For teachers who want to lead their students, their colleagues, and their profession, the Stone Soup folk tale provides an excellent example of effective and collaborative leadership, writes Deidra Gammill.
This article originally appeared in Education Week Teacher as part of a publishing partnership with the Center for Teaching Quality. Reprinted with permission from the author.
Do you remember the children’s story Stone Soup? There are many variations of this folk tale, but the heart of the story always remains the same: a hungry traveler appeals to the people of a village to give him food, and when they turn him away, he comes up with a clever way to feed himself and the village. It’s a story that emphasizes cooperation, sharing resources, and realizing that by taking care of others, you are providing for yourself as well.
In the story, a hungry traveler, owning nothing but a large cooking pot, arrives in a village and asks for food. The suspicious villagers refuse to help him and tell him to be on his way. But rather than getting angry or even upset, the traveler proceeds to fill his pot with water, light a fire under it, and then—strangest of all—he places a large stone in the pot and begins to stir.
The villagers grow curious, and soon they begin coming one by one, asking what he is doing. The traveler never lies; he tells them he is making stone soup. Never having heard of stone soup, the villagers take an interest in the soup’s ingredients. As the pot simmers, the traveler periodically takes his spoon and samples the soup. Somehow, the soup is always lacking something—garnish, flavoring, perhaps a few vegetables. More curious than suspicious now, the villagers all supply different ingredients, one by one, until at last the stone soup is ready. The traveler shares the delicious soup with everyone, meeting his own need and the needs of others.
So what does this have to do with teaching?
In the story, the hungry traveler does the unexpected—he improvises AND collaborates, albeit with rather obtuse villagers. He recognizes that he cannot make soup without help, so he creates opportunities for the villagers to participate and benefit. For teachers who want to lead their students, their colleagues, and their profession, the hungry traveler provides an excellent example of effective and collaborative leadership.
A Recipe for Elevating the Profession
So how can teachers create their own “teacher leadership soup” recipe? Here’s my recipe for advancing our work with students and elevating the profession:
S – Start with where you are. Take an inventory what is working well in your classroom, then begin listing the changes you’d like to make. What kinds of resources do you need? What kind of classroom climate do you want to cultivate? I wanted to create a climate of kindness and innovation in my classroom this year, so I begin culling resources like MindShift and TEDTalks for ideas. Adam Sherman’s article on kindness on Education Week Teacher provided the inspiration for my own school kindness project.
T – Tweet. Get involved with online learning communities and begin collaborating with teachers outside your district (and even your state). Several great learning networks meet regularly on Twitter, such as Breakfast Club 5:30 (#BFC530) and Teach Like a Pirate (#tlap). I’ve not only come across great ideas in these chats, I’ve connected with like-minded teachers across the world and learned more about what’s working for them and their students. These are teachers I would never have met in the normal course of my teaching journey.
O – Organize your thoughts and ideas. Know the goals you are working towards and be able to articulate them to others. Teacher leaders need to bring others on board, but without a clearly articulated vision, it can be difficult to gain the support they need. Last year I approached my local state representative to ask how local teachers could become part of Congressional conversations regarding our profession. But I didn’t just have a question—I also had a plan. I was able to clearly articulate my ideas to the representative and later to local teachers, which led to the formation of a teacher advisory council to work with our representative on a bi-weekly basis.
N – Notice what others are doing well and emulate them. Teachers are infamous for “stealing” great ideas; after all, why reinvent the wheel? If you see another teacher having success in an area, ask questions and determine if there are elements of his or her success you can incorporate in your own classroom. I ask other teachers what they’re doing and HOW they’re doing it on a regular basis. I don’t have all the answers, but I recognize that my students benefit from the collective experience of teachers far more than they benefit from my knowledge alone.
E – Emphasize the importance of working collaboratively—with other teachers and your administration. No teacher should be an island, and old paradigms that insist we close our doors and work in isolation are rapidly changing. Learning and working together to problem solve and create innovative solutions is essential for professional growth, but it won’t happen on its own.
In the Career and Technical Education department where I teach, each subject area has one teacher. My colleagues sometimes joke that we’re all “departments of one,” but I know differently. What the construction teacher and the culinary teacher are doing with their students can benefit mine, just as what I’m doing in Teacher Academy can benefit them. I don’t teach middle school, but I’ve learned invaluable lessons about using technology in my classroom from Bill Ferriter, a 6th grade teacher in North Carolina. Good teaching is good teaching, no matter the content area.
S – Share your classroom. Make it a place where others can see what you’re doing. Be willing to share your successes and your failures. We learn the most when we fail and then get back up again. What better way to model this growth mindset for our students than by opening our classroom doors?
I often share my classroom successes and failures via blogging. The Center for Teaching Quality provides me with a source of inspiration from other teacher bloggers and allows me to publish my own blog, creating opportunities for thousands of teachers to share and learn practices that elevate the profession.
O – Observe your peers. Work with colleagues to schedule times to visit one another’s classrooms. This can be difficult to do, depending on your school’s schedule and your administrators’ willingness to provide you with flexibility and autonomy. At my school, entire departments have taken a professional day together, hiring subs for their classes so they can spend the day observing other teachers. If you cannot visit a colleague’s classroom in person, consider videotaping each other’s lessons and sharing that way. Watching yourself and your colleagues teach is a powerful tool for reflection and growth.
U – Understand that not everyone will be on board with your vision. Share your teacher leadership soup anyway. Focus on being proactive. Real change comes slowly, but it does come. The relationships you’ve cultivated with your colleagues and with teachers in your online professional learning networks can bolster your determination to press through barriers and provide real support in the process.
P – Participate in the conversation about public education. Thomas Jefferson is credited with saying that the purpose of public education is to prepare citizens to participate in a democracy. What better way to model this practice than to participate ourselves?
Go to school board meetings. Write letters to your local paper celebrating what’s right with public education. Get involved with your local teachers’ union or professional organization. We’re stronger united than alone, and our profession has lived too long on the fringe because we allow ourselves to be isolated.
The hungry traveler from the story is an unlikely leader; in fact, many would not even recognize his work as leadership. But it is. He led by example. He led by involving others and giving them not only the opportunity but also the motivation to get involved.
Most importantly, he led for the good of the community, not just as a means to satisfy his hunger. As teacher leaders, we must keep students at the center of everything we’re working towards, while proactively including parents, administrators, and policy makers. Ultimately, this benefit students and, by extension, our communities and our nation.
And isn’t that what #TeachingIs really all about?
Deidra Gammill (@DeidraGammill), a National Board-certified teacher and Ph.D. from Mississippi, is a high school English and reading teacher at a rural public high school in Petal, Miss., and a teacherpreneur with the Center for Teaching Quality. She is a member of the Teacher Leadership Initiative and the CTQ Collaboratory.