The Myth of the Teacher Leader, Redux

To understand why outsiders don’t grasp teacher quality in meaningful terms, consider this list.

Which of the teachers described here are leaders, working with their colleagues to improve school quality? Which ones are speaking out in support of improving the professional community? Which ones forge the way to a new professional concept? Which ones have a clear vision of their teaching identities? Which ones are committed to student achievement? Which ones, in Rick Hess’s phrasing, are cagebusters?

Ignore trifling matters like whether or not the teachers agree with your own values and priorities. Focus on leadership, caring, professional commitment. Yes, this makes it a more difficult task.

  • Teachers work late into the evening developing curriculum and planning instruction, but violate their contractual obligations by occasionally or consistent tardiness to staff and department meetings. Their timely colleagues see the tardy attendance as unprofessional. But the gripers often leave campus three minutes after last bell.

  • An attendance clerk wonders why a student is skipping first period each day for two weeks. The clerk contacts the other teachers and learns that he’s actually been absent in all classes, but that unlike the first period teacher, they’ve been letting it slide, since the student told them he was joining the Marines. Further investigation reveals that the student was on a cruise. Shortly after this incident, the principal announced that failure to take attendance and submit completed attendance verification reports would be made an evaluation point, if needed.

  • A new teacher is confused as to what responsibilities are held by the “department head” and a “math coach”, since neither approached to offer assistance when he began his job. The teacher who did approach him with help (and has no official role) told him not to worry about it, as department “leadership” roles are meaningless.

  • A few senior math teachers informally agreed to improve advanced math instruction by holding students to higher standards and a demanding pace. A new teacher was brought on, who taught at a slower pace and had a much wider “passing window”. The senior teachers requested that the new teacher be fired. The principal refused. One of the senior teachers left. The newer teacher continued with the same priorities.

  • A team of teachers and counselors are enthusiastically discussing methods to convince colleagues to comply with a new district-wide initiative. One team member cautions against mandated compliance, suggesting they accept cynicism and caution as logical responses. The team decides to go much more slowly, realizing that they can’t really enforce compliance anyway. They introduce a smaller initiative that builds on existing interest, hoping to win more compliance through results.

  • A second-career teacher works unceasingly to help at-risk students get to college, achieving a decade or more of success getting first-generation kids to college. He is a valued and highly respected leader in the teaching staff—right up until he confesses to inappropriate contact with a student. He is arrested and fired.

These examples all reveal why Rick Hess’s 90-10 split makes no sense:

…[W]hat’s happened is to a large extent…there are these teachers out there who are doing amazing things and speaking up, there are lot of teachers who are just doing their thing in the middle, and then you have teachers who are disgruntled and frustrated. These teachers in the backend, the 10 percent, they’re the teachers the reformers and policymakers envision when they think about the profession. They’re the ones who are rallying and screaming and writing nasty notes at the bottom of New York Times stories.

Hess never says so, but presumably we are to assume that the “amazing teachers” are moving test scores, while the disgruntled, frustrated teachers demanding more money are out there on the picket lines, demonstrating against Eva or taking time off to bitch in Madison, while their students sit in a dull stupor.

Would that the dichotomy were that simple. Dots can’t be connected between teaching ability and political activism. The street corner screamers protesting merit pay and standardized testing might just as easily be the ones working until 9 at night, building memorable lessons. The slugs who check out each day at 3 using the same tests year after year might have worshipful students. The former teacher who cries on cue as a paid hack for Students First might actually be less admired than the much loved teacher identified as incompetent based on a single student’s opinion. (I am always flummoxed that reformers think anyone other than the already converted would find Bhavina Baktra compelling.) Political activism is one of the utterly useless proxies for teacher quality.

Teacher Quality–what is it, exactly?

What makes a good teacher? Let us count the many ways that broad circles can’t safely capture and identify teaching populations.

  • An engaging, creative teacher can be a terrible or indifferent employee, showing up to meetings late, missing supervisories, forgetting to submit grades on time.
  • An uninspiring or incompetent teacher can be a fabulous employee, impeccably on time with contract obligations: grades, attendance, and assigned tasks.
  • Teachers of any instructional or employee quality can be activists fighting against reforms they see as damaging to either their jobs or children—or on the reform payroll (yes, it does seem that way to us) pushing for merit pay or an end to tenure.
  • An ordinary, somewhat tedious teacher can have an outstanding attendance record, while a creative curriculum genius misses ten or more days a year;
  • Unlawful teachers–from the extremes of unthinkable sexual behavior to the seemingly innocuous falsification of state records—are, often, “good teachers” in the sense that reformers intend the word. (Just do a google on teacher of the year with any particular criminal activity.

No objective measure or criterion exists for teaching excellence. At best, most might agree on its display. Were a thousand people to watch a classroom video, they might agree on the teacher’s displayed merits. People might agree that certain opinions are unacceptable for teachers to have, or that certain actions are unacceptable. But those merits, actions, or opinions have next to no demonstrated relationship to test scores or other student outcomes.

So What Makes a Teacher Leader?

And if we can’t even know who or what defines a good teacher for any objective metric, then naturally the whole idea of finding “teacher leaders” is a lost cause.

Who’s a leader? The officially designated department heads or coaches, or the de facto mentors who offer advice and curriculum to the nervous newbies? The teachers who follow the contract obligations like clockwork, or the ones who work late and give hours to the kids but are weaker at the contractual obligations? The teachers who want to plow down resisters, or the teachers who suggest accommodating to the reality that the plowdowns will never happen? The teachers who want everyone to follow proven procedures, or the teachers who follow their own vision? The teacher who successfully manages a a site-wide program for at-risk kids, helping hundreds over the years while occasionally making sexual advances, or the teacher who just shows up every day to teach without ever molesting his students? The teachers who want to embrace reforms to improve schools, or the teachers who fight the reforms as the efforts of ignorant ideologues?

These aren’t rhetorical questions. There are people who can brief for either side–yes, even the molester. Just ask Mrs. Miller or, just to ratchet up the difficulty level, the hundreds of kids who weren’t abused by this predator, but found focus and purpose to achieve based on his advice and support.

So who wants teacher leaders, anyway? Reformers. Ed schools. Politicians. Administrators. Teachers who want to be teacher leaders—a handy group that serves as mouthpieces for the other organizations. The same people, in short, who believe the delusion that “good teachers” is an axiom, an easily defined, obvious trait.

Who doesn’t want teacher leaders? Teachers who don’t want to be teacher leaders. Which is most of them.

I repeat, for the umpteenth time: what the outside world sees as a bug, most teachers see as a feature. We trade promotions and pay recognition for job security and freedom from management that industry can only dream of.

Certain things just don’t make a dent in the teacher universe. When math teachers get together for beers, we don’t secretly bitch about how much more money we’d get if teaching salaries were determined by scarcity. Very few sigh for a world in which our pay is dependent on our principal’s opinion of our work. Many of us either aren’t fussed by system bureaucracy or—as if often the case—understand that the bureaucracy isn’t the underlying reason for whatever wall we face.

Given the utter lack of internal demand, teachers suspect, with much justification, that those calling for “leaders” are looking to install their mouthpieces in positions of authority over the rest of us. Call us cynical. Call us justified.

So the next time anyone calls for “teacher leaders”, please remember a few things. Any teaching community has leaders both official and informal. The official leaders are selected, often by management, sometimes by majority vote. The informal leaders are often sought out by colleagues, but occasionally self-drafted. Regardless of selection method, the relationships are many to many, not one to many. These leaders have little actual authority. They have influence. Sometimes.

Teachers don’t want leaders. We have management. We’re good, thanks.

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33 responses to “The Myth of the Teacher Leader, Redux

  • Chester Draws

    It’s difficult for ambitious people to realise that many people just don’t share their desire for “success” in the same way.

    I think a lot of the reason politicians think “teacher leaders” will work is because they think we will strive to become them. That our ambition will drive us to work harder to become a leader, with the pay and glory that attaches, and thereby standards will be raised.

    But we won’t compete, because if we were actually ambitious we wouldn’t be teachers in the first place.

    Politicians however live in a world where everyone is scrabbling to get to the top. They don’t understand people who already know, aged 30, that they have reached their personal “top”.

    Performance pay won’t work for the same reason. If it is only a small amount, then it will have very little motivating effect. If it is a large differential, then the teachers who don’t get it will simply resign for better paying jobs (or ones where they don’t get the stigma of being labelled “bad” by people who have no idea how good they are).

    And performance pay will have the effect of increasing recruitment slightly and decreasing retention by a lot.

  • Vijay

    “Fill profession here” leaders are being constantly talked about in industry too. Constantly, we are asked to be leaders, but how many leaders an office can handle? even management cannot be considered as leaders, as the focus is primarily on project progress or quarterly results. Add it to the fact that leading engineers or programmers is like herding cats. If one more HR or management person calls for leaders, ……!

  • Roger Sweeny

    No objective measure or criterion exists for teaching excellence. At best, most might agree on its display. Were a thousand people to watch a classroom video, they might agree on the teacher’s displayed merits. People might agree that certain opinions are unacceptable for teachers to have, or that certain actions are unacceptable. But those merits, actions, or opinions have next to no demonstrated relationship to test scores or other student outcomes.

    And if we can’t even know who or what defines a good teacher for any objective metric, then naturally the whole idea of finding “teacher leaders” is a lost cause.

    These paragraphs talk about excellent and good teachers. Are there any criteria for “competent” or “sufficient” teachers? Maybe there are criteria but they aren’t “objective”? Cause if there is no way of telling, schools should just hire anyone off the street, and that seems ridiculous.

    • educationrealist

      I think a year of ed school, fingerprinting, and student teaching is about it, yeah. Good question. I’ll mull.

      • Roger Sweeny

        When you say “a year of ed school,” do you mean as part of undergraduate schooling or a year past college graduation? It seems to me that an extra year does little more than screen out the uncommitted. “So you think you want to be a teacher? Prove it by putting up with a year of nothing but ed school.”

        But then I found most ed courses useless for teaching. There was a fantastic, 5-day, all-day workshop on classroom management. A little course on special ed, so I knew where IEPs and 504s and such were coming from. Maybe another little course on the joys of Microsoft Office.

        From the rest, I got to learn a lot of ed jargon, and to see what the people in power believed, and to understand where a lot of policy was coming from–but there was damn little that was directly useful in the classroom.

      • educationrealist

        “So you think you want to be a teacher? Prove it by putting up with a year of nothing but ed school.”

        Yeah, that’s not entirely wrong. Ideally, your curriculum and instruction classes won’t be a waste of time. Mine definitely weren’t. Sped was useful, if annoying. But even in the most monumental waste of time classes, we had some interesting readings, were made aware of various classroom issues–even if we completely disagreed with the prescripted method of handling it–and usually got to talk a lot bout teaching.

        I agree little of it was immediately useful in the classroom, but that’s why we had student teaching.

      • Roger Sweeny

        But even in the most monumental waste of time classes, we had some interesting readings, were made aware of various classroom issues–even if we completely disagreed with the prescripted method of handling it–and usually got to talk a lot bout teaching.

        A fantasy for improving ed school: After the first year of teaching, former students have to come back and give a course, “What we were taught that was wrong.” They would, of course, be paid for giving it. Faculty would be required to attend and would have ample opportunity to talk a lot about it.

        Since this is ed school, everyone would pass.

      • educationrealist

        As to the last, that’s true of grad school in general. As for the idea, it’s good, but don’t you think most would-be teachers know this? My sense is the only people who bought the propaganda were already converted.

      • Roger Sweeny

        I just don’t know. But my gut feeling is that a lot of ed school students do believe or believe that they should believe. After all, professors are the experts. And if you disagree, aren’t you on the same side as mean, bad people?

        You can have great discussions when you’re still a student but you don’t really know much until you’ve done a year of running a classroom, interacting with parents and administrators, counselors and paraprofessionals; doing a whole year of disciplining and testing and grading.

        As a student, you’re a well-meaning child. As a teacher with a year under your belt, you’re a responsible adult 🙂

  • spottedtoad

    When I watched the PBS documentary about Rafe Esquith, about ten years ago, when I was still teaching, I asked myself afterwards– why does this make me so depressed? Is it just that I feel guilty about not working as hard as him? Is it just that, despite the hagiographic tone of the film he gave off a little bit of a creepy vibe (though I wouldn’t have pegged him for a molester, just a narcissist)?
    The cult of the Super Teacher is just very hard to square with actually getting up and teaching every day. I avoided TFA events after my first year because they were always about the fierce urgency of now, never about the moderately important challenges of factoring quadratics.
    I miss teaching, but I could only become a teacher again if I could absolutely trust myself not to care about the Big Picture.

    • educationrealist

      I agree with most of what you say, but what do you mean “don’t care about the Big Picture”?

      Amen to Esquith. I’ve always cried bs, but I never expected sexual molestation. I’m really shocked to see Jay Mathews act as if it’s just a ploy by LAUSD to get rid of him. I could see LAUSD giving him a fake bad review, but accuse him of molestation?

      • spottedtoad

        The great gift of teaching is you get to get up and do it again tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow. If you get bogged down in Winning the Class, that feels like hell. But actual teachers who thrive over decades can find success in individual lessons, individual classes or examples of student work, without constantly holding themselves against an impossible standard or gnashing their teeth about the injustices of the world. That kind of present-mindedness is easier for some people than for others.

      • educationrealist

        Ah. Yes, that’s true. I’m not someone who lives in the present at all, but I don’t have any of the problems you list.

      • DensityDuck

        “I could see LAUSD giving him a fake bad review, but accuse him of molestation?”

        Which is why someone might do it. Because Who Would Make Up Something Like That?

        Again, I don’t know anything about the case, but isn’t it so strange how so many of these real go-getter education professionals who really start to turn things around have their careers disintegrate in a mishmash of sexual-misconduct allegations that settle out of court?

      • Hattie

        “…but isn’t it so strange how so many of these real go-getter education professionals who really start to turn things around have their careers disintegrate in a mishmash of sexual-misconduct allegations that settle out of court?”

        Well, Occam’s Razor would suggest that this suggests that there is a high correlation between being, uh, what you said he was as a professional, and being what he was in the rest of his life.

      • Mark Roulo

        “Amen to Esquith. I’ve always cried bs, but I never expected sexual molestation. I’m really shocked to see Jay Mathews act as if it’s just a ploy by LAUSD to get rid of him. I could see LAUSD giving him a fake bad review, but accuse him of molestation?”

        I’m inclined to wait and see how this plays out. If the recent students testify against him, then that would be very bad (for him). If the recent students testify in his favor (“Some of these students claimed that investigators harassed and intimidated them, and they’ve retained their own lawyers, according to the lawsuit” says one random on-line source), then that would not be good for the district.

        I expect things to be clearer in 12 months, but we don’t need to even have tentative opinions right now, no?

      • Mark Roulo

        “Again, I don’t know anything about the case, but isn’t it so strange how so many of these real go-getter education professionals who really start to turn things around have their careers disintegrate in a mishmash of sexual-misconduct allegations that settle out of court?”

        I don’t follow things very closely.

        Which other “go-getter education professionals” have had their careers “disintegrate in a mishmash of sexual-misconduct allegations that settle out of court”?

    • Chester Draws

      I had a boss who refused to hire super teachers. He said they caused trouble round them, as everyone else wasn’t good enough. And most would only last a couple of years anyway before they burnt out.

      I don’t know Rafe Esquith, other than what I read just now on-line, but what is the effect of his style on the other subjects his students are taking?

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  • educationrealist

    On Esquith: One of two things is true. a) The district has invented a case against him or b) Esquith is a molester.

    I would be utterly shocked if the first is true. I consider it very close to impossible that the district would do this. There are too many other easy ways to get a teacher fired if your mind is put to it. Moreover, he isn’t being fired over non-specific hints, but specific allegations and quotes. They released a very detailed case.

    That makes b less shocking, although still very hard to believe. He mostly taught immigrants kids, though–Korean and Hispanic. Perhaps he was able to get away with more.

    The other thing that makes b less shocking is that LAUSD has a long history of ignoring stuff like this. They’re in trouble for ignoring their duty to notify the credential board of other molestation charges over the years.

    It’s honestly not a huge deal to me one way or another; what I’m much more shocked about is Jay Mathew’s cavalier assumption that a is true. He doesn’t even try to build a case for what would be a huge, huge deal. That is, if he genuinely believes that LAUSD is dummying up a case, he should be reporting the shit out of it. Instead, he’s just making a casual accusation to explain why he believes Esquith.

  • Jennifer

    I know this wasn’t your main point, but it seems like several of the anecdotes you cite involve teachers making decisions that should be made at a higher level. For example, the teacher who bought the student’s lie about joining the Marines. It’s been a while, but when I was in high school, the rules about acceptable reasons and necessary documentation for extended absences were made and implemented by the someone in “the office,” not individual teachers. Whether a particular teacher believed a particular student’s story was almost irrelevant, because the teachers weren’t the ones making the decision about whether the absence should be excused. I’m sure other districts have slightly different policies, but I doubt your district’s policy says, “Mark them present if you believe their explanation.”

    The same goes for the math “passing window.” Though there’s always going to be some variation between individual teachers, there shouldn’t be such a huge gap that the same student would get an F from one and a B from another. Either or both standards may be unfair, but kids passing or failing based on the random luck of teacher assignments rather than anything to do with actual mastery is even more so. If that kind of variation exists, more standardization is needed at the administrative level.

    I don’t have tons of sympathy for those who can’t or won’t get to routine meetings on time. The mentality of ‘I’ll get to work whenever I want, and it’s fine as long as I stay late to make up the time’ isn’t practical in most jobs, and letting all teachers set their own hours would be chaos. Willingness to work late is great, but it’s not an acceptable trade-off for consistent failure to show up on time. Like the other examples, mandatory working hours are something that should be determined by the administration, not individual teachers.

    I agree with you that none of this has anything to do with actual teaching ability (defined as the ability to engage and instruct in the classroom, rather than the ability to follow rules). I’ll take it one step further and suggest that many of the issues people want “teacher leadership” on aren’t things that should be at the discretion of individual teachers in the first place.

    • educationrealist

      On the first—the issue was that the kid didn’t go to the administration, that he just told all the teachers. He expected them all to mark him present. He was almost right. This is *clearly* a case of teachers not following their state mandated responsibility. I was offering it up as an example of “bad teaching” that few care about–and that a really terrific teacher as most define it could easily have been one of the three. (I was the teacher who marked the student absent).

      In the second, that’s simply incorrect. Teachers have enormous authority on grades that administrators can’t touch. When you read about districts instigating rules about grade weighting or passing percentages, take those with a grain of salt. Most of the compliance is optional.

      On the third, I agree with you, despite the fact that I’m a teacher who struggles to be on time and often works late. But when you hear about the rhetoric about all the wonderful teachers who bust their asses working off hours, remember that contractually, none of that matters at all. On the other hands, teachers who leave instantly after work, putting in no extra time, and show up on time all the time, are “good teachers”.

      The point in all these cases is either to show areas that count as “good teaching” that never hit the news. Or to show debates in which you might expect a “teacher leader” to take a position, but the position could be either side. With the exception of the sexual offender, I believe objective outsiders can argue for either case. and, in the case of the sexual offender, a lot of parents and students whose kids weren’t molested but were helped by the abusing teacher who went out of his way probably would have picked the offender over an ordinary “phone it in” teacher who didn’t abuse.

  • Anonymous

    SAT cancelled in Asia.

    Please take a bow and opine futher.

    Nice ER

  • Vijay

    This is not the place for this comment, but I do not know where to put it.

    In Twitter, you referred to a large number of Turkish children in Voc-Ed in Germany, and assumed that a large number of black and Hispanic children will end up in Voc-ed in US if there was such a program. Unfortunately, the German Voc-Ed program has changed substantially in the last 20 years that there is a severe competition for the best polytechnics and voc-ed schools. Many of the most highly paid vocational crtafts like CAD/CAM, medical technology have gotten very technical in the last 10 years, and it can be concluded that they will be dominated by white, and to a lesser extent Hispanics. So, let us not assume two things:

    1. Voc-Ed is for the lower spectrum of IQ distribution
    2, Automatically, the NAM will be tracked into Voc-Ed.

    My conclusion is that if the VOC -ed program were well done and to contribute to industry, it will be dominated by while poor white and Hispanics and will become very male dominated. In Germany, voc-ed does not have a looked-down upon vibe. if anything, there is considerable variation and competition to voc-ed in selected states like Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg.

    • Roger Sweeny

      I don’t know if it is true that, “the most highly paid vocational crtafts like CAD/CAM, medical technology have gotten very technical in the last 10 years.” It is certainly true that a lot of certification programs now require a lot of technical academic courses but that doesn’t prove anything. High school graduation rates are up. That could mean kids know more–or it could mean high schools are lowering standards.

      One data point: A former high school student of mine wanted a certification to work on diesel engines and was enrolled in the Diesel Technology program at a local community college. One of the requirements was two semesters of “Introduction to Technical Physics.” He was lost and contacted me for help. Well, the course was not in any way related to working on engines. It was an ordinary community college non-calculus Physics 101/102 and did not help him in any way. But someone looking in from the outside would say, “Look how technical working on engines has become. You have to know physics.”

      He eventually got an A and a B. But it pissed me off that a lot of people who would make fine technicians would probably fail, just like he would have if he hadn’t decided to contact me.

      • Vijay

        There are real problems with the certification education, which often seeks to combine existing community college classes with training classes. Those course sequences have not had the same attention as high school courses have received. My point was that vocational streams should not be viewed as places to stick your lower grade students and track minorities into. Germany has had this issue, as large number of Kurd and Turkish students got tracked into haupt and realschules, but they are now stuck in low employment, while industries are facing a shortage of well educated apprentices.

    • educationrealist

      Yep. And that’s politically impossible, even if it might be better economically for the kids.

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