Channeling Your Inner Teacher Leader

America’s educational system is broken. If you are like me, that’s a common refrain you hear when discussing our profession with people outside the educational community. And while there are reports, statistics, and anecdotes that give this disparaging view some credence, most of us within the education community know that it is a gross oversimplification.

 

America’s educational system is broken. If you are like me, that’s a common refrain you hear when discussing our profession with people outside the educational community. And while there are reports, statistics, and anecdotes that give this disparaging view some credence, most of us within the education community know that it is a gross oversimplification.

This is not to say that everything is working well for students in the United States. We still have too many students who graduate without being able to find Nebraska on a map, give a speech to an audience, or solve a linear algebraic equation. And this doesn’t include the unacceptable number of students who give up and drop out altogether. Such examples paint a pretty bleak picture of how we are clearly not meeting the needs of all American students. This is at a time when state and federal programs attempting to address these and other problems are a ubiquitous presence in America’s schools.

It’s enough to make any educator want to develop an isolationist attitude of “just leave me alone in my classroom and let me teach.” Doing so, however, is exactly what we don’t need! If we take such an approach, then we simply enable a continuation of a status quo model that underserves far too many students.  We acquiesce to the “it’s broken” crowd.

My contention – and one shared by many of my colleagues at CTQ and elsewhere – is that we actually know what works. We know the solutions that help all students deeply engage in their learning. We know how to foster joy and wonder in our classrooms. We know how to implement proven best practices that help us prepare our students with the skills they need to be successful in today’s global, knowledge-intense economy. But we also know that such solutions are not generally going to come from big, one-size-fits-all programs rolled aout through policy or bureaucracies. Rather, they are going to come from individual teachers stepping up at a grass-roots level and engaging with peers to make positive change happen in their own classrooms, schools, districts, and beyond.

When you follow a “think global and act local” model that expands your role as teacher to teacher leader, you follow a model that has led to positive societal transformation throughout history. In short, you embody the famous quote by Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

The very fact that you are engaged in this community of educators means that you want to see changes made that will help address the types of problems mentioned above. It means you likely have some solutions that could be shared with others within your school or within a virtual community of peers so that such changes could happen immediately. And it means that you know that real changes are often made through teacher-led collaborations, without the need for heavy-handed programs, large budgets, or fanfare.

How can I be so confident? One reason is that I have lived it. As a teacher in a small school in a small town in the mountains of North Carolina, I have used this “think global, act local” model to make positive changes to benefit teachers across a significant region of my state. My example was a policy project I started as a 2014 Hope Street Group National Teacher Fellow (Scaling the Pockets of Excellence in Western North Carolina).  I continue to co-lead this now with Dr. Dave Strahan at Western Carolina University. It is a region-wide system of teacher-led professional learning that would not exist without my taking the initiative to lead from the classroom. Granted it was not easy and took a significant amount of persistence to share the idea with colleagues, policy makers, thought leaders, higher education partners, community members, local businesses, and others. Nevertheless, I was eventually able reach a critical mass of people in this network who were willing to change the paradigm of teacher professional development in my region.

I’m now proud to know that because of my leading from the classroom, but not leaving the classroom, I have been able to bring to scale a model that allows a new cohort of teachers from districts all across Western North Carolina to collaborate and share best practices they can immediately implement in their own classrooms and schools. In doing so, this one low key, low cost example is creating positive change for students in the rural mountains of Southern Appalachia. This is only one example of the many ways teacher leaders are bringing real innovations to an education system that is often slow to change, especially if we only wait for others to make the changes.

What idea do you have that you know will make a positive difference for students everywhere? How are you taking that idea and sharing it with others? My challenge is that you take the time today to reflect on how you can redefine your role as teacher to a role as a teacher leader. By embracing the “be the change you want to see” mindset through our own actions and helping bring to scale the things that we know work for all of our students, America’s education system is far from broken.

Ben Owens spent 20 years as a corporate engineer but now loves teaching physics and mathematics at Tri-County Early College High School in the small mountain community of Murphy, NC. He is a 2014 Hope Street Group National Teacher Fellow, a Champion for Change for Breakthrough Learning, and a Center for Teaching Quality Virtual Community Organizer.