By Walter McKenzie
Teaching today is a more complex set of roles and responsibilities than ever before. The skills and knowledge required to successfully engage students and prepare them for our quickly-changing society define how teachers lead within the classroom and without. Traditionally teachers who have wanted to lead beyond the classroom went into administration, meaning oft-times the best and the brightest left the classroom after a few years of teaching. But today many more opportunities are emerging for teacher leadership, both formally and informally. How can we best think about and support aspiring teacher leaders, especially those who want to stay in the classroom as instructional leaders and more? To explore this quickly expanding phenomenon, ASCD convened the Whole Child Symposium on Teacher Leadership.
Examining the subject both structurally across education hierarchy, and personally through the eyes of practitioners, ASCD moderator Sean Slade brought together a panel to discuss both points of view. Maddie Fennell, a 2013 classroom fellow for the U.S. Department of Education, Becky Pringle, vice-president for the National Education Association, and Tanya Tucker, vice-president for alliance engagement for the America’s Promise Alliance, first examined teacher leadership from the organizational perspective. Citing the Alliance’s Five Promises, Tucker made the case, “We promise to young Americans that they will grow up with the help and guidance of caring adult relationships, healthy childhoods, safe surroundings, effective education and opportunities to serve others. Two of these promises rise to the top as teacher leadership: caring adult relationships and effective education.” Pringle concurred, “I believe we have reached a tipping point. Teacher leadership needs to be formalized and funded. In the next six years we will have two million new teachers in the classroom. There’s an urgency to train them.” Fennell summed it up best: “We can’t have campfires. If teacher leadership is not intentional, it’s not built into the culture. Teachers want to lead up to their principles. Principals shouldn’t feel threatened; this is collaborative.” All three panelists agreed that student learning and student growth are the number one lens in which to discuss and support teacher leadership.
The second panel consisted of Peter DeWitt, an ASCD author, Visible Learning trainer, Education Week blogger, and former elementary principal; Robyn Jackson, an ASCD author, founder of Mindsteps, Inc., and a former secondary teacher and principal; and Jennifer Orr, a kindergarten teacher and 2013 ASCD Emerging Leader, in order to provide a more on-the-ground perspective of teacher leadership. “The problem with the public dialog is that it is negative: the hammer method…just hammering people to death. This is why I am such a proponent of the whole child; it’s a positive dialog. Teachers need positive leadership role models,” DeWitt argued. Orr agreed and expanded the point: “We aren’t always heard at the district or school level. I’m really not sure how people taught pre-internet. Social media has brought teacher leadership into view for many people. We are no longer alone.” Jackson took it even further, asking, “How do I negotiate relationships with colleagues? How do I get people to listen to me? The people who need help the most are often the ones most resistant to a teacher leader.” She summed up the discussion with the caveat, “Teacher leadership has flown under the radar so that people can define it for themselves. I worry we’re going to take it and make it into bad PD.”
Indeed, integrating the new views of teacher leadership into the education culture is fraught with drawbacks and pitfalls. How do we bring in the benefits of redefined teacher leadership without losing its fresh eyes and new energy? Traditionally, “teacher leaders” have been those teachers receiving a stipend to perform extra duties at the team or district level. How do we bring teacher leaders into strategic planning discussions? We can’t ask them to lead if they don’t have a voice in deliberation and decision-making. And perhaps most importantly, how do we engage teacher leaders to not only be instructional leaders, but also advocates for children and education in the public policy arena? They need the skills and tools to comfortably and confidently work with public and private sector leaders to help all children be college, career, and citizenship ready.
What teacher leadership isn’t about is charisma. “Charismatic leaders are sloppy,” Robyn Jackson contends. “You can try to be who you think you’re supposed to be, but who you are will leak out all over the place. Leverage who you are.” Somewhere between lightning strikes of inspiration and the formal skills that come with experience, there needs to be a home for teacher leaders in education. Because as a learning institution, public education needs to more effectively cultivate a culture receptive to new thinking, agile implementation, and adaptability to the quickly-changing society it serves. It may be too late for the elder generation to bring fresh energy and ideas to the table, but our legacy can be a revitalized profession that more faithfully embraces learning, growth, and leadership opportunities for our youngest and most idealistic practitioners.
The discussions generated from the Whole Child Symposium on Teacher Leadership will continue across the profession, just as the work continues to transform education to meet the needs of a new age. “Every teacher comes into the profession wanting to make a change and make a difference,” Maddie Fennell pointed out. “But what’s on teacher’s plates is jelly donuts and last week’s leftovers.” We need to enrich and expand opportunities for teachers to manage, lead and show us the way.
Walter McKenzie is a lifelong learner, teacher, leader, and connector. As strategic adviser for Constituent Services, he served 25 years in public education as a classroom teacher, instructional technology coordinator, director of technology, and assistant superintendent for information services. He is internationally known for his work on multiple intelligences and technology and has published various books and articles on the subject. Connect with McKenzie on the ASCD EDge® social network, on his Actualization blog, or by e-mail at email@example.com.