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Rick Hess Straight Up

Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Teaching Profession Opinion

Teachers Deserve (But Have to Earn) Their Seat at the Table

By Rick Hess — October 14, 2013 4 min read
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For much of this year, as I’ve been bouncing around the country talking Cage-Busting Leadership, more than a few teachers have said, “This is all well and good, Rick, but what about me as a classroom teacher?” They had a helluva good point. The fact is that half the DNA from cage-busting leadership applies to teachers and teacher leaders (the parts about mindset, seeing with fresh eyes, thinking differently about tools and talent and time and money) but half doesn’t (the half that helps leaders figure out how to bust of their cage in order to act on this and use it to forge the kinds of schools and systems that they aspire to).

Of course, teachers feel equally caged. And the question of how teachers and teacher leaders, who generally lack the organizational authority of principals, superintendents, and state chiefs, can escape the cage is a pressing one. Especially in a world where teachers feel disempowered and like reform is so often being done to them... not with them. On that score, I’ve started work on a companion volume, The Cage-Busting Teacher, which I’ll be delivering to Harvard Education Press next September.

Meanwhile, I recently penned this piece for Educational Leadership, sketching some initial thoughts on this topic. In particular, I argue that there are more opportunities than ever for teachers to shape policy, forge the schools and systems they aspire to, and make their voices heard, but that doing this effectively and constructively requires teachers to slough off some bad habits and earn their seat at the table. If you’re interested, here’s what I had to say:

These are exciting times for teacher leadership. There are grand opportunities to be seized, though doing so requires both imagination and discipline. While a surge of new policymaking by the U.S. Department of Education and by state officials has buffeted schools and frustrated some teacher leaders, this turbulence has yielded a pressing need for teachers to help figure out how all these changes will actually work. The emergence of social media has created new opportunities for teachers to be heard, even absent an official position or access to traditional publications. And emerging technologies and intriguing school models make it newly possible to rethink teachers’ work. When teachers seek to have an impact beyond the schoolhouse, however, they’ve often gone about it in a manner that seems calculated to deliver disappointing results.

Teacher leaders have made eminently reasonable points about the problems with school accountability systems, the limits of test-based teacher evaluation, and the foolhardiness of “reformers” who dismiss the effects of poverty with “no excuses” sloganeering...but have frequently done all this in vitriolic language that marginalizes their voice and alienates potential allies. Two familiar missteps have especially hampered teacher leadership. One is a reluctance to publicly call out mediocrity. We rightly distrust doctors, lawyers, or bankers who seem to stand mutely by in the face of troubling practices. Educators need to bring that intuition to bear.

Self-policing is the surest way to reassure outsiders and reduce the urge for policymakers to intrude on practice--especially when public funds and purposes are at stake. Teacher leaders need to push the profession to do much better on this score. Union leaders have allowed themselves to be scapegoated rather than call out “go-along-to-get-along” leadership. Teachers have done little to challenge wasteful professional development, ineffectual spending, or irresponsible staff. The failure of professionals to visibly self-police themselves tends to erode their collective credibility. Teachers also tend to make a second crucial mistake. Winning policymakers over requires addressing shared problems by acknowledging the other’s concerns and offering smart, mutually satisfactory solutions. Unfortunately, when given a public platform, teachers too often do one of three things: ask for more money, denounce policies they dislike, or tout a terrific program in their classroom or school.

None of these win allies, change minds, or convince listeners that teachers have better large-scale solutions to the problems on the table. But crisis often contains within itself the seeds of opportunity. Teacher discontent may have contributed to creating some unfortunate divides, but it also has created an intense appetite for teacher leaders to offer constructive alternatives.

It’s no coincidence that the landscape is rife with new outfits like TeachPlus, Educators for Excellence, and Leading Educators. These have emerged alongside more familiar ventures like the Center for Teaching Quality and Teach For America. In a sign of the times, the National Network of Teachers of the Year is enjoying a resurgence. And the unions are showing some promising signs, with the National Education Association’s Commission on Effective Teachers and Teaching and the American Federation of Teachers rightly pointing to promising district-union partnerships in places like Hartford, Connecticut, and Baltimore, Maryland, as models of healthy teacher leadership. With models to emulate, platforms from which to speak, and a rash of opportunities to join with like-minded colleagues, teacher leaders are now equipped with tools that can help them respond to the moment.

A version of this article ran previously at Educational Leadership.

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up 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.