Why We Need to Rethink Teacher Leadership

There is a surprising fact about educators that most people won’t admit:  We’re all control freaks.

I’ve had a theory for a while now that most teachers want complete control of the world around us.  We’re bossy, but we don’t like being bossed around.  It’s how we ended up standing in front of a room full of students telling them where to sit and where exactly to write their names.

Of course, I’m generalizing (and being a bit facetious), but there is some truth to it.  And if you look really closely at trends, you can clearly see a pattern of the attempt to control in almost every aspect of education.  Lately, I’ve noticed this desperate desire to control in one of the hot topics of the day–teacher leadership.

olympic gold medal winner for 100m freestyle, goldfish leagueJust like every other awesome initiative in education that starts out so promising and flops face-first, I worry that the teacher leadership movement will rise quickly to the top and spiral downward just as fast as it rose.  Many will attest to the fact that so many teachers are being raised up:  People are finally listening to us!  Teachers are taking on “leadership roles” in schools, districts, and state education departments across the country, and decisions are being made with teachers behind the wheel.  But I would have to politely disagree.  What is actually happening is that the term, “teacher leadership” is being distorted to mean one very narrow definition of teacher leadership, rather than embracing all the potential of that idea.

My current school is full of teacher leaders, and I haven’t always been the type to attempt to join them.  We are a successful school, with high test scores–state and AP alike, but we have room for growth when it comes to attending to the needs of struggling or unmotivated students.  So I proposed a course that focused on engagement, project based learning, and thematic units to reach these students.  I made this proposal amid controversy about the correct approach.

I made sure my voice was heard.  I’ve taught in schools where traditional remediation strategies smacked us in the face.  I felt in my gut that it was wrong then, but I was naive and self-silenced.  Ten years in, this time, I wasn’t going to watch it happen again.  After being a little loud and very persistent (see, I told you we are control freaks), the class proposal was approved.  I went about developing the class, excited to help my school in its endeavor to reach all students.  I was thrilled to see a teacher leadership grant opportunity soon after the course approval, and I spent weeks putting together a grant proposal.  When I submitted it, I received this email in response:

I don’t even know where to start with this.  This was supposed to be a grant for teacher leadership, not course development.

I didn’t know how to respond myself because what could be a more clear example of teacher leadership than a teacher proposing and developing a new approach to learning?  Shouldn’t that be the very definition of teacher leadership?

But this grant committee deemed this an unworthy example of teacher leadership.  I didn’t even get a rejection notice.  When I followed up months later and asked about it, I was told to check the website for winners.  And what were the best examples of teacher leadership?  Each one of the winners were taking on hybrid teaching roles.  I don’t bemoan those winners their grants, but the lesson I learned is that in order to be a teacher leader, we have to be willing to give up teaching, even if only part of the time.  With this new narrow view of teacher leadership, possible ways of leading from the classroom are forgotten, and hybrid roles are believed to be the best answer for everyone in every situation.  I think this thinking limits many great teachers from seeking opportunities to lead because they don’t want to leave the classroom, but it is just these kinds of teachers whose voices should be heard.

In my opinion, a teacher leader is someone who refuses to let herself, her school, her students, her colleagues, and the education system as a whole stagnate.  With that definition in mind, here are some things I’ve learned from real teacher leaders I know–teacher leaders who I try to emulate every day.

Real teacher leaders don’t ask for permission.

I’m making a lot of generalizations about teachers, but here’s another one:  Teachers want to please.  We want to do what’s right, and we want to be praised for doing it.  I spent my whole career with this mentality, and it led me to standing in front of many closed doors.  Last year, though, I entered the school year feeling alone and frustrated because I felt like no one understood my way of thinking. I told myself if it didn’t get better, I would leave.

But it got better.

In fact, it was the best year of my career because I took the advice of some colleagues who I admire for their no-nonsense attitudes.  They told me to stop asking for permission to do what I felt was right.  And I did.  The next thing I knew, I didn’t feel alone anymore because I had opened myself up to my colleagues who wanted to share ideas, and I had many open doors through which to walk.

Real teacher leaders keep knocking on closed doors.

Eventually those doors opened for me, but not without sore knuckles along the way. There was a time when I would have resigned myself to accept “that’s just not the way it’s done” and “well, the powers that be will disagree”.  But I have learned that a closed door is just an opportunity.

Another thing I’ve learned about closed doors is that sometimes they’re not closed for the reasons we think.  There have been many times, in three different schools now, when I had an idea that I wanted to share with an administrator, but held on to it for way too long until it was too late.  I thought the administrators were too busy.  Or it wasn’t that great of an idea.  Or they wouldn’t support me.  In reality, I’ve discovered that most administrators want to support teachers, they just try to think of logical (and logistical) ways to make big ideas a reality.  Sometimes an initial lack of response might just be their way of thinking through your idea or request.

And one last thing about closed doors:  Real teacher leaders don’t worry about people who might question their attempts to open them.  In every school I’ve taught, the theory is that teachers who spend too much time in the office are brown-nosers or opportunists.  I think this is a terrible myth to perpetuate.  Yes, those teachers do exist, and we’ve all known them, but what the myth does is prevent good teachers with good ideas from sharing them because they worry about the impression it will give.  So what if people think you’re opportunistic?  Shouldn’t teacher leaders be scouting for opportunities all the time anyway?

Real teacher leaders get over feeling like they’re bragging.

And in the same vein of feeling too ambitious, is the feeling that teachers who lead and show off that leadership are braggarts.  There is a tacit code in schools that teachers should be humble and self-sacrificing.  I do think that good teacher leaders do carry a strong sense of humility, but I also think it’s important to recognize what we do well and not be afraid to voice our strengths.  I have learned to happily accept that I am a big picture person, and details are not my strong suit.  I don’t feel embarrassed talking about a creative lesson idea I had because in the same breath, I will talk about how a lesson flopped because I didn’t plan the details well.

In his book, Teach Like a Pirate, Dave Burgess says that we all want (or should want) to be great.  We want to be great at this awesome task called teacher, so what’s wrong with being open about what makes us great?

Real teacher leaders understand that leading is often lonely.

There will be moments when someone will cut you off mid-sentence and make you feel like you’re not in the room.  There will be times when you have a great idea and can see it through to its awesome end in your mind, but someone rejects it before you have the chance to explain.  And there will be times when you’re walking into work wondering what the heck you’re doing and what gives you the right to think you can teach this way.  I’ve been there.  I’m still there.  But what I see good teacher leaders doing is embracing that loneliness.  They understand that feeling like that just means that when they’re interrupted, they speak up again.  When they’re rejected, they submit again.  When they question themselves, they find someone who believes in them.

Real teacher leaders embrace vulnerability.

Feeling lonely is vulnerable, and to embrace loneliness means to also embrace that vulnerability.  I am a firm believer that being more open and genuine brings luck, opportunities, and true friends.  I used to feel like I needed to pretend I knew all the answers.  I thought that if I questioned a lesson or worried about my own ability openly, or even internally, I would lose the respect of my administration, colleagues, and students.  I would stumble through a lesson that wasn’t working and see it to the end because I didn’t want to admit I’d planned a dud.  I wouldn’t voice opinions in faculty meetings because I thought it might expose me as a fraud who didn’t really know what she was talking about.  But as soon as I learned that kids perk up when a teacher says she’s wrong and that teachers respect other teachers who think and question and voice those thoughts and questions openly, I started doing it all the time.  I can’t remember the last time I pretended at work–I’m open and honest and all the better for it.

Real teacher leaders surround themselves with diverse perspectives.

I’m a dreamer.  I like far-fetched ideas, and I sometimes feel physically ill when a really practical person swoops in and shoots down those dreams with one question–how exactly will that work?  I used to just get mad at those people.  I would walk around harboring resentment, feeling yet again like they just don’t get it.  And then I would doubt myself.  It was a cycle that prevented me from engaging in honest collaborative relationships with my colleagues and embracing the power that comes from multiple perspectives.  Until I finally decided to try and answer that question.  It turns out, half the time I have no idea how those crazy ideas will work, but that practical person does.  When I finally let her walk me through it, suddenly that crazy idea was a reality that worked really well for both of our classrooms.  I stopped harboring resentment for people who just didn’t get me, and started making them my partners.  What I’ve walked away with is lifelong friendships and a stronger craft.  Real teacher leaders know this already and cultivate it openly.

The truth is that the art of teaching is often out of our control.  We want to control it so badly with titles and roles and promotions and plans, but we never will be able to find a formula that solves all the problems.  But if there’s anything close to a formula, it is in the hands of the lone teacher–the one loud enough, bold enough, strong enough, and willing enough to embrace the role of a true teacher leader.  Someone who wants to lead from within, not seek an identity from without.

Farm School: How a teacher got schooled on the farm

If you had asked me on a chilly, overcast Friday morning how I would have liked to spend the day, you would not have heard, Oh, I can’t wait to scrub down pumpkins with vinegar with 20 fifteen-year-olds. 

Yet, this is exactly how I spent my Friday, and I could not have asked for a better day.

I handpicked these particular students to be in a class I’ve designed. I chose them because I knew they needed something else–something that school wouldn’t or couldn’t offer them. I wanted to give them an opportunity for learning in a new way.

I call the course Connect because my sole goal is to reconnect these kids with learning. I want them to become true learners. I want them to be curious.

As you can imagine, the process of designing and teaching this class has been an interesting experiment, not without its ups and downs–and we’ve only been in school for six weeks. I have hit wall after wall, thinking that a lesson or a project will be just the ticket and it will fail miserably. I have picked myself up again with small moments that make me glad to be a teacher–a perfectly worded sentence in their writing, 100% engagement, even if it’s only for ten minutes. These kids are tough nuts to crack.

But I was the one about to crack last Friday. We had not had a good week together. I was frustrated with them, and they probably were more frustrated with me. I didn’t think their work was living up to their potential. I didn’t think they were really trying. And I took it personally. So much so, that on the morning of the field trip, I said to my husband, “I don’t even want to go on this field trip because I don’t think they deserve it. They’re being so lazy right now.”

So I dragged myself to school, bad attitude and all, and hopped on a bus headed to the farm. It was the worst day for it, too. The previous day was a glorious fall day–warm, breezy, and sunny–and here we were in the cold, damp, gray morning which definitely didn’t help my attitude. I tried to “fake it til I made it” with the kids, but I really just wanted to hover by the space heater by my desk and toss them a few worksheets to make a point.

But the kids were the ones who made the point.

When we got off the bus, a couple of the farm workers asked the kids to scrub black mold off of these huge pumpkins that were piled into giant boxes around a field, using vinegar, water, and old towels. I just prayed for a storm to come, so we’d have an excuse to haul out of there, but the kids hopped off the bus like they were retirees trying to get a spot on The Price is Right. They got right to work like old pros. They were so happy. Watching them, I couldn’t help but crawl out of my funk, and I went around asking them if they’d rather be warm inside writing an essay or out there scrubbing pumpkin mold and hauling giant pumpkins around a deadened patch of land, and they all laughed at the stupidity of my question.

It hit me then:  These kids are not lazy.

They are a lot of things–unmotivated, frustrated, bored–at school, but out there in the cold, wet morning, they were anything but lazy. I was reminded of why I chose them to be in the class in the first place. I made them a promise of a new experience, but I had thrown that promise out the window the second they didn’t perform in school the way I thought they should. But why would they? I knew who they were from the very beginning; I was the one pretending.

Spreading pumpkins around the patch

Spreading pumpkins around the patch

As Americans, and especially as teachers, we are trained to think about education in a certain way. But more and more people are beginning to recognize that school is not structured in the way that most of our brains work. I became a teacher–I am the definition of an academic–and school wasn’t always great even for me. If we are honest with ourselves, we can all admit that sometimes the way we learn in school and the way we choose to learn outside of school are not only different, but polar opposite.

However, I am a teacher, and therefore, I believe inherently that there is nothing in the world more valuable than learning. I also believe that public education has the power to transform a person and a society. But I have to ask myself some hard questions sometimes about why I do what I do in the classroom, and why I expect certain things from my kids.

But here is the bottom line:  I want success and a passion for lifelong learning for every kid who walks into my classroom. And of those twenty kids in my Connect class, I want the kid who wants to be a vet to write an unbelievable essay to get into vet school. I want the kid who wants to be a hair stylist to be the most requested stylist in the salon because she knows how to tell good stories and persuade clients to try that hairstyle that she knows will make them look their best. I want the kid who wants to be an entrepreneur to refuse to sign the shoddy contract sent to him because he knows to read carefully, and he knows not only what the words say, but what they really mean for him and his business. I want to see them translate the motivation they had for scrubbing and hauling pumpkins to a motivation for living the best life they can. And that sometimes means working within the confines we’ve been given–navigating the system as it stands. I have to teach them how to walk that line.

We ended our day on the farm with a nature walk on a path around a pond. The boys bounced around like Tigger, breaking sticks, hopping on logs, jumping through puddles. The girls led the tribe from the front, their laughter trickling back through the humid air to me as I followed from behind. The rain finally came while we walked, but the tree canopy above shielded us, so we only felt a mist as we paced through the woods together.

A fresh start

A fresh start

I told one of the kids ahead of me that it reminded me of one of my favorite quotes:  “Some people feel the rain, and others just get wet.” She didn’t really listen because she is fifteen, and I’m just the old teacher saying words to the sky, but I needed to say it then. I needed to remind myself that teaching anyone is an experiment, and learning is a beautiful mess. I made a promise to myself as we ended our lap around the pond and stepped out into the open air, where the rain finally poured down on us, that I will do my very best to feel the rain whenever I can. And I will spend my days letting them teach me how to do it.