Tag Archives: teacher leaders

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.