When I began my teaching career fourteen years ago, I was flattered by how many people asked me to lead in a variety of contexts. Then I realized that I was often asked to lead because I would say yes, not because I was uniquely gifted for the task. This method of leadership leads to the unfortunate pattern of a small group of teachers being asked to do all of the leadership work which contributes to teacher burnout, and for the teachers who are never asked, the potential for the system to underutilize their voices and talents.
I have a confession to make. I am kind of a control freak.
Woo. That feels good to get off the chest.
Actually, my tendency to take charge is not really a secret to anyone who knows me. I’ve always been a natural leader. When I was a kid, I was often found corralling other kids on the playground into elaborate games of pretend. As an adult, I have taken multiple personality inventories and the results are always the same. I am a fiery red, a true north. I thrive on getting work done and achieving goals. Some call me efficient. Others call me bossy.
When I began my teaching career fourteen years ago, I was flattered by how many people saw this trait in me and asked me to lead in a variety of contexts: curriculum revision groups, instructional leadership teams, the prom planning committee. Then I realized something. In schools, a teacher with leadership traits doesn’t get asked to lead because there is a sense that that she is uniquely gifted for the task she is being asked to do. She is asked to lead because someone thinks she will say yes. Again, and again, and again.
A model of leadership that favors individual leaders vs. a model that values collective voice creates a whirlpool effect that is hard to escape. Those whose leadership style is readily apparent are also typically the kind of people to say yes to opportunities. This leads to the unfortunate pattern of a small group of teachers being asked to do all of the leadership work. This is bad for both the teachers who say yes, as they often burnout, and for the teachers who are never asked, as their voices and talents are often underutilized.
So what are the solutions?
Teachers must have agency in decisions.
Schools have to value teacher voice in decision making beyond seeking a rubber stamp for decisions that have already been made. Many of the committees I have served on were venues for administrators or politicians to share their plans or policies without much consideration of the perspective or input of the teachers they were speaking to. My voice was only valuable if it agreed with the voices who were speaking from the front of the room.
Rethink traditional leadership structures.
Currently, the only leadership opportunities that exist in my traditional high school are seats on various committees. These committees do important work. However, they aren’t always doing the work that is most important. Thankfully, my peers have pushed hard to make sure that they are venues for discussion and decision making, but a being on the budget committee offers little incentive for innovation when the ultimate power to decide how money is spent lies beyond our pay grade.
Schools should allow leadership to be organic and inclusive, building on natural strengths and talents.
Instead of having set committees, schools should allow leadership to be organic and inclusive. Instead of an individual coming to a group with a solution in mind, teachers should begin by brainstorming the problems that impact instruction and the school community. Then teachers can self-select the work that they feel best suited to participate in. These leadership teams could work with their chosen problem and allow all participants to share in the process of devising solutions that benefit all stakeholders.
Have you “voluntold” someone to lead? Stop.
We have to stop volun-telling teachers to lead. While this practice might benefit a few, it doesn’t always consider the needs of everyone in the school. I’m often very qualified for the leadership work that I’m asked to do, but not always. If the structures become less static, the way leaders are chosen needs to become more autonomous. If teachers were afforded the opportunity to become decision makers about what kind of work is happening in a school, there is a greater likelihood that more teachers would be able to participate in ways that match their strengths and expertise.
As CTQ blogger Nick Tutolo suggests, we need supports in place to encourage all leadership styles to engage. Many teachers don’t see themselves as leaders because they don’t realize that there are many different ways to lead. By providing opportunities for a team to assess their leadership style and learn about the strengths and weaknesses of different personalities, capacity for collective leadership grows.
School systems need to build capacity for collective leadership to grow.
Imagine it. Schools where all kinds of teachers are empowered to lead through access to authentic opportunity and venues for innovation. There are so many voices just waiting for the system to change so they can be heard.
As a control freak, I know that there will always be a need for strong individual leaders. These people are often the ones to get the ball rolling when change needs to happen. However, placing an inordinate value on one person’s leadership weakens a school’s ability to thrive. Therefore, while I am happy to get things started, I am also happily learning how to step out of the way.
Jessica’s post is part of CTQ’s March/April blogging roundtable on collective leadership. To join the conversation, comment on this blog and read the other blogs in this series. You can find an updated list on this page, and follow CTQ on Facebook and Twitter to see when each new blog is posted. Use #CTQCollab to join the conversation on social media.
Editor’s note: A previous title used for this post was “Confessions of a one woman show.”