What’s Holding Teachers Back?
Teacher leadership is all the rage right now. Across the nation teachers are stepping up to lead from the classroom, serving in hybrid roles, and opening their own schools. Even Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, has realized the importance of educators leading the profession and introduced a program this year called Teach to Lead. The program goals are to provide more opportunities for teachers to lead while remaining in the classroom. Partnering with a multitude of organizations, Teach to Lead is creating pathways for teachers to influence policy. And this is a good thing- especially for students. A recent report from the Aspen Institute states;
“Teacher leadership holds tremendous promise for enhancing instructional capacity, strengthening adult and student culture, and increasing the capacity of teams across a school. In addition, teacher leadership can also increase investment and trust, empower teachers as front-line leaders, and elevate the status of the teaching profession by creating a true career progression.” (2014)
However, the road to lead as a teacher is not a clear or easy path to travel. There are major mountains to climb if you want to serve in a leadership role. The percentage of teachers who actually have opportunities to lead beyond traditional leadership roles such as team leader, committee chair, or building rep is very small. Our profession is flat with little room for professional growth unless you travel the administrative route. So what is keeping teachers more teachers from leading from the classroom?
Silencing the Voice of Teacher Leaders
Outdated systems and regulations stifle educators’ ability to step up and work beyond the walls of their school without leaving the classroom. There is a belief that teachers cannot simultaneously meet their professional duties in the classroom and be a leader in their profession. This thinking is simply unproductive and keeps potential leaders silent and frustrated. We are told by school leadership that our voices matter, but the actions of our school systems tell us otherwise. How can we own our profession and lead it if we are kept from voicing our opinions, stand divided from system leaders, are discouraged from engaging legislators in policy discussions, and told that it is a conflict of interest to serve in a union leadership role?
I am a firm believer that educators should own and lead our profession. I see myself as a teacher leader and have worn many hats over the years. Most of these roles have meant extra responsibilities and volunteering a lot of my own time, a choice and commitment I have made because of the passion I have for education. However, as I become more involved in teacher leadership, I realize how little time is made available for me to lead and the increasing number of barriers I must overcome if I choose to grow as a leader.
The Call that goes Unanswered
There is also a fear that teachers won’t be able to meet their responsibilities in the classroom if they take on leadership responsibilities. Somehow they won’t be as focused on the needs of their students. I’ve come to realize how misguided that concern is relative to the much larger problem that characterizes teaching as a profession. Anyone who truly has students’ best interest at heart should be thinking about access to leadership opportunities that allow teachers to grow and stay engaged in the profession over the long term. The alternative is to continue have our brightest and most ambitious young teachers leave the classroom within their first few years, leaving our students left with those who are less engaged, display little leadership talent and are content to accept the status quo year in and year out. That’s the problem: how can we retain teachers who inspire students to achieve their true potential — to be the best they can be — when they themselves are denied that same opportunity?
Trusting Teachers to Lead
Teachers are ready to own, lead, and transform education like never before. In order for teachers to take the lead there must a leap of faith on the part of education systems and established leadership. Systemic change begins with trust. Trust that teachers have the skills and ability to handle doing more than just educating our nation’s children. Trust that opens pathways and opportunities for teachers to lead the conversations and dialogue about what children really need. And finally, trust that teachers can be the leaders we need them to be in making a real difference in education. Until we trust our teachers and let them lead, education will continue down a path plagued with poor policies that aren’t what’s best for children.