Rebecca Cheung is academic coordinator of the Principal Leadership Institute at the University of California, Berkeley. Before that she was a middle-school principal, an elementary school principal, and a classroom teacher.
You attended the prestigious Juilliard School in New York City. What did you learn there that was important to your
contributions as a teacher and now as a leader?
I studied piano at Julliard in the precollege division for four years. It was an extremely competitive and intense environment. On the other hand, it gave me a fi rsthand experience of high-quality arts education. We didn’t read books, write papers, and listen to lectures. Instead, we enrolled in ear training, performed, and attended peer performances where we had the opportunity to observe and learn from each other. At Julliard, all keyboard majors also had to participate in chorus so they would have experience playing in an ensemble. This was an important leadership lesson for me. Being a teacher is often like playing the piano, a solo instrument. Being a leader is learning how to play with others and conduct an ensemble.
When you last wrote for Kappan four years ago, the subject was teacher burnout. Since then we’ve seen even more
focus brought on teacher turnover rates, especially among new teachers.What are the latest thoughts you’ve had on
what school leaders can do to keep promising teachers in the profession?
I still believe that school leaders have an important role in sustaining teacher commitment and combatting teacher burnout. In the last few years there has been a strong antiteacher narrative driven by fi lms like “Bad Teacher” and by many politicians and citizens who choose to focus on schools as the only solution to all of society’s struggles. David Labaree calls this the “educationalizing of social problems in the United States.” Leaders have an important role in creating an alternative narrative that values and respects teachers, new and experienced.
I’ve thought a lot more about the teacher career ladder as well. Leaders can help teachers, especially experienced teachers, who are ready for new challenges to look for new ways to learn and grow without leaving the classroom.
You focus on traditional school leadership — principals and the like. But what about the emerging area of teacher
leadership? How can those coexist or even help each other?
The Principal Leadership Institute has always espoused that teacher leadership is just as important as formal school leaders. Our program espouses the theory of distributed leadership, meaning that the work of transforming schools and sustained transformation is a collaborative effort by everyone in the school
community including parents, students, teachers, staff, and the school leaders.
What’s the best book you’ve read recently?
The most interesting book I have read recently was Toxic Schools by Bowen Paulle (University of Chicago, 2013). He argues that the violence and chaos of inner-city schools creates overwhelming stress for both students and teachers and that without addressing this stress, reforms to improve education in these schools are unlikely to be effective.