Special thanks to Mount Holyoke College Psychology Visiting Assistant Professor Amy Grillo for her support and beautiful eggs, as well as Dr. John Holland from Viriginia Commonwealth University and Dr. Jon Eckert from Wheaton College for their research guidance and wisdom.
So an interesting fact about colorful eggs. They apparently get their “shell shading” at different points in their journey to the outside world. My colleague, Amy (a wonderful former teacher, professor, and partner in crime), raises chickens that lay the most glorious eggs, ranging from shades of pale green jewels, cafe con leche brown, light pre-dawn sky blue. I was holding one in my palm last week when she told me a fascinating tidbit. The eggshell coloring actually depends on the breed of the hen and they get their shell pigment at different times in the egg development. The greenish-tinged eggs have the color embedded in the calcium carbonate-rich shell at the inception, while some of the brownish-tinged eggs get a quick “spray-coating” right before they are laid.
This all relates to teacher leadership. Trust me. Here’s how.
Two of my CTQ Collab colleagues and I have been contemplating teacher leadership. We are all embedded within the walls of teacher education. And we are wrestling with some big questions. When does teacher leadership begin? When can the seeds be planted? When is it the right time, and when might it be too early? And can this be accomplished during the pre-service teacher years, before these young life changers even walk through the door of a classroom with students of their very own? So we decided to embark on some research.
We Skyped with teacher leaders and teacherpreneurs from across the United States, learning about the roles of teachers inside their classrooms and beyond. We participated in conversations with college students on three campuses across the United States, creating opportunities for discussion of the role of a teacher with some of the best teacher leaders across the nation. We explored ways for teachers to lead in areas of policy, mentoring, school redesign, advocacy, curriculum, and beyond.
So, were our pre-service teachers and college students ready for this shifting role of a teacher? As of now, the jury is out. An informal glance at our research is showing that it might be too much. There is so much developing in the complex work of beginning teachers, the concept of leadership may not quite fit in the equation. For example, let’s look at the work load of my practicum students in particular. These women were in a four hour methods seminar and student teaching right before their graduation. This was combined with prepping their performance assessment binder for licensure, obtaining their first jobs, and getting to stretch their teacher legs in the classroom (by themselves) for the first time. It proved almost too overwhelming. As they were reading Understanding By Design, putting together their first curriculum unit, creating assessments, and figuring out who they were as teachers, I’m not sure they had the brain space.
In informal conversations with them, about half of them were ready for this kind of policy and advocacy talk. But for the other half, their minds were focused on more immediate needs, such as surviving successfully in the classroom the next day. I was constantly concerned with their emotional well-being and not stressing out their brains any further. I am looking forward to seeing their evaluations and getting their formal surveys back, but I have a hunch about what my eyes will find. I think that for them in particular, it was too much. Their teacher leadership exposure was the dusting of brown coloring right before the eggs were laid, and it may have been just too much and too late.
But here’s the interesting piece: I did an informal pilot of this exposure to teacher leadership last semester, with our MHC: Teach Education Club and with my Teaching English Language Learners (ELL) class. The MHC: Teach Club is composed of students who may or may not be in education programs, but are really interested in education. And the pre-service teachers in the ELL class were first semester college juniors, just beginning their core coursework in education. I currently have many of these same students in my spring class, Literacy Methods. Some of them have had me for three classes. Through conversations with these students, I am finding that many of their brains ARE ready for the ideas and concepts around teacher leadership. Here’s how I know.
They email me articles about policy decisions that affect classrooms. They ask me to have coffee to discuss the National Board process and leadership roles within school buildings. They think deeply not only about research, science, craft, and art of teaching, but seem to have another layer. They ask questions about how teachers can lead decisions around curriculum because in their pre-practicums, they don’t necessarily agree with the quality of the chosen math textbooks. They debate next steps for advocating for more focus on learning in schools and less on standardized assessment. They question choices made at schools that have mandated schedules that don’t allow community and social-emotional building time for our learners in Morning Meeting. They follow the Common Core debate and think about how this impacts their future students. I know that they may not be ready for leadership roles as first year teachers, but they are thinking in a different way about the role of a teacher. A much broader way. A way that sees a teacher’s reach a bit further than those classroom walls.
Based on my informal conversations and observations, I take pride and say with confidence that these are our future teacher leaders. They are already demonstrating many of the thought patterns similar to my colleagues who are doing the work.
There may be many factors that contribute to this…here are a couple of my hypotheses.
I live and breathe (and dream) teaching, learning, and teacher leadership. And I am the lead learner in much of the work of these pre-service teachers. I think some of this is due to the fact that a teacher leader is standing beside them in their growth into the profession.
I think that embedding leadership as part of their curriculum and development from the beginning is integral. Making the concept of teacher leader one in the same as teacher, instead of separating them as two separate terms. And exposing them to so many brands of teacher leadership. We need master teachers working in their classrooms, fine-tuning their practice and then sharing their knowledge with others, to teachers advocating up on Capitol Hill…it is all teaching, it is all leadership.
Lastly, I think this early integration is working because they have the “brain space.” They aren’t in the thick of student teaching when they are first exposed to teacher leadership, but it is introduced soon in their college career and cultivated slowly. It is like the green shelled egg, with the seeds of teacher leadership planted in the earliest stages.
I know this is not exactly scientific research as I get preachy about our young teacher leaders at Mount Holyoke, but it is informal, formative data that I’m collecting, one conversation at a time. It makes me ponder the right time to plant the seeds of teacher leadership, and when the fruits of those seeds will emerge. And it gives me hope. If these women are a sample of what can happen with a few small changes in curriculum and thinking around teacher education, then great things can and will happen for our PK-12 students.