Teaching Profession Opinion

Teacher Leaders Welcomed

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — March 20, 2014 6 min read
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Iowa is investing in teacher leaders in 39 school districts. The DesMoinesRegister.com reported the idea was the result of a 19 member Commission on Teacher Leadership and Compensation, that 146 districts applied, and that of those, 39 were approved. They were careful to be sure urban, suburban and rural districts were among those chosen. Iowa’s State Education website reports a three year phase in, aiming for the goal of 100% participation by 2016-2017. They report that the thinking behind the decision to invest in teacher leadership systems is based on the belief that “teacher collaboration can be a game-changer.” The systems are necessary because “principals can no longer provide all the instructional leadership in a school.” Another reason cited was that Iowa is facing a teacher retention problem, in part due to low salaries. They are hopeful the program will “attract and retain more effective teachers by enhancing career opportunities and paying stipends for taking on extra responsibilities.” The essentials included in the program include a “minimum teacher salary of $33,500, improved entry into the profession, including mentoring for new teachers, and a rigorous selection process for leadership roles.” Those schools selected to begin teacher leadership systems in their schools will each receive $309 per pupil next year to help implement the program.

From the information offered on their website, the State of Iowa Education Department is defining their teacher leadership program as one that will develop teachers who know how to collaborate, learn from each other, and inform and lead the changes schools may need in each of their communities. This is a laudable investment in attracting and keeping good teachers, paying them fairly, and leading their schools through the changes called for in our schools.

The National Education Association (NEA) reports for the 2012-2013 school year, the national average starting salary for a teacher was $36,141. Although not the lowest starting salary, Iowa is below that average. It is not alone in struggling to keep good teachers in their classrooms. How much do we value those who are educating our youth? How can we fund our schools in ways that do not limit our capacity to fairly pay the teachers who spend their days educating and keeping our children safe? An attempt to find ways to attract and keep good teachers by developing leadership capacity in them and paying them to take on leadership roles is commendable.

Teachers bear real responsibility. We not only expect our teachers to provide a rich and engaging curriculum, we expect them to help students when they stumble, pay attention to what each child needs in order to learn, facilitate flexible learning environments so all different learners, who are living in all different situations, under all different circumstances, can succeed. We expect that they create classrooms that are respectful and where children learn socially and emotionally as well as academically. We expect them to keep our children safe.

Leadership is a word that is used commonly. Societally, we seem to be in a push pull relationship with leadership. We want it and we resist it. But, it does appear that we want children and adults to develop leadership skills. What do we really mean? Iowa is pointing to the skills of collaboration and mentoring as their beginning. Zenger and Folkman who wrote The Extraordinary Leader, agree.

Everyone should be trained to be an effective leader. Social scientists and management experts have long argued that seldom was one person the leader and everyone else a follower. Indeed, leadership is a function or set of behaviors that often gets passed around in a group. The person with the loftiest title and supposed power is no longer the one with all the answers and is seldom the one to define the strategy as a solo performance (Zenger & Folkman. p. 208).

A Google search on the word ‘leadership’ brings up endless sites in which leadership training or leadership definitions are posted. The Psychology Today site says,

Peter Drucker famously stated that “management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.” Great leaders possess dazzling social intelligence, a zest for change, and above all, vision that allows them to set their sights on the “things” that truly merit attention. Not a bad skill set for the rest of us, either.

What does it take for a teacher working in a classroom, sharing practice with few, or none, to become someone who shares practice and ideas with everyone and teaches others how to share? First, it takes invitation and initiative. Leadership is, after all, a relationship with others. Let’s consider what Peter Drucker is saying. What does it take to know, always, how to do the “right things”? It takes developed personal moral compass, clear ethical judgment, a balance between reality and hopefulness, and capacity for action from that higher ground where courage, compassion and empathy merge. It requires the capacity to have a “dazzling social intelligence, a zest for change”...and a vision that remains focused on what matters.

Leadership requires an ongoing personal development process. If we are to develop leadership in our students, we must model it ourselves. Warren Bennis and Robert Townsend, co-authored the book, Reinventing Leadership. In it they said...

...no one can teach you how to become yourself, to take charge, to express yourself, except you. But there are some things that others have done that are useful to think about in the process. I’ve organized them as The Four Lessons of Self-knowledge and they are: 1. You are your own best teacher 2. Accept responsibility; blame no one. 3. You can learn anything you want to learn. 4. True understanding comes from reflecting on your own experience. (p.38)

Schools can sometimes be places where it seems difficult to be yourself, take charge, and take risks. Reflection is rarely encouraged. Schools can be places where it is safer to keep quiet and carry on. Leaders are not grown in those kinds of environments. If we are to shift curricula to be integrated and problem/project based, interdisciplinary and student centered shouldn’t that change how schools are lead as well? Most school leaders stepped forward to make a difference. The very best of us never really wanted to stop teaching or learning. The emergence of teacher leaders offers potential for the best teachers to become teachers of students and their colleagues both. Bennis begins in Chapter 1 in Reinventing Leadership by saying,

...today’s leaders find themselves benefitting from a more collaborative approach to management. By checking their egos at the door...leaders will find that they can tap into endless sources of potential from the people they lead (p.1).

Their book was publishedn 1995 and is most certainly still true today. Human beings are slow to change. But, let’s be sure that as the term “leadership” and " leadership development” are bandied about we are clear about what we are asking of people. This is personal work, inner work, that takes time and it is sometimes very private. It is not only perseverance and grit. It is not just collaboration. It is not reduced to intelligence, vision, and purpose or drive or risk taking. It is the ethereal place where all these are mixed into a quality of action that others chose, without force, to follow.

Our hope for Iowa, and for schools everywhere, is that an environment is created to encourage the best among us to take the initial steps into leadership. We hope the best among us, those who are motivated by deep passion for service and love for children and for learning, respond positively to the invitation. We applaud this courage and hope the teacher leaders in these 39 districts and across the country are encouraged and celebrated. An environment in which teachers share in forward thinking and in change leadership benefits everyone.

Bennis, Warren & Townsend, Robert (1995). Reinventing Leadership. New York: William Morrow & Company, Inc.
Zenger, John H. & Folkman, Joseph R. (2009). The Extraordinary Leader. New York: The McGraw Hill Companies

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