Teaching Profession Opinion

Two Things Policymakers Should Know About Teacher Leadership

By John T. McCrann — September 25, 2015 3 min read
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Teacher leadership is the new hot topic in ed policy circles. It’s in the blogosphere, it’s supported by groups across the edu-political landscape, and Arne Duncan frequently talks about it. I have gotten at least 30 emails since August with the phrase “teacher leadership” in either the subject or body.

But what are all these people talking about? What will all this talk mean for my career and the careers of my colleagues?

I took my first formal teacher leadership role six years ago — 10th grade advisory team leader — and have been involved in some way in leadership at two different schools ever since. So, I have some experiential knowledge of the subject.

I also have some academic knowledge of the subject, having written and presented a paper on teacher leadership at the 2013 American Educational Research Association Annual Meeting (I’m on page 136). I have definitely not written the book on teacher leadership, but I did discuss my paper with the woman who did, Ann Lieberman.

So, with that I ask: politicians, philanthropists, and thought leaders, lend me your ears. Here some things you should know about teacher leadership.

1. There should be different pay for different work.

Teacher leadership tasks might include leading professional development, giving teachers feedback, created student programs, managing resources, or any number of activities that are not contractual teaching duties.

This means that some folks who are good teacher leaders may not be great teachers, and that not all great teachers would make great teacher leaders.

This means that teachers should not just be assigned titles and work without compensation. It also means that we need not fear that teacher leadership is a back door to merit pay (for those who don’t know, merit pay doesn’t help students)

The jobs that teacher leaders do should be thoughtfully be constructed, clearly defined, and evaluated by the school community as a whole. School communities ought to join together to make decisions about how these individuals should be compensated and evaluated. Communities should pay special attention to creating structures that prevent administration from using teacher leadership dollars in corrupt ways, such as “playing favorites.”

2. Teacher leadership is not one size fits all.

The idea that there is a single great solution to problems in education is pervasive, but this notion is antithetical to teacher leadership.

The guiding principle behind teacher leadership is that teachers have special knowledge about their students and community because of the day-to-day work we do. Leveraging this knowledge in decisions around school/district structures and policies is a community-based idea and should be implemented in a community-based way.

What we need is not one great solution, but millions of smaller solutions that work for the millions of different schools and communities that we have in this country.

Of course, just because something works in New York City does not mean it will work in Bertie County, N.C., but the opposite is not true either. Things that we are doing in the Big Apple ought to be efficiently captured and shared in a way that teachers in Bertie County can access the strategies and then evaluate for themselves whether or not they are worth implementing there.

The Teach to Lead initiative feels to me like a good start to this kind of process, but it needs to be expanded. The Writing Project and EdCamp can serve as models for how to develop communities and do this kind of work. These kinds of network ought to be easily accessible in every school district in the country.

Check back in on this blog next week for more ideas about the philosophy behind teacher leadership.

Photo: Teacher leaders have made a difference throughout education history. “Chicagoteachers1900" by Chicago Tribune - http://clawback.org/2011/02/25/public-employees-and-the-public-interest/. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Chicagoteachers1900.jpg#/media/File:Chicagoteachers1900.jpg

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