What I’m TRYING to say is…

Wow.  Working through my recent thoughts about organizational juice has been a real challenge for me.  Based on responses from readers, I’m not sure that my point has been terribly clear!  That’s the beauty of blogging, though—-the pushback provided by readers forces me to polish my own thinking.

So let me try again.

I’ll start with a few details that may have gotten hidden in the emotion of my recent rants:  Most days, I love what I do.  I work in one of the most progressive schools in one of the most successful districts in one of the most education-oriented states in the nation.  When I moved to North Carolina from Upstate New York 16 years ago, I would have never guessed that I’d end up in a place led by some of the most committed educational policymakers on earth.

And watching the kids in my classroom make new discoveries still gives me a rush.  That’s why I’m still a full-time, practicing teacher, actually.  The thought of giving up those moments is almost incomprehensible to me.  My choice has been to try to change the profession rather than to hang up my chalk and move on to something new.

What I’m wrestling with, though, is a very clear disconnect between the rhetoric and reality of life as a “teacher leader.”  For at least a decade—the better part of my career—educational experts have been churning out inspirational charges, encouraging schools, districts and states to empower classroom teachers.

Consider some of the following quotes as examples:

  • “A crying need exists for excellent, practicing teachers to advance—to lead—by taking a more formal and explicit role in the supervision and improvement of instruction.”  Mike Schmoker
  • “The leadership shortage may be dire, but the leadership development potential is great, if only schools and systems will tap into the potential of teacher leadership.  Even though 50,000 leaders will retire in the first few years that this book is in print, hundreds of thousands of teachers will be at the peak of their professional experience.”  Douglas Reeves
  • “When decision making is dispersed, when many minds are brought to bear on the knotty, recurring problems of the schoolhouse, better decisions get made about curriculum, professional development, faculty meetings, scheduling and discipline.  The better the quality of the decisions, the better the school.”  Roland Barth

And let’s not forget this quote from Redefining the Teacher as Leader, a 2001 report that literally changed the way that I think about my role as a classroom teacher:

“It is not too late for education’s policymakers to exploit a potentially splendid resource for leadership and reform that is now being squandered: the experience, ideas, and capacity to lead of the nation’s schoolteachers.”

I’d argue, though, that despite this drumbeat of support for teacher leadership, most practitioners are still struggling to have the kinds of influence that educational experts believe is essential to school reform.

Please understand that I don’t see any inherent malice in that reality at the local level.  It’s just that we work in large organizations operating under layers of restrictions passed by local, state and federal authorities.  Finding influence is never easy for those working at the bottom of bureaucracies, is it?

It’s also difficult to define “accomplishment” in our profession.  How can we truly be sure that we’re empowering the right teachers when outcomes are as murky as they are in education?  Worse yet, educators have a long history of refusing to accept accountability for our work, so teachers suddenly asking for opportunities to lead has to seem slightly ridiculous to those who are holding on to power.

And I’ve got to believe that it’s hard to imagine creative ways for teachers to lead in an accountability culture that depends on nothing more than warm bodies to walk students through pre-determined pacing guides before testing season begins.  Teacher leadership is slightly pointless when the outcomes that we’re expecting schools to produce can be churned out by nothing more than rigid implementation of scripted curricula.

Whatever the reason, I believe that the Institute for Educational Leadership got it right when they wrote:

The infinite potential the nation’s teachers possess for sharing their hard-earned knowledge and wisdom with players in education’s decision-making circles—or even for becoming part of these circles—remains largely unexploited. There are a growing number of glittering exceptions, but they do not add up to much in American public education’s universe of 46-plus million students, 15,000-odd school districts, and 100,000-plus schools. If they constitute a trend toward recognizing the teacher as leader, it is surely a slowly developing one.

And that’s what drives me nuts

Even with focused attention centered on the need to involve and empower teachers in the decision-making process, I still find my work restricted on a pretty regular basis.   The best shot that we have at truly being influential is to “catch more flies with honey,” to “feed admins…a consistent flow of good news about a successful student(s) so they come to expect it from you” and to “work harder at building relationships rather than burning bridges“—-advice given by readers and friends in response to my recent writings.  

That doesn’t mean I’m ready to quit the classroom.  What it does mean is that I’m coming to a point of acceptance—with no value judgments attached—that the role of the classroom teacher is unlikely to change much during the 14 years that I have left before I retire.

And for me, that means making a decision: Either I’ve got to find satisfaction in the role that I’m filling or find a new role. The kinds of significant changes that I want are just not going to happen.

The advantages of staying where I am: I get to continue working with kids and to hold on to the credibility that comes along with being a practitioner.  The advantages of leaving: I might just wind up in a position where I have a bit of the organizational juice that I write about wanting.

I should just make a decision and live with it.

Does any of this make sense?

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