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Mark Gardner | Education Policy, Life in the Classroom, Teacher Leadership | June 26, 2013

Lessons in Teacher Leadership


File51cb02ad3388dBy Mark

David B. Cohen at InterACT (Accomplished California Teachers' blog) recently posted an interesting piece about the Teacher Leader Certification Academy in Riverside, California, which got me thinking about my own experience this past year in a newly formed "teacher leader" role in my district.

When I stepped into this role as "Teacher on Special Assignment," the job description was vague. Our district had not had a role like this at the secondary level, and as it was a part-time gig (two periods out of my day--with the other four periods consisting of my prep period and three periods with kids) neither I nor the leadership above me really knew what the work would look like in practice.

In the end, I learned so much this year. I learned things that I can apply in my own classroom, and of course I learned a thing or two about what it means to be this particular breed of "Teacher Leader."

The first thing I learned was to whom I should listen, and why.

If I were to overgeneralize, I learned that there are a handful of camps when it comes to teachers facing change: 

The Do-ers: I love these people. These are the ones with whom I always make eye contact when leading a PD session. They are open and willing to try anything. They ask great clarifying questions, and don't really seem to care what anyone else in the room thinks of them--they want to learn so they can go out and do. 

Skeptical Scientists: I want to think I'm one of these at heart. These are the people who often begin with crossed arms and furrowed brows. They've been led astray before, so they want to parse every phrase I speak. I like that. They want to deconstruct it all make sure they really understand not just what I say, but what I mean and what the unsaid implications might be. They acquiesce to give it a try, experiment a little, and give honest, constructive feedback--and they don't give up the experiment until the end. Best of all, they allow themselves to learn from what this experimental inquiry precipitates.

Those Who Nod (but Do Little Else): These are the folks who are amiable, open postured, and who will play along--and who harbor neither ill will toward me as presenter nor any intention whatsoever of giving a second thought to anything I've presented. I see great potential in this group, but they are often jaded by past "Next Big Things" or catchy acronyms that came and went like a breeze.

The "No; Just Because You Said So" Group: I could provide coffee and their predilection for tea would be made abundantly clear, usually through passive aggressive commentary. At the snack table, I have the wrong kind of cookies. The font on my handouts is too small, too large, or not comic sans. I need not elaborate further.

My year has been very much about "scales" and "promoting growth," and to that end I've sought to take the "No...So's" and make them "Nodders," help the "Nodders" discover their inner "Skeptical Scientist," and help these last ones feel comfortable as a "Do-er." 

The lesson about to whom I should listen? I hate to say it (no I don't) but it is everyone except the "No...So's." I spent the first month or so breaking my back investing energy into getting them not to even "see the light," but to simply acknowledge that a light might exist, somewhere, for someone. 

Waste. Of. My. Time.

Meanwhile, the "Skeptical Scientists" and the "Do-ers" were revving their engines, waiting for a little direction and the green light while I put on a dance and a puppet show to try to get the "No...So's" to grumble a little less.

In my classroom, when I'm doing my job well I exhaust every strategy and try every tool in every toolkit to reach that most reluctant kid. As a Teacher Leader, I had to give myself permission to not go so far with the grown ups. So Lesson One of Teacher Leadership for me: My colleagues are not my kids. I do not need to feel guilty about leaving some child behind when that child is a paid professional. I choose to listen to and attend to the top two or three groups on the list above, and let the fourth group stew in its own (oftentimes venomous) juices. Why listen to some and ignore others? It's one part selfishness and one part respect. The selfishness comes in absolving myself of the sense of (futile) expectation that I am to change everyone. The respect is the respect for those ready to move on with it already. They will be the ones enacting change, after all is said and done.

While Lesson One runs somewhat contrary to my classroom experience, Lesson Two could not be more parallel: Relationships trump PowerPoints. In total, I delivered or facilitated about 60 hours of professional development presentations or workshops. Just as in my classroom, what really facilitated (literally defined: made easier) my peers' learning was the fact that I knew them and they knew me. Hallway chats, lunchroom visits, and casual conversation before, during and after workshops, were the grease for these gears. Thirty one-on-one, face-to-face conversations are only inefficient when you look at my time invested. When you look at the dispositional change and real learning, those conversations are what make it work, whatever "it" might be. Sure, it is easier for me to plan an hour long workshop, deliver it en masse, and post it on my website. It seems more efficient. But it isn't.

The last lesson is one I didn't figure out until about April, which you'll realize is absolutely fitting once I tell you what that lesson is.

This job was by far the riskiest thing I had ever done. I had people tell me to my face that it was professional suicide. In the end, though, I learned a few lessons that can only come with actually experiencing what I went through. I'm sure the TLCA program I reference above has great merit (I really do believe that, based on what I've read), but just as with certification and prep programs for teachers, we always learn more by doing. That's the seed of Lesson Three: You can't just tell them "everything will be fine," they have to experience it to know it.

When I saw teachers literally freaking out (Screaming! Tears! Cursing!) over TPEP, my "fixer" instinct was to say "don't worry, everything will be just fine." Instead, I've learned to say: "go ahead and freak out, that's probably what you need to do right now, it's a natural reaction." My wife the social worker points out that this is called "validating the client's feelings," which is necessary before any behavioral change can take hold. Instead of trying to pacify them with "everything go'n be okay," (which is me trying to control their emotions for them), I needed to be there for them when they got their emotions under control themselves, so they could take the first steps under their own volition.

The key, though, is giving the freak-out a little time to run its course and to then help teachers make sure they aren't willfully wallowing in it to avoid actually doing anything. Misery is an awfully comfortable place to hang out, after all. (There will usually be lots of people there to talk to.)

Like being a good teacher, being an effective leader does not rest in my knowledge of my content (in this case TPEP and our Marzano framework) but in my ability to understand and empathize and connect with my learners (in this case my colleagues and friends). It has been the hardest thing I've ever undertaken. 

Being a good teacher means constant reflection and revision--and the same will be true as I take one more year of this formal, "titled" leadership as a TOSA. I may look back this time next year and marvel at what an immature and misguided view of leadership this blog post represents. Perhaps my perspective will have evolved into something completely different, or even contradictory to what I think right now.

I'm okay with that, because I know now that I have a lot left to learn.


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First of all, "freaking out" over TPEP? Give me a break! Secondly, awesome post, Mark; your no-nonsense approach is exactly what this profession needs. I'm so glad people like you become teacher leaders.


I am particularly grateful for this post and your insights because I am a new "teacher leader" in Seattle - I'll be what my district calls a "demo teacher," whose room is open for observers with follow-up conferencing.

While I won't be leading PD to the whole staff, the same ranking of professional reaction to developing will exist in my one-on-one work. I think you've nailed it. I'm hoping that in this one-on-one work I'll be able to move the "NBYSS" group, because with relationships and conversation I'll be able to uncover the one thing that will motivate them to try something new or uncomfortable.

My favorite line of all is "I do not need to feel guilty about leaving some child behind when that child is a paid professional."


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