What does it mean to be a teacher leader, and what does it mean to be empowered?

These were two of my inquiries as I headed to Denver, CO, for the National Education Association Empowered Educators Day, co-sponsored by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards and the General Electric Foundation. I was very familiar with the work of all folks involved, and, even though this was the first event of its kind for NEA, I still saw this as a good first step to having this discussion about teacher leadership and all its forms.

For one, I found the diversity (i.e. the number of educators of color) somewhat refreshing, and the strongest presentations in the main plentaries came from representatives of color. I found Monsterrat Garibay’s contributions to the first panel on leadership powerful because she added the contexts of equity and race to her work. None of our work is without context, which is why I found NBCT educator and Mitchell20 protagonist Daniela Robles’ contributions also sparked me. For many of us who work in turnaround schools, which are predominantly of color, it’s refreshing to hear someone say, “I used my expertise BECAUSE of the conditions I was put in, not in spite.”

Even with these powerful stories, I still left with more questions than answers.

What, for instance, is National Board, and why would folks want to try National Board in the age of VAM-validation? Is it enough to say that we want to de-emphasize alternative certification programs in favor of professionalizing / streamlining the teacher recruitment process and why? How do we address career changers and an economy that accosted teachers of color who often work in high need areas? How will getting NBCT-certified address the often subjective ways in which leadership is chosen, even with ostensible application processes?

As someone who’s a candidate for National Board, these are questions I might have as someone who had never heard of National Board. Also, is NBCT the end-all-be-all of teacher leadership, and what exactly am I entering?

Furthermore, is Daniela Robles any less of an educator if she doesn’t do National Board? Does she not deserve a movie for tolerating the nonsense of mid-level executives posing as educational experts telling her what she’s doing wrong? How do we harvest the power of all the educators in that auditorium to not just do better as teachers, but flip the image of what it means to be an expert educator? How does the NEA as both a collective bargaining organization and professional organization endorse and support the work of educators trying to elevate the profession in a substantial way, without the resentment and pettiness that sometimes comes with the territory?

How many teachers do we know who’ve had to “rally the troops” at their school during their “free” periods just to keep the school running? Or recreated curriculum from scratch or any number of things we could consider “above and beyond” and do those things constitute “the top of the profession?”

These questions were answered for me when I first entered the Center for Teaching Quality circle. When I got the chance to meet educators like Renee Moore, John Holland, and Shannon C’deBaca, I knew I wasn’t just meeting educators, but a set of folks who, humble as they come across, really knew their students and wanted to strive for their students, their schools, and their communities. They also wanted to uproot the idea of the docile and comfortable teacher. They preferred when conversations got hot because that’s when they could flex their intellectual, classroom-bred muscles. This is the community I had the fortune to come into, and they were all National Board Certified.

The bonuses for them were nice, I’m sure, but they cared far too much for it to be just about those bonuses. They wouldn’t extend themselves to an educator from New York, who at the time, didn’t even know what National Board is.

Now, I’m in the position to do the same for other educators across the country, and perhaps the world. Even though I’m not National Board Certified (at least not yet), I find myself in places where I can empower others. I want them to see themselves as I see myself as equally deserving to be on the panels, presentations, and offices that others have. I want them to seriously consider sharing their expertise in micro- and macro-levels. I want them to stop allowing folks to keep selling us stuff by selling us down the river.

That’s real empowerment. I don’t mean this as a hit piece, but a growth piece. Some of us needed a bit more time to chew on these notions, network with one another across group lines, and raise issues of teacher leadership in so many different contexts. Those of us who truly want to empower educators are in the business of making ourselves as unnecessary as possible. This might be the first step. What’s the next one?

p.s. – I liked Ariel and John’s recaps as well.

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