Monday, July 9, 2012

Reflections on Teacher Leadership

At the 2011 National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS) conference I had the privilege of serving on a panel with Patrick Ledesma, Nancy Flanagan, and Jenay Leach.  The topic under discussion was how teachers can influence policy.  Amy Dominello blogged about our panel on "SmartBlog on Leadership" and her post was picked up by Accomplished Teacher SmartBrief.  What follows are edited excerpts from the prepared text of my remarks, which I stand by a year later:

The role of teacher leader is fraught with challenges.  In my union work, it became apparent to me that there are at least two different mutually exclusive definitions.  First, is the definition some superintendents have: a teacher leader is a sort of non-commissioned officer in the chain of command of a district, with a role of carrying out policies determined by higher-ups.  This traditional role includes roles like department chair, and service on district committees, the latter because in a top-down hierarchy administrators merely use committees for cover, so they can lend a sort of pretend legitimacy to their decisions.
The second definition is exciting and cutting edge: teachers having an actual voice in making local, state or national policy.  This idea might seem self evident to those of us who are practitioners, but in reality it is quite alien to the policy process in many places.
The traditional venue for this role, and the one in which I cut my teeth, is the union.  Negotiating and administering a collective bargaining agreement gives one a voice in local policy.  Joining with others in state and national organizations which lobby for wider policy and legislation creates a collective voice.  In the current environment, with public sector unions under serious and sustained attack, union activism is fluid and challenging.
One thing which school districts and unions share is that they are hierarchical organizations.  The bureaucrats who live farther up the hierarchical food chain have a significant advantage when it comes to policy: they can spend all their time working on it.  Those of us with classrooms live with the joy and challenge that the best hours of our day are spent with students.  Any time or thought that we have for policy or politics comes out of our hides or out of the hides of our families and relationships.  I can say this from personal experience – my union work is unpaid.  Each cycle of negotiations comes at a personal cost of 200-300 hours of my personal, unpaid time.  That doesn’t count grievances, trainings, rep and executive council meetings, Regional Bargaining Councils (I have 3 to attend), meetings with the superintendent, or, now, my work on the VT-NEA Board of directors, which requires a Saturday each month.
I’m not saying this so that anybody feels sorry for me – I love the challenge of this work.  But it does give me a clear eyed view of the very real impediments to the development of effective teacher leadership in the best sense.  People go into teaching because they want to work with kids.  This we all know is an all -consuming passion.  On top of this teachers, legitimately, need to tend to families and relationships.  We are human, and we cannot sustain ourselves without love from friends and family.
When I challenge a colleague to step up to a leadership role in our local, I do this with trepidation because no one knows better than me the human cost of what I am asking them to do.  On the other hand no one knows better than me the absolute necessity of accomplished practitioners taking a role in the governance of the educational enterprise.  As a leader, I am stuck between human empathy for my colleagues, and the enormous peril of my own empathy.
And this brings me to another thing that I learned:  the three meanings of leadership.  So far I’ve spoken in detail of just one: the ability to influence followers, the rank and file of an organization.  Influencing their behavior, inspiring them to try some little bit of activism – this is encapsulated by the term organizing.  I think this is what most people think of when they consider the word leadership.  But there are two other equally important aspects of leadership: influencing peer leaders, and influencing those leaders above you in the hierarchy of an organization or government.  These two aspects require different skill sets than organizing
Influencing peer leaders is the sort of thing I’ve done on the VT-NEA board, in regional bargaining councils, and in our discussions on the Teacher Leader Network Forum.  It was the bulk of the work in our debates on the New Business Items and resolutions at NEA Representative Assembly.  In a friendly environment like this it is about developing consensus around the best course of action, and it involves building relationships, and ability to be persuasive.
It takes place in adversarial contexts as well, such as negotiations and grievance hearings.  Insofar as a local president is the peer of the superintendent, there is an art here of refusal, of parrying, and of persuasion, each of which one deploys according to the problem.
Finally there is influencing top level leaders in an organization, those “above you” so to speak.  While a premium is placed on the “elevator speech”, I think top leaders are bombarded with these and probably have filters.  My own approach is two fold.  First I like to identify the people who advise the leader in question and seek to influence those people.  Second, I like to identify those places I agree with the approach and send a positive message, in part by working for and actively supporting initiatives.
This second point is very important in my estimation.  In the present environment, the messages tend to be negative – opposed to what various policy makers are doing.  I believe however, that the policy landscape is subtler than that, and that people need to hear what they are doing right as well as what they are doing wrong.  Without positive feedback when they get it right, policy makers are flying on instruments.
As a Teaching Ambassador Fellow, and a Bernie Sanders style socialist, it was a challenge for me to find a point of contact with the Department where I could support their efforts with freedom and integrity.    Yet I did find one:  The Department under the current administration works to build the capacity of teachers to lead in the best sense of the word.  An example of concrete action that support teachers as real leaders was the Denver Labor-Management Conference, a high profile event designed to help teachers and their unions deal creatively and pro-actively with the current political and policy environment.  Unfortunately this event was over-shadowed by events in Wisconsin.
I would be the last to say that  efforts of this sort are perfect, or that the outcomes are satisfactory to all parties.  But I take it as evidence of positive disposition towards teacher leaders, and a willingness to build the capacity of teachers to participate in the policy conversation.  Encouraging engagement is in the spirit of democracy and helps to overcome the very real impediments to teacher engagement that I outlined earlier.
In my work, I’ve done my best to encourage the Department to build the capacity of teacher leaders and unions.  I think many people want immediate results, an impatience which is the result of the uncertainty of the political cycle.  Taking a longer view, an empowered and policy savvy teaching profession is the best route to better education policy, because policy will be rooted in the wisdom that is the product of actual practice.
That said, I tend to be shocked and saddened by the dearth of our most accomplished teachers in union leadership.  I was shocked at the antipathy of NEA delegates to NBCTs at the recent NEA Representative Assembly in Chicago.  I was saddened that of 124 NBCTs in the State of Vermont, only three of us were at VT-NEA Representative Assembly in March.  Taken together, these indicate to me that most union members have not experienced NBCTs as people who use their achievement as a tool to help others.  I find this very disappointing.
Those of us who are high achieving and have excess capacity have an obligation to our colleagues as well as to our students and families to lighten their burden.  At the same time, the rank and file of the profession needs to see that policy and engagement is simply far too critical to be left to “the other.”  Federal, state and local policies that encourage all varieties of genuine practitioner leadership and engagement are in the long term best interest of our profession, of grounded education policy, and, ultimately, fantastic student learning.


  1. Wow, a lot to think about here. The volunteer and near-volunteer union work needs to end, but then again I don't know how we would afford to get all the work done. Volunteer union work is only matched by the volunteer hours teachers put into their classrooms, which ends up being a focus of a lot of the union work. Kind of a vicious cycle.

    You've got that right about the power of bargaining teams versus the power of (most) district and building committees.

    Finally, I read some similar stories about some antipathy towards NBPTS at NEA-RA in DC this year. I think part of the solution to this is for NBCTs to be actively and openly involved in union and policy work, and honestly, I think that we have made huge inroads into this in Washington state, probably because we have a quite a large (6000+) and fairly well organized WEA NBCT group.

    1. Thanks Maren for your comment! There's nothing inherently wrong with the volunteer work, but we do need to respect people's time by ensuring that they have the very best and most efficient techniques to do the work. Also, staff need to universally respect elected leaders whether or not they are on release, and understand governance in a democratic union - especially given that they have their own union.

      I think I might have encountered some of the antipathy you mentioned when I introduced NBI #5, which proposed that the NEA Foundation Award Winner speak at the RA. The ancient oriental proverb applies to teaching: "The nail which sticks up will be hammered down."

  2. I've been with him for almost two years now and he is away at leadership which is military training and teacher leadership skills but for high school aged students. That means I cant talk to him for a whole week. What should I do to stop thinking about him, I can't even sleep well because I can't stop thinking about him and since its an intense week, I worry about him. =(

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