For Leadership Positions in Education: No Experience Necessary

This is a guest post from fellow CTQ Collaboratory member, John Visel. He shares a perspective on who should qualify to lead education policymaking that I think deserves broader discussion. Share your comments and thoughts:

John Visel  I’m an elementary school teacher who has served in the Army National Guard for twelve years.  My job in the Army is coordinating and playing music at inagurations and high level military ceremonies.  I’ve progressed in rank and responsiblity over the years. My leadership stops at that point, though. I will never be running a team of Army Rangers or Navy SEALS. I have no experience fighting in Iraq or Afghanistan.  So why does education do the equivalent?

Many of our state education policy makers have never been teachers.  Our nation’s secretary of education has never been a teacher. He holds no degree in teaching. In fact, the last secretary of education to have any teaching experience whatsoever taught one year- 1946-47.  My state secretary of education also has zero teaching experience.

My fear is that the leaders of my organization lack the intuition for what works that comes from years of experience in a classroom. It’s normal to have leaders who are not trained in the fundamental tasks of a company.  But as a teacher, it just feels, well, weird. How important is it that the person at the top has done the job of the people at the bottom? Many corporations have structures for trying to get knowledge from the bottom to make its way to the top. But that’s different than having a leader with the basic experience.  Especially when that experience is defining and identity-shaping. Doing the lowest job changes you, especially if it’s extremely challenging. On the Emmy-winning show Undercover Boss (available on Netflix) each of these C.E.O’s usually comes away changed by what he sees at the lowest level.

This year I became a National Board Certified Teacher, which was an extremely challenging process. We had an ex-lawyer in our cohort. She said the NBCT process was harder than the bar exam. We were evaluated in 11 areas. The pass rate for music teachers is about 30% the first time around; almost 3% of teachers nationally gain this credential. Passing on the first try was a self esteem boost.  It forced me to confront the fact that I may be competent at what I do. However, it also made me look at my superiors and think, “Why didn’t they have to do this?”  It was one of the hardest things I’ve done in my life.

The skills needed to be the secretary of education may be different than those needed to teach science in an inner city high school. In some occupations, this probably doesn’t matter all that much.  But in teaching, it does.  One could ostensibly be an ok CEO without knowing how to operate a forklift.  Driving a forklift is not a transformational experience, though. Teaching changes you, especially when you do it for many years.  In the military, the very highest ranking enlisted soldier–who is paid more than most officers–does not historically have a college degree. He does have loads of combat experience, and it is the job of the enlisted soldiers to teach officers.  The military has separate career tracks for the specifics person vs. the generalist. How much combat experience do these generalists need?  I don’t know, but I’d assume they need at least more than none.

Education may be different. There are fewer rungs on our corporate ladder.  It tends to go teacher, assistant principal, principal, central office, superintendent, state superintendant of education, state secretary of education, then US Dept. of Education.   Most corporations as big as a school district have many more rungs on the ladder, and workers who go step by step probably bring first hand experience with them.

Education is unique among professions in that significant knowledge and experience are needed to do the entry-level job competently.  Teaching Isn’t Rocket Science, It’s Harder.  When I shared this article, an engineer friend of mine noted, “Teaching seems like a much easier field to enter, but an infinitely harder one to master.”   There’s something special about teaching experience.

Many–if not most–education researchers do not have teaching experience. Perhaps I can give them a pass because the skills required to do sophisticated data metrics can be  genuinely different from those needed for teaching.  Without experience though, how do they know they are asking the right questions?


What’s your thinking about qualifications for ed policy leaders? How do the leaders in your state measure up in terms of teaching experience? How important is actual classroom experience as a criteria for key educational leadership positions?

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  • Dal


    No experience necessary! As a matter of fact, it’s not wanted…it’s frowned upon! Experience is taboo! The more experienced one is, the less qualified. 

  • pwcrabtree

    Couldn’t agree more…

    ~~John, I could not agree more.  The majority of decisions made about education are not made by those who have classroom experience.  Why is that??  Well if we consider the early years of education, it was not really seen as a profession as much as a stepping stone for women to become moms and men to become administrators. Now there is more to it than that, I know… but I can’t help but to wonder if education from the start was not valued as much as it should have been?  A great article written by Howard Gardner in the Washington Post several years ago makes a case that educators as a whole do not see themselves as professionals.

    I have to agree that many educators want to be seen as professionals but what have we done to take control of our profession?  There are many of us who react to political decisions, and advocate for the better of education through lobbying. However, I wonder the percentage who do this advocacy work and see it as a responsibility to our profession? What is the percentage of educators who actually step up to become legislators, serve on school boards, or even serve as the Secretary of Education?  These are key roles that business men control but don’t really have a true grasp on the issues we face in our classrooms.

    We have the experience, knowledge, and passion that should be driving education policy. Yet such a small percentage of educators lead beyond the walls of their school and county.  Educators often do not see themselves as professionals because they feel beaten by the “system”.  We need to take over the system. We need to own the system.   I think NBCT and our professional organizations like the NEA should be leading our profession rather than serving as a support system. 

    So the question I seek is how DO we take control of a system that has historically not been valued or controlled by the professionals who are in the classroom?  How do WE change the perception of how others see us when we don’t always see ourselves as professionals?

    • ReneeMoore

      Taking Charge of our Profession

      Thanks for your comments and questions, Precious. You can see why I wanted to share this article of John’s. Teachers taking charge of our own profession is a subject I’ve thought and fought about for a long time. And as you note, it is a battle on two fronts: Getting respect from outsiders for the expertise of teachers, and getting teachers to see ourselves as a true profession—and act like one.

      Your question regarding the professional organizations is also well-taken. Can NEA or AFT be the leading voice of the profession as long as they are separate organizations? What about our many subject area organizations?

      The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards could conceivably become to teaching what AMA is for physicians or what AICPA is for accountants, and so forth. To do that, however, National Board Certification would have to become the goal of every teacher entering (or already in) the profession, and the National Board standards developed by teachers for teachers recognized as the minimal level of competency for any leadership role in our profession. Several groups, including many of us working with CTQ, have recommended that those who work in teacher education and as supervising teachers to student teachers/interns be NBCTs.  I take great personal comfort in the fact that the State Superintendent of education in  Indiana is an NBCT.

      • pwcrabtree

        Chicken and egg

        Thanks, Renee!  I too have struggled with this question and my experiences as a leader.  I get so frustrated with colleagues who are apathetic and just accept the way things are.  At some level, you can understand the hopelessness… but until we look in the mirror and stand proud as a professional this won’t change.  

        As a NEA member, I would love to see the organization lead the way and move away from it’s heavily industrial model design.  Professionalism has become a big focus over the last few years, but I want it to be a bigger focus that drives the organization.  I want NEA to be  seen more than just a union.  Don’t get me wrong, I am a proud member, but would be even prouder if we worked with universities to set clear standards of excellence  for teacher prep across the states.  I would be more proud if it led Ed policy discussions and made decisions that impacted our profession.  We need more action than reaction to leading change. 

        My husband and I have had debates many times about unions… Lawyers, doctors, accountants, all have a professional organization that guide their practice and offer professional development.  NEA has great professional development opportunities but is not seen as the same.  My husband believes that we should not have a union but an association that sets the guidelines for professional practice, much like the bar for attorneys. I believe it’s a chicken and egg problem.  Do we give up our protection and rights with the union and trust that we will be seen and treated as professionals if we purely are an association? Or do we stand in solidarity with our union that fights for us and for our children? Or can both work in harmony to elevate the profession?  Is NBC the key that we are overlooking? 


        • Terry Graff

          Teachers seen as professionals

          John and Precious,

          Your comments were very important to hear and to reflect upon. The comments made about teachers seeing themselves as professionals, and the importance of taking leadership roles, should be a guiding light for all in the teaching profession. I have been teaching for 17 years, and recently passed the National Boards which helped  me to reflect upon the teaching profession. Unfortunately, I am one of the ones you mentioned about staying in the classroom, and not going outside of it to voice opinions, and I need to find direction for this next step. I believe the change needs to come from individual  teachers in the profession. Change needs to come from within, more individual teachers stepping out into decision making roles, being strong, and taking leadership roles in legislation that concerns education. 

          • pwcrabtree

            Congrata NBCT!!


            Congratulations on passing your NBC!  Your reflection during the process I am sure gave you a lot to chew on about our profession.  No matter your comfort zone, we all can contribute and have the power to make change happen for our profession and for our kids!  I was very fortunate to have a strong local association and a great mentor in my past president.  He really opened my eyes to how we can influence our politicians and our leadership.  My first a-ha moment was Lobby Day ten years ago in Richmond!   I grew up in a home where politics were never discussed or mattered.  Sitting and discussing education with leaders making decisions about my classroom was empowering.  It was that day that I became hooked on being involved in my association because they empowered me to make my voice heard. 

            I know that unions are not always everyone’s cup of tea.  For me, it has provided me with countless opportunities to grow and be heard as a professional.  Not to mention, helping me see myself as a professional. Start small. Write a letter to the editor.  Email a legislator on an important issue.  Call your school board members about issues that matter to you and affect your ability to teach.  Remember, our students’ voices are often not heard, but you can change that too! 

  • SandyMerz

    Where does competence start?

    Thanks John and Renee for this piece. The quote that jumps out at me is: 

    “Education is unique among professions in that significant knowledge and experience are needed to do the entry-level job competently.”

    At first I thought, That’s Right!  That’s It!  And headed to tweet it and start repeating it. Then I thought, Well,  I can think of other entry level jobs that require significant knowledge and by merit of it being an entry level job, you can’t really have experience.  But I still agree that teaching seems to be unique among professions in that the expectations of knowledge and competence at the entry-level are the same as the veteran.  It’s a super point no matter how you phrase it.  

    • JohnVisel

      Where does competence start?

      At my elementary school, we have a college education major who has volunteered hundreds of hours assisting with second and third grade classes.  She comes in on her vacations. This is out of the goodness of her heart, not a requirement of her program.  She’s smart. My colleagues and I know that she will be extremely well prepared to enter the field, perhaps one of the best beginning teachers in the country.  If I had a child, I’d be thrilled at the thought of having her first year of full time teaching experience in his classroom.  As a twenty-something, she knows something the rest of us didn’t take to heart at her age:  wisdom that comes from experience is expected the first day on the job. 

      One of my favorite comments on this NYT article by Joe Nocera was this:

      “Teacher education classes are useless. Prospective teachers need to be in the classroom immediately.”

      This thought blew my mind.  Yes!   I don’t think anyone’s going to argue for abolition of teacher education classes.  But why not have prospective teachers in a classroom for half a day, and then take college classes the other half?   Dr. Tim Lautzenheiser has argued that teacher preparation programs should be six years.  The first four would be classes, and the next two would be a paid internship. 

      So I do stand behind my thought that significant knowledge and experience are needed to do the entry level job competently.  While this is not often found in beginning teachers, these attributes are expected.


  • Bill

    Teaching Experience

    Great points on the importance of teaching experience; this lens is critical.  Policymakers must be able to understand the perspective of students, staff, and all levels of leadership.  One small correction, I think Rod Paige (GWB Sec of Ed) had more recent teaching experience than the one year in the 40’s that you cite (though your basic point is a solid one):

  • Paul Hewitt

    Who is in Control and Teacher Education

    As a former superintendent (taught 7 years) and currently a college professor I find this discussion to be highly relevant. You have hit everything right on target. NEA needs to stop being an industrial union and become a highly involved professional association, much like the Bar Associations or Medical Boards. While fighting internally between unions and school boards (and superintendents) we have allowed outsiders to take control of edication policy and drive us into an indistrial model that is bad for childen and the future of our Nation. A good friend once said that when educators are threatened they circle the wagons and then start shooting at ecah other. Educators need to become the leaders of education and not allow it to be driven by ideological think tanks and billionaires.

    Regarding teacher education: At the University of Arkansas our students attend a 5th year in which they spend an entire year in the classroom as an intern while earning their MAT. We have a very high job placement rate and local schools give them a year of teaching credit on the salary schedule because they have a year of teaching experience. Our graduates are well trained professionals. Contrast this to TFA, which is an insult to every highly trained teacher and to the teaching profession.

    • pwcrabtree

      How do we get there?

      I am curious about the University of Arkansas intern program.  How did this come about and how are the intern’s paid?  This sounds like what I have envisioned for a strong connection between the universities and schools!  Could you share more?


    Teach to Lead

    It is quite obvious when one observes school administrators, and their areas of emphasis, who taught a mere 2 or 3 years and who went on to develop first as a classroom educator over a period of over 5 years and then used that knowledge to lead as an instructional leader.  Too many administrators are in such a hurry to climb the career ladder that they forget that our “business” is not like others.  Teachers and school administrators affect future opportunities that will decide a person’s possible livelihood.  We should have our best in classrooms teaching reading comprehension at a very deep level because that is a pipeline skill required at all levels, and those most experienced with instruction as our school principals.  Managers are being hired to run schools with the technical “know-how” of what a teacher truly is hired to do.  These “managers” know how to organize lunch lines and rainy day schedules but are ill-equipped to engage in a conversation about best practices when teaching children to read.

  • Mr. Mike

    No experience necessary?

    I am always heartened to see such thoughtfulness coming from a new generation of talent-laden teachers.  I had to walk away from my position as a middle-level building principal last spring after trying to establish a foundation for teachers to be leaders in my school.  A very business-minded school board did not like nor approve of what I was doing because they generally viewed teachers as “shop workers” who should not be involved in the top-down management beliefs they so dearly held.  And they found a new superintendent during my last year who-you guessed it-never taught in a classroom. A self-described “honey badger”, her tact was to get things done corporate style, with little to no thought of listening to input from below her, to micromanage, lie, and embarrass others without conscience.  She was a coporate dream- a leader who saw nothing valuable in education but the bottom-line (high standardized test scores).

    I offer this abbreviated piece of first-hand experience to hopefully prompt some thought in your discussion about the corporate influence upon our public schools and the damage it continues to do to teachers and the teaching profession.  I cringe when I hear John say things like “Education may be different.. There are less rungs on our corporate ladder.”  As great as his post is for many reasons, he (at least) implies that schools and school systems are corporations where the “CEO’s” are quite removed from what is happening on the ground, which is true!  My question is why have we abandoned our public schools as schools and changed them into businessess and corporations?  I hope some of the discussion moves towards the bigger question of what exactly the interests of big business and corporate america are in the children  attending our public schools today. It is my opinion that we are watching the slow yet certain death of the American public school system in favor full privitatization of for American business to take over in the not too distant future.  The profiteers are already here in fact via the trojan horses of NCLB, RTTT, and CCSS, etc. So, if the new generation of teachers is really serious about  their profession and mission, Precious is right on the money when she says: “We need to take over the system. We need to own the system.”  It won’t be easy, and you’ve got a hell of an uphill climb to fight the profiteers who now feed you their curriculum-pedagogy-standards-assessment-technology wares because you……..could never have competently done any of these things on your own now, could you?  Remember, like my school board and superintendent would remind you, you are only teachers, and we own the system, not you!

    Again, food for thought.  I hope teachers can take back their profession.  I really, really do.

  • Michael Metcalf

    Senior High Mathematics

    As a policy leader I would think you’d be rather arrogant to go into a field or discipline and assume you could make substantive decisions affecting the work and lives of those for whom you were responsible.  I think one would be apologetically humble in in assuming such a leadership role or possibly eschew from accepting such a position without the appropriate credentials and experience.  However, one must remember that ego drives many people to climb the political ladder of so called success.  Give the job to the most capable among us, the one with the requisite knowledge, experience and expertise.  He or she is probably the one amongst us who would never dream of taking on the responsibility of such a task, yet would be aguably the best at fulfilling the leadership role. 

  • ReneeMoore

    Need More Teacherpreneurs


    Your point is the premise behind the book Teacherpreneurs, and much of the work here in the Collaboratory. Our best teachers need to be able to continue to teach AND share their expertise with the broader profession (not either/or).

    @Bill is also correct that when developing policy, many points-of-view need to be taken into consideration. What we’ve seen a lot of in education is a dismissal or marginalization of teachers in these pivotal policy decisions.

  • Darcy Haberl

    Part of the problem is that

    Part of the problem is that everyone thinks they know what teachers do because everyone attended school.  They think there is not much to be a teacher because they don’t know the amount of work one has to do to be prepared and plan, and then you add the grading on top of that.  Most people think it is a “part time” job because they see us coming to work at 8 and leaving at 3 and then we have summers off.

    The other issue is that the skills needed to be good at the job are not easily articulated.  It takes someone who is people oriented, knows how to relate to students quickly and efficiently, can introduce a subject or topic in various ways so that if a student does not “get it” the first time, there are other ways of learning the concept.  Not everyone can do the job.  You add into that all the professional development we do to know our subject matter better, alternative ways of teaching, differentiated teaching, and how to teach a room full of people with varying degrees of understanding and intelligence.  Most people don’t understand that, yet they can all recall a teacher who made a difference in their life.

  • Richard

    Teacher Best Practices
    You articulated my sentiment exactly John. I think one of the reasons that educational practices are so misaligned is that those who are transforming or reengineering education never step foot in a classroom.

  • teacherken

    a few comments that might surprise people

    coming from me

    First, the skills that are necessary to be a good teacher do not necessarily overlap with those that are necessary as an administrator, whether in building, district wide, state wide, or at a national level.

    Second, it is possible to lead an organization whose people have skills and experience one doe not, and do it successfully.

    Third, being an effective researcher/writer is not necessarily congruent with being an effective teacher.

    Thus, I am not necessarily insistent that for example the US Secretary of Education has to have previous teaching experience.  That kind of argument is likely to lead to what we are already seeing at state levels -=  Kevin Huffman can argue that he has teaching experience in his two years of teaching for TFA, but he is a disaster running education in TN, unless you think destroying public schools and demoralizing teachers and ignoring locally elected school boards is a positive.  By contrast, Madeline Kunin and Richard Rileuy were both at least good Secretaries of Education, even though neither had ever been a classroom teacher at the K-12 level (Kunin had taught at university level).  Does direct experience make a difference?  Perhaps Lyndon Johnson’s experience teaching in impoverished communities in the Rio Grande Valley informed his understanding of the need for federal support for the poor and for public education, but his wealth and privilege did not prevent FDR from understanding the needs of the poor during the Great Depression.

    Now, having said that, we do need people who can bridge several worlds.  We need leaders who even if not themselves classroom teachers can listen to and understand the reality of the worlds of those who are.  We need researchers who can spend enough time recognizing that quantitative studies and “data” are an insufficient way to examine the issues of public education, that being able to understand and value cultures other than their own can  be important, that perhaps they need training in fields other than economics and law as a basis for studying schools and teaching –  here I would argue for sociology and cultural anthropology, specifically learning how do to do thick description. 

    There are those who are based in the classroom who can help bridge the gap that currently exists in the making of policy.  Clearly the development of the Teacher Leaders Network was intended to utilize such talent.  There are many who have done this informally, through blogging.  I remember when I started blogging more than a decade ago teacher bloggers were not read all that much except by other teacher bloggers.  That I wrote at  a political site (Daily Kos) gave me a reach that surprised many, although I also had the advantage of understanding the political world (not merely because I taught government, but because I had been politically active for a number of years) and thus able to explain education and teaching and learning to some in positions of policy (members of the House Committee with authority over education, for example).

    We do need teachers with hybrid roles.  The classroom based teacher ambassadors a the US Department of Education are one way of doing this. States and districts should learn how to do similar things.  I have some experience of that, having served for a year as the one (and then one of two) teacher on a system-wide task force designing how the system was going to try to tie teacher evaluation to student assessment in the least destructive way possible (unfortunately the state rejected our approach).  My visibility has also given me other opportunities, through writing and through being a guest lecturer at institutions of higher education (I will be doing that again in Pasi Sahlberg’s class in International Education at Harvard Graduate School of Education on April 16). 

    Yes, doing sabbatical work like being National Teacher of the Year or a fulltime Teacher Ambassador is fine, although for myself I find that when I am not in classroom settings at least half-time I lose an important sense of being rooted.  And there is the reality that even the most honored of us sometimes are ignored, as Anthony Mullen wrote about during his tenure as NTOY.  And if a NTOY has trouble getting listened to . . . .

    I think it helps that there is now a broader movement.

    Superintendents –  think John Kuhn, Josh Starr. Jere Hochman

    Students –  think Nikhil Goyal, the Providence Students Union, Hannah Nguyen

    Teachers –  think Jesse Hagopian and Garfield HS in Seattle

    Parents – think of Leonie Haimson, think of the National Opt Out movement

    There are a number of initiatives attempting to change the conventional “wisdom” –

    think of the school board elections in Bridgeport, with the work of Working Families Party

    National Education Policy Center, especially its Think Tank Project

    Network for Public Education, organized by Anthony Cody and Diane Ravitch

    Opportunity to Learn Campaign, at whose organizational dinner I was, which is an joint effort of the Schott Foundation and the Campaign for America’s Future

    While I respect SOME of what the two national unions do, and have cordial relations with a number of the leaders, I do not expect to ever see a merger at the national level for lots of reasons, and I have doubts about their ability to be the effective point of what we need.  That said, we also cannot ignore them, and need to challenge them.

    It will be interesting to attend the Teaching and Learning Conference here in DC in less than two weeks.  I wonder if I will get the chance to challenge some of those who do not seem to understand teaching –  whether Arne Duncan or David Coleman or anyone else like that.  I have had one 45 minute phone conversation with Duncan, as a result of my friendship with another cabinet Secretary, Tom Vilsack.  I cannot say it was all that productive.  But I keep trying, never knowing when a spark might ignite something.

    • JohnVisel

      Hybrid Roles


      Thank you for your thoughtful response.  The concept of hybrid roles is something that needs so much attention.  It has the potential to be Professional Learning Communities on steroids.  Here’s a pivot point:  Hybrid roles are not part of the architecture of teaching in America.  Groups like CTQ are doing an awesome job planting the seeds of change and defining what the future could be.  However, the financial outlook/values of the American school district doesn’t allow for working teachers to do leadership activities.  How to fix this on a large scale?   Let’s be optimistic and say the average teacher leader earns $50K/year.  To pay for one teacher in that entire district to do leadership half time costs around 25K.  That’s one teacher out of potentially thousands in that district. So the question for CTQ is how to franchise a good idea when the economics and cultural attitudes are likely against it.  On the other hand, every little bit has the potential to spark massive change.  Maria Montessori, Mother Teresa, MLK, Jesus, Buddha, and Gandhi each caused a tsunami. So it’s possible that by doing good work, others will follow.

      First, the skills that are necessary to be a good teacher do not necessarily overlap with those that are necessary as an administrator, whether in building, district wide, state wide, or at a national level.

      That’s not what I was arguing.  Obviously there are different skill sets needed for each.  Whether an educational leader is good or poor, having fundamental teaching experience can only help.   I know we can’t slap a guarantee on leaders with teaching experience, but it should be considered when hiring.

      Second, it is possible to lead an organization whose people have skills and experience one does not, and do it successfully.

      That is a great point, but again, not what I was arguing. My argument was that education is different from other professions because of the transformational nature of the lowest level job. And couldn”t these great leaders have the chance to be even more successful if they were rooted in experience?

      Third, being an effective researcher/writer is not necessarily congruent with being an effective teacher.

      Agreed. That IS what I was arguing.  But again, couldn’t it only help them to ask more insightful questions?

      I’d love to see some research on highly effective, innovative, and award winning superintendents. Have they had significant experience in the classroom? What about dynamic, award-winning teachers?  I’d hypothesize that they make great administrators, because the skills of assessment, evaluation, ability to motivate, achieve short/long term goals, and manage are demonstrated to be on a high level.  

      The four walls of a classroom are magnets for great teachers.  I remember a conversation with a superintendent one time in which they (yes, I used that pronoun) said they have a very hard time convincing great teachers to leave the classroom to work higher up in the central office. 


      I’m cautious saying all of this, because whenever I generalize about what makes a great _______ (fill in the blank), in bounces something or someone who totally blows me away.

      Again, thanks for your insight and unique viewpoint.  They are bolstered by your experience.  =)


    • ReneeMoore

      Not surprising at all…

      …that you would give us such a thoughtful and thorough historical perspective to this issue. Thanks for your insights, Ken.

  • P. Humbles

    Fdormer English Teacher

    This is so true.  I have been to many doctors for treatment.  I have been hospitalized.  I have visited friends in hospitals.  I have taken medications prescribed by doctors.   These experiences did not make me qualified to lead the American Medical Association or any other medical organization.  This should be true for education.  Just because one has attended  school or passed by a school does not qualify one to make decisions about what is best for education.  I am so happy that someone has exposed one of the major problems in education.  We need qualified educators in the decision-making positions.