Teachers need to lead

Speak up, teachers! urges Nancy Flanagan on Teacher in a Strange Land.  And, if you’ve got the makings of a leader, don’t let the profession’s egalitarianism hold you back.

My friend Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach–a compelling speaker and insightful author–wrote this in a wonderful piece on “unselfish self-promotion: “We are taught that arrogance is associated with pride and that we should err on the side of humility. But is marketing our own ideas and work prideful if we really believe what we have to offer is useful, transformational, or helpful?

We need educators who will step up and say:  “My 20 years’ experience in the classroom–and the quality of my ideas and practice–make me an expert. Listen to me. I have confidence. I am a valuable resource.”

Women, especially, need to be more assertive, Flanagan writes.

Good teachers are not self-effacing. A timid, self-effacing person meeting 35 8th graders at 7:20 every morning is in trouble. So why aren’t accomplished teachers at the forefront of the discourse on their own issues?

When teachers do speak up, do they have the opportunity to lead? Are accomplished teachers held back by administrators, colleagues — or their own anxieties?

About Joanne


  1. They have a job description for teachers who want to become leaders: principal.

    Yes, yes, I know that’s not what she means, but that’s precisely the problem with her whole article. It’s not that weirdly, oddly, the teaching profession is without leaders. It’s that the teachers who do want to become leaders have an obvious path out.

    And then, of course, teachers with an entrepreneurial bent move into charter schools, another path out. Still others can get involved with unions.

    So she’s looking at teachers who have deliberately opted out of all those chances to hone their leadership skills and asking them why they aren’t leaders. Which makes her seem just a tad silly.

    What she should be doing, if she understood the situation better, is talking about this as a problem–that because the long-term teaching population is stripped of people who want to become leaders, and because the so-called “leaders” have agendas very different from those of teachers, the population has no one to lead them.

    But someone else will have to write that piece, I guess.

    • Supersub says:

      There is absolutely no promotion system that recognizes teacher’s skill or experience. Without that, people will write off a veteran teacher of 20+ years with a lifetime of experience or a younger visionary without a second thought if they disagree with them. It has little to do with opting out of those “chances” or a desire to be a leader… it has more to do with just being ignored by those in charge. You may as well give them a lance and a donkey and then tell them to go find a windmill.

      Cal suggested becoming an administrator or entering the union, and he was correct that those who enter those fields have different agendas from teachers… but it goes beyond that. Administration and union positions aren’t promotions, they are completely different careers. To enter either field, one has to go well beyond just honing their teaching skills. Administrators require graduate degrees and certifications beyond those of teachers, and union leaders need to be elected to their positions. How many other fields require individuals to go back to school or to win a popularity contest just to move up a single rung? Not many.

      • Michael E. Lopez says:

        Cal’s a she.

      • Supersub says:

        Forgot one big clause – Entering administration requires teachers to acquire their additional degrees and/or certifications in advance (often by years), and to earn them on their own time and to pay for them themselves.

        I can’t even think of another field that does not provide on-the-job certification or does not assist in earning required degrees.

        • Except nursing, law, medicine, pharmacy, veterinary, chiropractic, plumbing, carpentry, etc.

          ALL professionals/craftspersons pay their own way in getting certified/licensed, or in adding degrees and updating their credentials. ALL of them.

          This BS is so often stated by teachers. You don’t know what you’re talking about.

          • SuperSub says:

            Really? A lawyer needs to get another law degree to become an associate or partner in a law firm? A pharmacist needs to get another certification to be a supervising pharmacist? (They don’t)
            I know of plenty of craftsman, and while they need certification to move up, every one that I know has had their union provide the training. Ditto for nurses, I have seen two move up from CNAs to RNs on the dime of their employers… plus, they immediately became RNs once they got their certifications. Teachers don’t immediately become administrators when they get the certification… some never will despite having the paper.
            I am specifically talking about certification for career advancement, not initiation.

        • I have nurses and teachers in the family and some districts do pay for master’s degrees, even for college grads without any ed background or experience, in exchange for working in the system during the program and after. Some institutions will pay for nursing classes for assistants, but it is a recent phenomenon, because of the nursing shortage in many places. I have never heard of anyone paying a nurse for coursework to get a master’s, nurse anesthetist, nurse practitioner, nurse midwife etc. and a master’s is usually required for administrators at/above a certain level. However, that could be a master’s in health care administration, not a clinical or academic master’s in nursing and I haven’t heard that institutions are paying for either.

          • Genevieve says:

            I know of nurses that had their workplaces pay for Master’s in return for a commitment to stay at the workplace. Additionally, most hospitals pay for RNs to get their BSN.

          • Lightly Seasoned says:

            Oh, yeah. My sister has had everything reimbursed as a nurse. My husband, a manager, gets reimbursed for course work through his company, too, and it doesn’t really mean anything in terms of his job performance or possibilities. Tuition reimbursement is a fairly common benefit — I had it in the private sector, too.

  2. But all the positions you name – principal, charter school entrepreneur, union official – are all administrative positions and while it’s arguable that having skill in teaching would be useful in all those positions it’s hardly necessary.

    What Nancy Flanagan’s arguing for is the skill of teaching, and as I’ve argued, that skill is of little note and no consequence within the public education system.

    Flanagan actually does engage the question of why teaching skill doesn’t result in the sort of professional rewards associated with other professions even noting that in other professions being named as a top performer would be cause for pride and celebration but she either doesn’t have the insight, or more likely the courage, to confront the reason that doesn’t occur among teachers.

    Oh sure there are Teacher of the Year awards, contracted portentously to “TOY”, but they’re not seen as professionally valuable as evidenced by the observed discomfort of the award recipients. The discomfort’s understandable since the valuelessness of the awards underscores the value placed on the skill. No one wants to be reminded of how little what they may take pride in matters and no one wants to do the reminding.

    But that sort of consideration leads to nowhere good if you’re pulling a paycheck from the public education system. It leads to the inevitable conclusion that what you do isn’t valued by the organization that employs you and that situation is not going to change.

  3. Supersub says:

    What education needs is a two-tiered leadership system similar to the military, with experienced and skilled teachers serving in NCO-like roles. Any position that deals solely with the instructional side of school business should be easily available to teachers without much additional certification or education, all the way up to Asst. Superintendent for Instruction.

  4. You guys, I know all that. I said all that! What did you think I meant when I said that the so-called leadership paths have different agendas?

    Let me try again:

    1) The teachers who do have the leadership desire have several paths out. Thus, the teachers left are, by definition, teachers who don’t want to be leaders in the traditional sense. By failing to point this out, the article has a hole so huge it is useless.

    2) The real problem is, of course, that principals aren’t “leader/teachers” anymore, although you can find that all through the literature. Why else are principals always tasked with “building a team” and “helping teachers grow”? Because the original role of a principal was not administrator, but teacher. It’s not any more, of course. And that’s a problem–a problem that should have been the point of the article, rather than this rather useless bleat.

    Finally, we can’t really have leader teachers because of unions, at least not in schools. If all this woman wants is more teachers speaking up, that’s what the unions are supposed to be doing. So if they aren’t doing the job teachers want, then that is the problem.

    No matter how you look at it, her article is so far from acknowledging and dealing with reality, it’s just useless.

    • Supersub says:

      “The teachers who do have the leadership desire have several paths out. Thus, the teachers left are, by definition, teachers who don’t want to be leaders in the traditional sense.”

      My point was that many of those entering administration aren’t looking to be leaders…they just want a different job than teaching. I’ve also known many teachers that want to and have tried to lead, but get ignored.

    • Unions are a problem but they’re not the basis of the problem. Teachers were being treated like interchangeable gears in a machine before the advent of the modern NEA and that’s the source of the problem. When one teacher’s as good as another no individual is worth concerning yourself with.

      Need someone to cover history and the shop teacher’s got an opening in his schedule? No problemo. Physics needs some coverage and the home econ teacher’s available. Sure. What the heck.

      As long as that sort of thing is allowable the expertise of any individual is immaterial. So Teacher of the Year underscores the unimportance of teaching skill rather then crowning the gold medal winner.

  5. Lightly Seasoned says:

    I do lead — in my district. I chair my department, mentor staff, design curriculum, deliver professional development, do action research, etc. All on top of being a classroom teacher; I think that is plenty.

    Administration is a much different job. I like being involved with improving instruction, which admin rarely is. I think they would like to be, but their role has evolved away from it.

  6. A lot depends on what we mean by leaderwship. In the instructional realm, you could argue that the leaders are those who train and evaluate the next generation — i.e. the ed school faculty. That’s a problem in that there’s not much confidence out there either among teachers or the general public, that ed schools are adding much value. They certainly have failed, many times, to even demonstrate that they have a coherent plan for screening and educating candidates and are seen more as cash cows for institutions of higher education. With obvious exceptions, of course.

  7. Richard Aubrey says:

    If you mean leading, as a teacher, other teachers in improving their instructional performance, several things are necessary.
    One is to be able to say what you’re doing that is making a difference. It might be stature and posture improving classroom management. Such things are, afaik, sometimes viscerally received by others. Students, in this case. In the military, a broader definition is called “command presence” and some have it and some don’t. Now, as it happens, the smallest HS teacher I had was the hardest and had great classroom control. But she was not of the “no smile until Thanksgiving” view. She didn’t smile at all and anybody who found her on the schedule for next year was sick. Good teacher, though.
    Gonna teach this to your loosey-goosey colleagues?
    You need some kind of infrastructure where such leading can take place on a regular basis. Department meetings are probably too infrequent.
    You need potential followers, which is to say teachers not inordinately proprietary about their methods. Which also means teachers aware that they could use some improvement and that Miss Snootynose everybody thinks is so great is the source.
    Not a teacher, but related to lots of them. Not seeing it.