Sunday, March 1, 2015

On Teacher Leadership vs teacher leadership

Like a sore tooth I have been tonguing the problem of Teacher Leadership for about a year now.  It is a worrisome thing.

It started last year when Arne Duncan launched his Teach to Lead program at the now annual Teaching and Learning Conference in Washington, D.C.  (I plan to visit the education luminaries again this March 14.  Hate to miss out on all the noshing but feel a bit at arm's length from this fete. Too many commercials?)

To say that I am suspicious would be to describe an essential character trait.  I am pretty much always suspicious, not trusting that which is relentlessly sold.  I make a bad salesman since I can even find the holes in my own arguments.  Perhaps it is why journalism appealed to me as an undergrad.

So when Duncan launched the program, with little funding behind it, I thought "Well let's just see about that."  Still, ever the hopeful compromiser, I accepted the invitation to receive Teach to Lead emails, visited the website, and watched from a twitter distance the three Teach to Lead Summits held to date.

This and the Teaching Ambassador Fellowship still bother me.

There are some hopeful signs that this is a serious movement:  There is a long list of supporters on the Teach to Lead website, groups that have resonance with teachers.

The TAF (as the fellows refer to themselves) argue that they are being taken seriously at the DOE, though you couldn't tell it by me. The DOE's official statement surrounding the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind law has too much emphasis on testing and measuring teacher effectiveness by student test scores.  If there is teacher voice in this policy, I'm not hearing it.

There are other issues that nag.  The Teach to Lead ning exhorts exemplary teachers to do what they have always done: come up with new ideas on a shoestring and commit their own resources of time and energy beyond the school day to fail or succeed on their own.  Some of us have done this for years and know just how wearing it can be.  If anything, this is a chief driver of teacher burnout: doing what is right without the official endorsement of both time and money.  Teacher as saviour once again.

But no, it's something else that is nagging me.  Perhaps it has to do with how I have been both led and hope to lead with fellow teachers.

The source of my unease seems to stem from this:  All of these initiatives still have the bitter taste of top-down management.

In all discussions Teacher Leaders are often referred to as elevated.  The anointed ones speak of the jealousy of their peers when one teacher is lifted above the others.  In all the rhetoric, it appears that Teacher Leadership is now another rung on a hierarchy which, in my opinion, is the very root of systemic problems in educating youth. The model implies that some leaders must move aside to make room for more leaders, some of whom will be Master Teachers.  Oh you lucky few.

This is a mistake.

Top heaviness does not work. It creates a steady drip, drip of initiatives that rarely, if ever, create real change in instruction.  That much the last decade must have proven, if nothing else.  It also implies that only some teachers can be good enough--something I don't believe about teachers or students.  The hierarchy itself is both fate and predestination.  Fait accompli.  It constricts rather than expands.

Like education itself, the spark and hunger for change must be ignited within the teacher so that transformation in thinking and subsequently transformation in instruction occurs.  It may sound like magic, but there are models for this that work.

We do know how to facilitate this kind of change in both teachers and students.  (See Finland, see Singapore, see soon-to-be China...)

The workplace must reflect the same model that the best teachers create in their classrooms: collaborative think tanks where sharing is encouraged and expected.  Education, after all, is an inside-out process--not the other way around.

Like many of my peers, I did not learn how to ignite that spark in my students from management. I found it outside the regimented structures.  All of the transformational learning that occurred in my teaching came from a single source: other teachers.

I found my first mentors alongside me at work, trusted teachers who led me to the clear refreshing water of understanding and owning my own work--all outside of the workplace.  The first long drink came in the National Writing Project Summer Institute where we examined our work and thought deeply about teaching and its goals. Then I engaged in the self-study of the National Board process--then online in Nings and twitter chats and two engaging listserves: the Center for Teaching Quality list (now the CTQ Collaboratory) and the Advanced Placement English listserve.  I go back to these sources over and over because continual learning with peers is invigorating, alive, and intellectually fulfilling. It continually engages me in my work.

All of these experiences have one thing in common:  committed teachers are brought together to discuss practice, to share, to problem solve, always with the work of students in front of us, coupled with trusted theoretical models.  The learning is deep and personal and carries the ring of truth that a school system's program du jour does not.

If we really are to both lead and own our profession, it calls for a flatter structure that encourages collaborative grouping.   It is through this that teacherS (capital S) will lead the profession, not an appointed Teacher Leader who is but one more bureaucratic administrator of teaching excellence.

My unease, I think (still questioning), stems from the idea that the term Teacher Leadership has been co-opted by the current structure into an elevated position handed over by the powers that be.  Those who currently sit at the top of a hierarchy see only one methodology and, I fear, will defeat teacher leadership in the end.

True collaboration is invigorating, not defeating (the way official Teacher Leaders describe the response of their former peers).  Leaders LEAD by invitation, modeling the joy of discovery and the pleasure in sharing a success, and then step aside to let the process drive the change.  Like teaching itself, there is an egoless component, since the true goal is to achieve that satisfying moment when students take over and the leader is no longer needed.

This is where we should be headed: a profession that takes over for itself and does not need the endorsement of the ruling class.

Consider teacher leadership, lowercase.

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