What Hollywood gets wrong about transforming schools

In CTQ’s next roundtable blogging discussion, we’ll examine how education can move beyond individual rockstar teachers to collective leadership that elevates the profession. By expanding our leadership lens to include instructional coaches, administrators, and policy advocates, we see teacher leadership as part of a web of support and collaboration that enhances the ability of teachers to improve their practice.



You know at least ten of them. You are might be one yourself. And you see them depicted on the silver screen as Jaime Escalante in Stand and Deliver, Erin Gruwell in Freedom Writers, Louanne Johnson in Dangerous Minds, or the fictionalized John Keating in Dead Poets Society.

I’m talking about rock star teachers.

With chipper montages, Hollywood glosses over the coffee-enabled early mornings, Red Bull-enabled long-afternoons, and wine-enabled evenings of grading and planning. But the toil of teaching is real for teacher leaders who are laser-focused on improving outcomes for students.

Highly effective teachers also enhance the profession through mentoring young educators, coaching colleagues, leading departments/grade levels, and volunteering to chair various committees. Add up these demands, compare to the allotted time, and we have a recipe for unsustainable leadership.

Rock star teachers, in isolation, can NOT transform the complex system of education.

To kick off 2017, CTQ’s first blogging roundtable focused on how teacher-powered schools 1) open doors to adaptive solutions, 2) use data in innovative ways, 3) collaborate with sister schools, and yes, 4) have principals, too.

In this next round, we’ll examine how education can move beyond individual rockstar teachers to collective leadership that elevates the profession. By expanding our leadership lens to include instructional coaches, administrators, and policy advocates, we see teacher leadership as part of a web of support and collaboration that enhances the ability of teachers to improve their practice.

A group of teachers discussing at a table

Accomplished teacherpreneurs, State Teachers of the Year, innovative professional development leaders, and at least one district superintendent will help answer this question: how does collective leadership change education from the inside out rather than from the top down? With that as our guiding question, we will also discuss the following questions about collective leadership:

  • While teacher-powered schools are one example of collective leadership, how can leaders collaborate in more traditional models?
  • What is the power of collective leadership in shaping the culture of a school and improving student learning?
  • How can individual leadership create or detract from collective leadership?
  • How can teachers and administrators support and encourage collective leadership?

CTQ’s support for collective leadership led to some self-reflection on how the organization itself is designed to function. In recent years, organizational science has been captivated by the idea of holacracy, where authority is distributed through self-organized teams rather than traditional management hierarchies.

How does collective leadership change education from the inside out rather than from the top down?

In “Beyond the Holacracy Hype“, Harvard Business Review examines outcomes from organizations that have experimented with the concept, ultimately concluding that holacracy is a spectrum and there are many ways of successfully applying it to existing organizational structures. One point on that spectrum is the self-managed organization, in which “Members share accountability for the work, authority over how goals are met, discretion over resource use, and ownership of information and knowledge related to the work.”

When I think about the ideal environment for education’s primary stakeholders—students—this is the organizational structure I want for their learning. Join us to share your ideas and dreams for how collective leadership might transform our system to better serve ALL students and to better support ALL teachers.

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  • JustinMinkel

    Where are the teacher teams?


    You raise great points, and I think it has a lot to do with the individualism in which America is steeped. We see it even in history–MLK rightly gets the credit he deserves, but we don't hear much about the thousands of African-American women who did the behind-the-scenes work that made his speeches and marches so impactful.

    Even superhero movies get the idea of a team–X-Men, Avengers–but not so with teaching movies. I think it's because it fits a narrative that the school system is broken, so the heroic teachers are those who triumph over slovenly colleagues and nefarious administrators.

    These valiant heroes don’t let the system change them. But they don’t change the system, either.

    When they leave their schools, the joy, brilliance, and creativity they brought with them—to a single classroom, usually for just a few years—leaves, too.

    There’s plenty of evidence that bureaucracies stifle innovation and reduce teaching from craft to compliance.

    But not every school system is a dystopia. I teach in a school filled with remarkably talented, dedicated teachers, who share their ideas freely and help one another to become better teachers. My principal is no movie ogre. She’s a talented educator who cares deeply about children. She works to shape the system to student needs, rather than shaping students to the needs of the system.

    Thanks in large part to a superintendent with a great heart and mind, who has put decades into his district instead of the typical three to five year stint, the Springdale district is filled with schools like mine.

    Teachers in our district collaborate. They don’t “close their door and do the right thing for kids,” a popular mantra of the lone hero. They open their doors and do the right thing for kids. They share their expertise, they learn from the expertise of their colleagues, and they seek to change the system—not just find ways around it—when it fails the children they teach.

    • LoriNazareno

      Collective Leadership as Counter-Culture

      Justin – You bring up a terrific point that I don't think should be overlooked. American culture is deeply steeped in individualism, which is VERY highly valued. There is an expectation that everyone can "pull themselves up by their bootstraps" and very little consideration for those who may not even have boots, let alone how we can collectively raise everyone up. A former colleague of Kris and mine used to work in an Asian country and she said that EVERYTHING was sees as a collective effort. Even superheroes weren't individuals, rather groups of people who were "heroes" as a unit.

      I think it behooves us as we move more deeply into this topic of collective leadership to consider how we are trying to create something that is counter to typical American culture. How do we model for those who don't quite get it, that leadership is not a zero-sum game, but rather better played as a team sport?

      Kris – thanks for the terrific post and getting us started on this next topic. I look forward to learning more from you and the rest of our community.

      • JustinMinkel

        Amen, Lori.

        Lori, there's an image of a tiger in a jungle that was shown to hundreds of Americans and hundreds of Asians, with the simple question, "What do you see?" All the Americans said, "A tiger." All the Asians said, "A jungle."

        I have always loved The Avengers and The X-Men more than any individual superhero. 

        We're more powerful as collectives, and the work is so damn hard that we can't let it be lonely, too.

  • JessicaCuthbertson

    How do we curate the collective?


    Thanks for this fantastic kickoff post — looking forward to the thought leadership that follows from this compelling topic and the big questions raised in this launch. 

    I think there are so many great examples of teams and collective leadership doing this work — through the collaborative support and encouragement of teachers AND administrators — though I agree these are not the narratives that are lifted up or most frequently shared publicly for replicable impact.

    As I think about my own professional journey and the powerful role of networks, mentors, and virtual communities, I'm also struck by the untapped potential of certain collectives. How might NBCT's for instance come together (beyond local or state networks) to work as a collective at the national level and shape the narrative of moving beyond the individual to the collective? Candidate support is a great example of collective leadership at work and…I think we could take this much, much farther in many places…

    I'd also love to hear more from Brian and Justin as part of the NNSTOY network — do recognition programs like this go far enough to highlight the collective or are STOY's seen as individual superstars (or does that depend on the state context)? How did your experience shape your leadership journey and that of your colleagues? I can definitely see tremendous value in recognizing accomplished practitioners and respect the teachers who are part of this network highly, and I wonder what a "next iteration" of this might look like? To the above comments about our culture valuing individualism over the collective/community what if the state teacher of the year was always a team of practitioners who worked collaboratively to solve a systems level issue that impacted students? 

  • TriciaEbner

    One thought . . .

    The idea of the collective vs. the individual is certainly not as ingrained in our culture. Even our sports teams, where TEAMS win games and championships, have their heroes who are lauded with high praise. Where I live, the 50+ year "drought" in championship sports was NOT broken by the Cleveland Cavaliers. It was broken by LeBron James . . .and the Cleveland Cavaliers. 

    Most adults remember individual teachers who made a difference; they rarely remember teaching teams, and I'll bet those who were impacted by teaching teams actually don't even realize it. They still remember the teacher teams. I think not only does the power of the collective need to be tapped into and utilized, but we also have to talk about it. If we want others to value the power of working together, we need to be transparent about what we're doing, how we're doing it, and yes, how our individual roles and responsibilities are part of that collective whole. 

    I'm looking forward to these discussions!