Diva Words and Two Worth Fighting For

I’m AWESOME. I left the box in a different time zone. I do some brain-flaming brain-storming. All my lessons are hands-on, except the ones that are project-based, or inquiry-based, or criterion-referenced, like I learned how to make them in my PLC where I collaborate and reflect, and always say, “Thank you, sooooo much” to the facilitator for honoring my time and establishing norms to secure a safe space with equity of voice. Don’t even get me started on my rigor.

            Diva words explode onto the scene like this year’s new color.  Once present, they become the seeds of new insights which give birth to the imagination by which we recreate our profession. Yet so pathologically do we crave the Divas that we exhaust them. First, we can think anew because of them. Then, we can’t think without them. Their final indignity is to be exploited by administrative and commercial powers. That “AWESOME” has fallen from describing Moses on Mount Sinai to something we say when someone passes the salt is no big deal.

But what about a facilitator who gives you your agenda for your PLC?

Or when brainstorming diminishes into bullstorming?

Frankly, I’ve never worried about that either.  Divas fall.  And like buses, another will pass by soon.

But then came two terms whose honor I will defend: Teacher Leader and Teacherpreneur.  I never realized the distinction between teachers who lead in traditional capacities – on committees, for example – and Teacher Leaders who conceive and make real their own ideas. Many teachers lead in both capacities; both are indispensable to a high-functioning school. Then, in 2011, after earning my National Board Certificate, I was recruited into the Arizona TeacherSolutions Team and the Teacher Leader Network (The Collaboratory).  In these networks the hidden attributes of Teacher Leaders became visible, and whole new avenues of thinking opened up for me.

Traditionally, teachers are often sought out to lead within the established system under a central governing authority. Their leadership roles may be compensated with an added duty stipend.  They work within established lines of influence. Their influence likely doesn’t extend far beyond their school site.

By contrast, if Teacher Leaders had a creed, it might be something like this:

 Education in America will change best when led from within, by expert teachers, who apply their imagination and leadership skills beyond classroom, to effect practice and policy, reaching district, state, national, and even international venues.

Teacher Leaders often face two challenges. First, aggressive resistance comes from insecure colleagues and administrators invested in the existing power differential. Second, passive, impersonal barriers come inherently with any path-breaking work.  For example, Teacher Leaders generally lack time, resources, and compensation. They lead on their own time and their own dime.

That’s where Teacherpreneur comes in. The concept of the Teacherpreneur has two distinct features: 1) We are practicing, accomplished teachers, creating and experiencing the results of our ideas firsthand, which lends credibility to the claim that our ideas are grounded in the practical realities of the classroom, 2) We do receive time, resources, and compensation to make our visions tangible, demonstrating the trust that the districts and funding organizations have in the Teacher Leaders. Together these features form our most potent tool against challenges to Teacher Leadership.

The terms themselves must be protected. True believers must maintain the uniqueness of the Teacher Leader and the Teacherpreneur.  We must have ready responses, matching tone and intent, to any dilution or appropriation — innocent or exploitative– of their distinguishing features.  Otherwise, they will lose their ability to inspire new thinking and suffer the fate of the Diva.

  • Rob Kriete



    You’ve touched on a key ingredient: Trust.  When districts, and hopefully states, trust teachers leaders to be educational experts, true collaborative reform will occur more freely.  Nationally, too many vital educational decisions are being made by non-educators.

  • Emily Gaither

    Leadership Beyond the Classroom

    Sandy- I have only recently been able to see myself as a teacher leader.  Most of my interactions have come with teachers or student interns within my own classroom and ocassionally school.  I have had several opportunities to present for a college workshop, district teacher professional development, elementary principals in my district and the school board.  I did not feel the magnitude of these experiences until I read your post.  I have noticed characteristics of the teacher leaders within the school building, however now I am understanding the seperation in those teachers who lead within the school and those who reach beyond the school.  I have now begun my journey of reaching through our district and local education community.  One avenue I have not explore is extending my reach to educational policy.  As one who has never been interested in politic, what do you see as the value of teacher leadership within educational policy?  What ways can teachers cause changes on this larger scale?

    • SandyMerz

      Taking Ideas to scale


      Thank you for your comment.  I’ll diverge a little from the standard answer to value of teachers bring to policy making – that we are the membrane through which policy becomes practice and the first observers of its effects and the best place to offer feedback and bold alternatives.  The divergence is that many of us, at least in middle and high school have our degrees in the fields we teach – math, science, history, you name it.  My argument (and the topic of a future post) is that the skill sets that it take to become a good teacher involve skills of all those other fields and those skills – those of the scientist and historian and writer – combined with the practice of teaching uniquely position us to imagine and express policy ideas. 

      To you second question, I’m going to refer you to a few links:

      • Several of us participated in an TransformED roundtable on teacher influence.  You’ll find several examples of teachers describing their policy making experiences. 
      • I also blog for Stories From School Arizona, Policy Meets Practice.  I did a three part series called How Will We Walk the Walk in which I profile a couple of teacher leaders.  You can find my posts at http://bit.ly/18wawzm and posts from all the SFS bloggers at http://www.storiesfromschoolaz.org
      • Finally, I was on a panel recently about teacher influence with Rae Pica whose show Teacher’s Aid discusses teachers that issues face.  It’s thirteen minutes.

      I hope that helps and please keep writing.  Good luck in your efforts.

      • Emily Gaither


        Thank you for the resources. They are a very helpful way to start in the idea of educational politics for someone like myself.  I found a wealth of information about the current education issues.  I also found the stories of other teachers working to get their voices out there to be inspiring.  I have come to the understanding that teachers must work to get their voices and opinions out there.  It was eye opening as to all the different ways teachers have done this by showing up to state and local board meetings, the National Board process, fellowship programs and joining networks.  I did not realize there were many different possible ways for teacher advocacy. 

  • VincentHerrera

    Build Collaboration

    Oh my goodness! Sandy, I love your writing. You have a fan in me. 

    This made me think about why I enjoy being in leadership. A part of me feels I belong in leadership because I weigh and analyze the situation from both sides. Trust would be a wonderful thing to have; however, I think about the saying, “trust and verify.” “The proof of the pudding is in the eating.” I think about a new generation of teachers, myself included, that is raised on the principles that collaboration is the foundation for teaching and leading. The exploitation of this concept seems fairly new regardless of the many teachers who have collaborated in the past. However, I think our supporters or the potential stakeholders would like proof of what we do and how we do it. How do we build and monitor collaboration? 

  • sharonwright

    Walking the Walk

    I love your series “How Will We Walk the Walk.” I teach in Alabama now, but I taught previously in Florida. There is a marked difference in the treatment of teachers from one state to another. I always thought that it must have something to do with the strength differences in our unions (Florida was strong when I taught there; Alabama’s is nearly defunct and can hardly be called a union anymore.) However, as I learned more about teacher leaders I realized that it’s how teachers feel about themselves and their work that seems to change how others (i.e. politicians & communities in general) perceive our profession. Teachers in my district in Florida were treated as professionals because they demanded it, and in turn they acted like professionals. Unfortunately, I know many teachers in Alabama that think of themselves as “just teachers.” It’s this difference in attitude that you touched on that is the true difference in our profession. How we feel about ourselves — how we walk the walk — makes all the difference in how society at large perceives us.

    Thank you for shining a light on this aspect of professionalism. I look forward to more posts from you!