Learning to lead

04.17.14 | Learning on the EDge | 0 Comments


I learned one of my first lessons about teacher leadership the hard way. It started with a call from a very angry principal one morning when I was a newspaper reporter in Detroit. He berated me about how badly my front-page story that day had damaged teacher morale in his school. Teachers, one after the other, had come into his office in tears after reading what I had written about one of their colleagues. “How could you do this?” he asked.

Teachers must be exemplary in their own practice before others will follow them, but leadership in education requires more than just professional excellence in teaching.

My crime? I had written a glowing report about a science teacher at his middle school who had become one of the first teachers in the country to earn certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.

I was stunned. I telephoned the PR person for the national board and sputtered out a description of the call. She wasn’t at all surprised. “Welcome to my life,” she laughed. In quick order, she taught me this code of the education profession:

Let no teacher ever assume that he or she is somehow better than anyone else. Let no teacher seek individual honor, lest that suggest that others aren’t worthy of being honored. Let no teacher raise her head above the crowd.

A few years later when the National Board was well-established, I sat with a group of NBCTs to learn how they acted as leaders in their schools. Teacher after teacher described the shabby treatment they received from their teaching peers. It was like a therapy session. They were in pain, hurt by the way colleagues seemed to go out of their way to exclude them from all manner of school activities. After a few bruising experiences, most of them just wanted to close the doors to their classrooms and teach. Forget all that leadership stuff.

Leading to learning

My sense these days is that things have changed. Part of that may be because this newer generation of teachers is less encumbered by a cultural standard that keeps them in line. Part of it may be because we’ve come to understand that excellent teaching skills don’t automatically translate into leadership skills.

As I talked with young teacher leaders for the April issue of Kappan, which focused on teacher leadership, they seemed to have learned these hard lessons from an earlier generation of leaders. All of them knew they had to be exemplary in their own practice before others would follow them, but they also knew that leading required more than their own professional excellence.

“I think my colleagues trust me because they know I have as much skin in the game as they do. If you want good relationships with other teachers, you have to be humble, you have to admit that you don’t know everything, you have to be part of the conversation not dictating the conversation, and you have to listen,” said Randy Kurstin, a North Carolina teacher who has been a National Academy for Advanced Teacher Education Fellow.

Efrat Kussell, a teacher in Brooklyn who also has been a NAATE fellow, said teachers “respect humility and admitting that things did not go well today. Knowing that you’re never going to be perfect, but having the goal of being the best that you can be, that’s really important.”

We have moved a long way from the days when teachers wouldn’t ever share their classrooms with others. Although the concept of teacher leadership is not a new one, the practice of teacher leadership is still in its infancy. Those who are carving out this exciting new arena in education are discovering that the essence of being a leader is the willingness to continue to be a learner. If you are not willing to continue learning, then you have no business being a leader, especially in education.

But, likewise, no teacher should ever have to apologize for wanting to improve her skills or for being honored for her excellent work.



About Joan Richardson

JOAN RICHARDSON is editor-in-chief of Phi Delta Kappan magazine.

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