By Ariel Sacks
After reading the powerful collection of articles on teacher leadership in the October 2013 issue of Education Leadership, I looked back at my own contribution, “The Problem-Solving Power of Teachers,” with a critical lens. In this article, I make the case that we take too many risks in education on the basis of the ideas of those far away from classrooms, causing an all-too-common mismatch between policy and practice. I argue that we should take more risks implementing the ideas of teachers, because teachers know their students and can see the problems clearly enough to imagine better solutions. I share a story from my own school, in which a team of teachers dramatically improved the success of both students and teachers by transforming a policy that didn’t really work.
As I reread my article, I asked myself what the naysayers would think of my argument that being closest to the students is a tremendous benefit. Perhaps I’d sound idealistic, as if putting teachers in charge of everything would solve all of education’s challenges. Perhaps they’d discount my claim by suggesting that teachers as policymakers would easily “miss the forest for the trees.” And what’s to say that, beyond the context of our own schools, we teachers would understand the big picture?
Let’s say that the forest is our education ecosystem. Teachers know the “trees”—our students—well. We are also in continual contact with shrubs, moss, and various creatures that inhabit the forest. We have vast knowledge of this ecosystem, but, admittedly, most of us don’t know what the forest looks like from a bird’s-eye view. And some of us are happy doing our best work without ever giving this reality much attention!
Traditional policymakers, by contrast, are accustomed to looking at the forest from above, but they have little access to the trees, shrubs, moss, and creatures that flourish there. They don’t really understand what success looks like for an individual frog or an elm tree or what their greatest struggles are. But they do know about the weather fronts—the political and economic forces—across the country and world that invariably affect conditions in the forest.
To my imaginary critics, then, I say: yes, if we’re not careful, we teacher leaders could miss the forest for the trees. By the same token, policymakers too often take action with superficial analysis of a complex ecosystem. Truth be told, we need both views to make good decisions. Policymakers, teachers, principals, parents, community organizations, and other stakeholders need to communicate with one another, and we need people who go among the different worlds to facilitate that communication and build partnerships.
When we’re not busy teaching, some of us teachers, for example, like to climb to tall places and look at the shape of the forest from above. We learn to recognize the weather fronts as they approach us, and we learn how these fronts will affect the growth of the forest as a whole. We talk to our colleagues about what we’ve seen and solicit their perspectives. We collaborate virtually with teachers from other schools, and we dialogue with other education professionals. We become informed enough of the big picture to work on larger-scale solutions that will serve the trees and creatures and our colleagues in the forest. We’re calling ourselves teacherpreneurs. Check out Teacherpreneurs: Innovative Teachers Who Lead Without Leaving (Jossey-Bass, 2013) to learn about eight different teacherpreneurs, of whom I am one, and the conditions that support our work.
Teachers are not the only ones in education who can and should travel among different ecosystems to make better decisions for our schools. But a great many of us are ready and able to do so—and it’s time for schools to take more risks on our ideas.