Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Where Are the Teacher Leaders?

Over at EdWeek, Nancy Flanagan is asking "Is genuine teacher leadership dead in the water?" It's one more way of asking the time-honored question, where the heck are all the teacher leaders?

Flanagan has paid her dues on this subject. A Michigan teacher of the year, National Board certified, member of the Teacher Leaders Network and an organizer for the Institute for Democratic Education in America, she is clearly not one of those people who sits in the teachers lounge and wonders why nobody has fixed her problems for her. But ten years ago she helped create the Teacher as Change Agent course for the Center for Teacher Leadership, and she is thinking it may not exactly have paid off in teacher leaderly dividends.

I have always found it, well, odd that teaching is a profession that has so little control over itself. Doctors, lawyers, physical therapists, nurses-- all act as the gatekeepers to their own profession. If I want to open up a lawyer school, I have to get a bunch of lawyers to certify me. If I want to open a doctor school, I need to find some doctors to give the okee dokee. If I want to open a teacher school, I have to convince a bunch of bureaucrats in the state capitol.

That extends to the work place. We do not put teachers in charge of teachers; if teachers want to be in charge, they have to turn into administrators and never be actual teachers again.

The last two decades of "reform" has only made things worse. "I don't see leadership emerging from systemic loss of autonomy over teachers' core work," says Flanagan in considerable understatement. Virtually everything from No Child Left Behind on is predicated on the notion that teachers are not authorities on their field of work and cannot be trusted to self-direct; instead, our assumption these days is that teachers are one of the great flaws in the education system, and no current education program is complete without ideas for how we will get teachers in line.

We have groups calling for teacher leaders. What they want are teachers who will lead other teachers to fall in line with what the Big Bosses dictate, not teachers who will speak up, and certainly not teachers that the Big Bosses would actually listen to. And this, sadly, applies just as much to the national unions as it does to the US DOE.

What do teachers need to become leaders? Not permission-- if you won't stand up until you get someone's permission, you're not a leader. And you're not a leader because someone who's not a teacher at all declared you a leader, especially not if they wouldn't call you a leader until you filled out an application and declared that you stand for what they want you to stand for.

Teacher leaders do need time and resources. My first teacher leader training was about thirty years ago. My school district sent me off for training to be a Lead Teacher (remember that movement) and it was great and inspiring, but at the end of the day my district only supported my doing it as long as on my own time. Giving me release time or flex time to be a Lead Teacher wasn't going to happen; that would not be the last time I had that experience.

The best way to put out a fire is to starve it for oxygen, and schools are so used to living with an attitude of scarcity that withholding oxygen is second nature. Many times I don't think schools even mean to squelch teacher leadership; it's just an automatic reaction, not to teacher leadership, but to anything that would use up more time and/or money. And if I'm being honest, I have to admit that I have occasionally toyed with starting one initiative or another and letting my impulse peter out because, hey, I'm busy with lots of stuff to do.

I agree with Flanagan's implication-- that teacher leadership is dead in the water-- and yet I think that could turn around instantly. I think it's most definitely a topic that we teachers should discuss more with each other.

1 comment:

  1. Peter,
    Thank you for your blog work. You pointing me to Flanagan's blog caused me to comment, which I reporduce here:
    "In 1965 (must have been around this time of year), I got so uppity as a HS senior that my English teacher refused to admit me to class. A little shocked by my teacher finally reaching her limit for my nonsense, and needing English to graduate and go off to college, a long-time dream of my hard-working father, I stopped by the Dean's office, confident that coddling (me) would prevail.

    Turned out that my teacher was the leader. My most recent BS was simply the up with which she would no longer put. The Dean did nothing. I was shut-out of class until my Dad had to leave one of his two jobs long enough to beg for my readmittance. I'll never forget his tears.

    Until teacher autonomy is presumed as the norm in public school classrooms---as it was in my high school---and administrators are acknowledged as merely facilitators of teaching and learning, today's admirable but pathetic reform efforts to construct "teacher leadrship" can be nothing but dead in the water."

    I hope you can tell that I can't agree that teacher leadership "could turn around instantly." Curmudgeonly of me, I know. The "admins-as-(merely)facilitators" is stolen from Jacques Barzun's The American Universtiy. His work has helped me to understand that teachers leading learning demands that administrators merely support --- as impossibly difficult as that work may be.
    Jerry Masters