Teachers are master problem-solvers. They learn quickly to adjust on the fly as they react boldly and deftly in a moment’s response, whether to students’ endless questions about how to and what if, to the numerous disruptions blaring from a PA system, or to adapting their lesson plans because the Internet is down…again. When it comes to their own classrooms, teachers do not hesitate to meet daily obstacles and challenges head-on. It’s their job, after all.
But solving the problem of changing and reforming the very nature of the schools they work in is a different story. For some reason, after they pack up and leave their classrooms, teachers remain largely silent on matters of school improvement that affect them the most. Ironically, the experts who have the broadest knowledge and greatest skill to make change happen in schools are holding back.
Why? Is there a kind of “do as you’re told” passivity fostered by the hierarchy of school administration? Are teachers worn down from meeting the needs of too many students throughout the day? Are they fearful of losing their jobs? Overwhelmed by the countless mundane duties added on to their teaching schedule? Why isn’t every teacher a teacher-leader?
What We Talk About When We Talk About Teacher-Leaders
I recently put this question – why isn’t every teacher a teacher-leader – in somewhat different form, to the new teachers at my school who meet weekly to discuss issues and best practices in education. I asked them, “What are the qualities of a teacher-leader?”
I shared with our new teachers several qualities cataloged in the article, “Leadership Qualities that Facilitate School Change,” from SEDL, an Austin-based non-profit dedicated to “advancing research, improving education.” SEDL questions the ways leadership has been employed in schools and shifts our attention to the latent power of teachers to bring about reform. The article relates how the research unfortunately confirms that “despite [compelling] reasons and attempts to promote teachers as leaders of change and to extend teacher leadership roles, teachers do not view themselves as leaders (Bellon & Beaudry, 1992; Wasley, 1991).”
SEDL further asserts that teachers who promote change in education demonstrate the following qualities: They possess vision, focus on student learning, value human resources, communicate and listen, are proactive, and take risks. My young colleagues and I fueled our conversation by wrestling with these qualities and adding a few others.
Do you feel a sense of purpose?
While many novice (and even more experienced) teachers may be reluctant to say they have formulated an educational vision, which implies more time-tested experience with kids, they are not so reluctant to acknowledge a sense of purpose. In some cases, teachers rely on their schools to define a sense of purpose for them, and the lack of a consistent, clear vision from the top may confuse and discourage them. One year the school may focus on achieving excellence, whatever that may mean, the next on creating a culture of kindness. These aren’t bad ideas, just vague ones that change frequently and don’t necessarily inspire leadership.
My young colleague Stephen Vrla has recently taken a course in “Teaching for a Positive Future” from the Institute for Humane Education, a course that has clarified for him that sense of purpose for his teaching. Previously, like many of us, he knew he wanted to make a difference somehow, but what this might look like was pretty fuzzy. Now he is using his new focus on ethics to inspire his sixth-graders to develop action research projects on social justice topics that include documenting homeless and mistreated animals in their communities and interviewing immigrants about their work experiences, among others. Stephen has begun blogging about his ethics approach to education at “A Single Candle” and will use his new sense of purpose to re-design our “Skills” program – incorporating life skills, study skills, and technology skills — for our middle-schoolers next year.
A sense of purpose provides direction and motivation in any teacher-leader’s professional life.
Are you focused on what matters most – students’ learning?
We struggled with this one. It was hard for some of my young educators to see how the decisions we make as teachers aren’t actually about the students’ learning but about something else. For example, we focus on making efficient use of our time when we have more on our plates than we can possibly handle. We adopt traditional schedules that accommodate parents’ custodial needs rather than take into account the biorhythms that wake up our students’ brains later in the day. We start from a prejudicial perspective about how learning works based on our own experiences as a certain kind of successful student in a teacher-driven classroom.
Once we began to grasp all the insidious ways we accommodate other needs rather than the students’, we began questioning everything from the way athletics drives the school schedule to how many questions we choose to put on a test. Teacher-leaders, we began to comprehend, never let the students’ learning out of their sight.
Do you listen to and learn from others – especially from the students?
One of my favorite scenes from the Mike Akel’s mocumentary Chalk (2006) depicts an earnest young history teacher who leaves his post at the front of the room in a fit of pique over a student prank. When the students take over the class and imitate his teaching style, the teacher finally sees himself through their eyes – he is pedantic, humorless, and boring even as he tries to share the things about history he cares most passionately about.
Teachers learn pretty quickly that they can’t pretend to be flawlessly omniscient in their classes. But it’s another step to learn to listen to their students and to view them as agents of their own learning. Students have much to tell us, and we have much to learn, if we are to make a connection with them at all. This was a major shift for my young colleague Jeremy Goodreau, who has been working closely with a number of administrators and coaches to improve his teaching this year. He has been subjected to our sometimes conflicting advice all year, but nothing has had an impact on him that compares to his students’ feedback about why they had failed his Biology test. It was the students who taught him that teacher leadership is less about being right than it is about being open to hearing and taking in what others have to say, even if we may disagree with their interpretations.
Do you take risks?
Here’s the thing about taking risks: It opens the door to possible failure. In fact, it stares failure in the face and says it doesn’t care. Fear of failure, to put it bluntly, is a big issue of teachers of any stripe, but particularly those who have themselves been the most successful students academically. One of our new Spanish teachers, Erika Behrends, struggles with this every day. She strives to be an A+ teacher and has studied the latest theories about curriculum design and acquisition of language. If tried and true research has been conducted, she will find it and implement it, putting to work what her research tells her is true. If it hasn’t been documented, well, she hesitates….
Yet an enormous quantity of what we do as teachers has not been researched or codified or properly studied. Or it has only been researched narrowly and may not apply to our particular population of students (ours, for the most part, come from poverty). Or the research has evolved, or it conflicts with other research. Teacher-leaders must take risks in order to innovate, yet the abhorrence of failure, sometimes driven by an over-dependence on research and sometimes driven by our focus on success as a defining factor of school, limits us even as we try to teach our students to take risks of their own in order to learn.
Do you nurture yourself physically, intellectually, and spiritually?
Teaching is enormously debilitating work. Because teachers are usually givers by nature, they tend to pour everything they’ve got into their service to their students, their schools, and their profession. In fact, this is the time of year when I most often hear teachers complain about the few who “don’t pull their weight” or “don’t contribute to the team effort.” Schools also tend to use teachers up in a kind of race from September to June that cannot possibly address all the content, skills, and ethical behavior we feel must be taught along with all the little things, like lunch duty or study hall, that fill up the school day. Teacher burn-out has been a problem at every school I’ve ever known.
Teacher-leaders know that they must take care of themselves. They take walks or work out during the school day –- and do some of their best thinking in the process. They work at eating right and spending time with people they love rather than grabbing a Coke and M&Ms for a quick sugar rush to get through a stack of papers. Teacher-leaders take naps on the weekend. Teacher-leaders seek out the environments and opportunities that will let them reflect and honor their own spiritual needs. (I have a friend who used to frequent a local playground and swing to her heart’s content in order to do this.) Teacher-leaders challenge themselves to learn continually, to stimulate their thoughts, to engage in intellectual conversation. Teacher-leaders don’t always follow these rules (I confess, I don’t), but they know they should. They know that being selfish about their own renewal in this way is better in the long run for their students.
Do you transparently share ideas and stories of your teaching practice in a community of supportive educators?
Most teachers will acknowledge that visiting other schools or attending conferences usually opens their eyes to new perspectives. Still, we often complain that it’s just not worth it to prepare and arrange for a substitute. And even when we come back refreshed and recharged, we must dive head first into catching up with the curriculum – with no time for reflecting about how to implement something new.
Yet, I have watched several new teachers grow exponentially because they have consciously sought to reflect openly about their practice and engage with other educational practitioners outside the walls of their own schools on a daily basis. My new young colleague HollyAnne Giffin has embraced the power of Twitter to build a vibrant personal learning network. She blogs regularly about her practice at “Learning is not dead” and seeks out the best teachers she can learn from, whether in person or via online discussion. Being in touch with master educators every day keeps her focused on her students’ learning, helps her perfect her craft, and allows her to consider her successes and failures openly with the support of others. Teacher-leaders do not settle for anything less than learning constantly by engaging with other teacher-leaders.
Teacher-leaders will save us.
We must pursue teacher leadership in our profession if we want to create a groundswell of change at the most basic level. Getting to our teachers early in their careers can help, especially if we do so before they are acculturated into silence (or mere grumbling in the faculty room), before administrators shut down their conversations and turn off their questions, before the work of teaching itself ekes out all their energy. We may need to start with our new teachers, but we must empower all teachers to be teacher-leaders if we want to see positive change occur in our schools. Being a teacher-leader will save them. Creating teacher-leaders will save us.