Getting beyond “teacher leadership light”

Teacher leadership is gaining ground, but we need to go even further.

There’s a lot more talk these days about teacher leadership than in years past. In our new book, Teacherpreneurs: Innovative Teachers Who Lead but Don’t Leave, we point to the growing complexity of preparing all students for the future—in which innovation will play a major part. We also highlight evidence that successful schools require dynamic collaboration that extends far beyond traditional “anoint and appoint” forms of teacher leadership.

Even the best individual school principals—and a small band of assistants—do not have the know-how and/or bandwidth to address the needs of growing numbers of highly mobile families, second language learners, and students living in poverty. Top-performing nations, such as Finland and Singapore, have built their success on teacher leadership and greater connectivity between those who teach and those who make policy.

Granted, there are increasing opportunities for teachers in the United States to lead—and the concept of “distributed leadership” is not new. Yet the practice of this distribution assumes a principal or other “school leader” (not a teacher) is the source of authority, who then delegates or shares authority to make specific decisions. These practices can be well intentioned but still circumscribe the roles, duties, and capacity of the teaching profession. As a result, most teacher leadership continues to be viewed through the prism of in-classroom support and coaching as well as an array of professional development activities.

What role do teachers play in policymaking?

When it comes to policy, reformers are now calling for more teacher voice. But as reported in Education Week, while teachers may be invited to be part of policy deliberations, it is “hard to tell” whether teachers are “at the table” or “on the menu.” As Liana Heitin noted in her hard-hitting article, a number of the recently formed teacher voice organizations “set the parameters of what’s non-negotiable,” or in other words, they tell teachers what they can talk about or not. After a review of both a new book on teacher voice and a convening on the topic, Liana noted, “For better or worse, the message was clear that teacher engagement works within bounds, much like a managed classroom.”

In a recent blog post, Renee Moore, one of the most influential and effective teacher leaders I have ever met, made it clear that it is time for “teachers to take charge of (their) own profession.”  Renee, featured prominently in our new book, reveals in her blog post why school reformers resist authentic teacher leadership, and despite their rhetoric, continue to treat teachers like “hired help.”

Leadership through a historical lens

Indeed, as many scholars have documented, teaching’s past has been stormy and convoluted, often involving struggles to determine who teaches what and how, as well as under what conditions and at what cost.i In 1977, Louise Kapp Howe defined teaching as one of several “low rung” or “pink collar” occupations of “last resort” for women, offering little opportunity for advancement while mirroring the role they played in managing their household chores.ii

Teaching’s pink-collar status appears to have a lot to do with school reformers of today who see teachers as “instruments-of-school-improvement” as opposed to “shapers-of-school-improvement.”iii Teachers, with their own ideas and deep experiences with children and communities, can offer an inconvenient truth for school reformers who have their own agendas and designs on how to manage the $600 billion enterprise of public education. Growing cadres of highly visible teacher leaders, anchored by the respect that parents and the public have for them, can create powerful ways for those who teach to lead, and not just be led. (This thing called the Internet will help a great deal.)

There are many reasons for serious teacher leadership. There is a growing science of “how people learn” and new evidence on teachers’ use of pedagogical content knowledge in creating the “cognitive roadmaps” that guide the assignments they give, the assessments they use, and the way their classrooms are organized for different subjects and students.iv

Teacher leaders as boundary spanners

Renee, in the late 1990s, was one of the first teachers to publish virally—via the website of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching—about the “what,” “why,” and “how” of her “culturally engaged” teaching in Shelby, Mississippi. As a National Board Certified Teacher with more than 25 years of experience in both teaching and leading pedagogical and policy innovations, Renee captures the future of what leadership from the classroom must look like.

In writing about Renee for our book, I interviewed Tom Hatch, a brilliant scholar of teaching at Columbia University’s Teachers College, who described her as a “quiet thinker” and “forceful crusader” as well as an “expert in helping others understand the complexity of teaching.” She is a terrific writer and erudite public speaker who can engage diverse audiences in how’s and why’s of progressive pedagogy as well as confront them, smartly, about deep inequities and racism that continues to undermine the young people of the Delta.

Renee is a boundary spanner who can help teachers, administrators, reformers, and researchers learn from one another, even when her leadership challenges their pet theories. And while Renee is an exceptional teacher leader, she is not the exception. Under the right conditions, many teacher leaders (and teacherpreneurs) like Renee—I will say hundreds of thousands—can be cultivated and mobilized.

And while CTQ, a small nonprofit of 15 full-time employees and 8 teacherpreneurs (this year) will do our part, it will be teachers themselves—and their own organizations—that must lead the way. As Renee noted, “It’s time to stop waiting for others to give us permission, give us opportunities, or give us our due.” Anything else is teacher leadership light.


i Rousmaniere, K. (2005). In search of a profession: A history of American teachers. In Moss, D., Glenn, W. & Schwab, R. (Eds.), Portraits of a profession: Teaching and teachers in the 21st century, 1-26. Westport, CT: Praeger.
ii Howe, L.K. (1977). Pink collar workers: Inside the world of women’s work. New York: Putman
iii Finn. C. E. (2003). High hurdles. Education Next, 3(2). Retrieved March 1, 2004, from http://educationnext.org/highhurdles/
iv Bransford, J.D., Brown, A.L., and Cocking, R.R. (2000). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. Washington DC: National Academies of Science.