on.

Ariel Sacks concludes in this way:

Over the last five years, education has moved a long way toward empowering teachers to lead the transformation of schools and our profession. But we are still in a perilous transition period, where the right structures or mindsets aren't always in place to support the roles we dream of. We will get there, though. We just have to think even more critically about the leadership roles we take on, continually reflect on the impact of each layer of our work on our students and colleagues, and advocate for what we need to reach our potential as teachers and leaders.

I agree with the spirit of Sacks’ critique. She has learned well from her experiences, and is doing her best to shine the light forward so others can learn as well. But I am not sure critical thinking and reflection are adequate tools for the challenge we face. It seems to me we need to understand the reasons we get compromised, and figure out ways to overcome this.

Why is it that teacher leaders find themselves used as mouthpieces? Why is it that opportunities for that “seat at the table” dissolve into tokenism? And most importantly, what will it take for teachers to develop our capacity to truly lead our profession?

I have learned a great deal through my participation in grant-funded leadership opportunities. However, I have also found a huge limitation. When you sign up to help write a report that is funded by some foundation, usually endowed by some billionaire, there is usually a hidden outline, some key idea that must be in the final document. For example, in preparing a report on teacher pay that I worked on six years ago, our team of teachers debated the role of test scores, with me arguing that they had no place in an evaluation or pay system. However, it became clear that like it or not, our final report had to allow for some use of test scores. We were able to make some very good recommendations, but that poison pill was in there. We had been used, our voices purchased by that foundation funding.

So this is teacher leadership problem number one. If your participation in a project is paid for by someone, they usually have an agenda. If you agree with their agenda, no problem. But if you do not, then you are selling your voice and name. This applies to projects like the report I described, but it also applies to opportunities for “leadership” within a school site or district. If your administrator expects you to promote some scripted curriculum, or lead workshops all about the wonders of data, you may wind up feeling used as well.

How about that “seat at the table”? How can we make sure that we are not being used as tokens? For this, we have to look at why we are being asked to join the conversation. What are the power dynamics at play? Do we have a vote when decisions are to be made? Will we find allies around the table to help us have some influence? Do we have any real cards to play?

This gets us closer to defining what real leadership is all about. Real leadership is not just the ability to speak with clarity and authority based on our experience in the classroom. It also involves a relationship to other teachers, and to some level of political power in these situations. That political power can come from a number of sources, but the foundation of it is our relationship with other teachers and the public, and their willingness to act together. In order for us to be able to speak on our own terms, in order for us to be able to LEAD others, we have to be in active relationship with our colleagues.

In my own career in Oakland, I developed relationships by organizing professional development for my fellow science teachers. I did this on my own time for many years, before moving into a district coaching position. The reputation and relationships I built gave me some strength in directing the work in which I was involved. Some teachers develop these relationships through involvement in the union. And the union can have a very important role in making sure our voices are not squashed or intimidated when they differ from the administration’s point of view. Some of us have gotten involved in grassroots organizations like Save Our Schools, which has allowed us to mount protests on our own terms.

If you view teacher leadership as a vehicle for moving into administration, or a nice job with a foundation-funded non-profit that purports to “give teachers their voices,” then the path I am describing is probably not for you. But if you have reflected on the limited opportunities available through these routes, and are not happy with the compromises they often require, then you may need to think again, and go back to basics.

The bottom line is that we do not have the money to buy influence. We have to get it the old-fashioned way. We have to organize for positive change at our school sites. We have to join with others at our union meetings, and as our colleagues in Chicago showed, we may need to go on strike. We have to build strong relationships with our colleagues, with parents, with allies in other unions and social movements, and with reporters, and use this strength as the basis for our ability to speak for ourselves. We have to organize and build our strength from the ground up, because the strength that comes from the top down is like the strings on a marionette.

What do you think? Have you been able to feel powerful as a teacher leader? How did you get there?

Dialogue with me on Twitter at @AnthonyCody

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