Since the eighteenth century, educators have struggled to reconcile the great contradiction of serving a nation that holds education in high esteem yet views the teacher as someone serving in a second-rate occupation. While the collective culture gives assent to the importance and value of teachers – the “profession that makes all others possible,” current trends in teacher evaluation, accountability, and professional recognition seem to suggest otherwise. In some ways, George Bernard Shaw damned the profession with his pithy (and fallacious) disparagement of educators: “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.” With that type of endorsement, is it any wonder that teachers have been barred from managing their own profession or allowed a meaningful voice in educational policy and reform?
As a nation, we’ve embraced a paradigm that manages to hold teachers accountable for all aspects of student success – from test scores to drop-out prevention to family involvement to protection from natural and not-so-natural disasters, and yet acts as though teachers are incapable of self-governance. Comparable professions requiring college degrees and levels of expertise – professions like medicine, law, architecture, and engineering – are led by people who actually practice in their fields. Education is led (perhaps run, managed, or controlled would be more appropriate verbs) primarily by politicians. And I’d venture to guess that there are few, if any, politicians who were trained as teachers. (Politicians who base their expertise on having been raised by an educator remind me of the television actor who brandishes a scalpel in an operating room, not because he’s a surgeon but because he stayed at a Holiday Inn Express.)
Teacher leadership” is a hot topic these days, and by teacher leadership I mean teachers leading from their classrooms rather than leaving to become administrators. Organized efforts to support this kind of teacher leadership include the Teacher Leadership Initiative, a partnership effort by NEA/NBPTS/CTQ ; the US Department of Education’s Teach to Lead; and the Gates Foundation Teacher2Teacher. While I am involved with these groups and encouraged by the rhetoric and emphasis surrounding the phrase “teacher leadership,” I’m also wary. In light of commonly held views that “teaching is little more than a combination of glorified babysitting and high level clerical work” (What Matters Most, 1996), I have to wonder how much the rhetoric will yield in terms of long term, meaningful changes in our profession? What’s to keep “teacher leadership” from merely being another education buzzword? What will it take for our nation to make a dramatic paradigm shift in how it views educators?
I firmly believe that the best way, if not the only way, for that paradigm shift to happen – for teacher leadership to move from rhetoric to reality – is for teachers to bridge the gap between policy and profession. Recognition of teacher leadership is an important first step in “teacher leadership” moving from conversation to culture. But recognition is not enough. Bold changes must come from within the ranks of the teaching profession. In the business of our daily workload and responsibilities, it’s easy to believe that other teachers will do the work, other teachers will step up. This is a dangerous supposition. If only a small percentage of teachers step into hybrid leadership roles and begin to lead from the classroom – if the majority of educators allow the current paradigm to continue unchallenged – the unintended message is this: teachers don’t want to lead (or are incapable of leading) their own profession.
We’ve had enough of small groups outside the profession dictating what we teach, how we teach, how we are valued, what we are worth. Teacher leadership means educators stepping to the forefront and actively working to change perceptions and shift paradigms. If one playwright could denigrate the teaching profession with a catchy phrase, surely over 3 million teachers can elevate and take back their profession by choosing to lead from their classrooms.
Deidra Gammill, a National Board-certified teacher and Ph.D., teaches at Petal High School, working with students considering a career in education through the Teacher Academy program. She is a member of the CTQ Collaboratory, served as a 2014-2015 CTQ teacherpreneur, and has written forEdWeek Teacher, Kappan, and The Reading Teacher. You can contact her via her blog Designing Teachers and on twitter @DeidraGammill.