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?

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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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