This past weekend I was fortunate enough to be able to attend the Teach to Lead Summit in New Orleans. The summit was set up in a format to create a space for emerging teacher leaders to do the tough work that comes with creating a plan to move a vision forward. The challenges and ideas that teachers identified were as widely dispersed as the locations from which the teachers came.
I went with my tribe— a team of radical teachers called the Guerilla Teacher Academy. The plan that we went to work on was a culmination of ideas that we have been building and experimenting with for the 4 years since we have met— Empathy is Equity. The summit is something that we have been excited about and anticipating for weeks. We walked into the summit with fire in our bellies and a readiness to dig into the messy work of designing systems so that we can provide our students the quality education and more importantly the supportive and positive community that they deserve.
With the hope that I will inspire other emerging teacher leaders to step up to the plate and embark on their own leadership journey, I want to provide you some of the insights and take-aways that I gained during the summit.
The difficulty with many initiatives, whether they are to decrease poverty or to improve education, is that they fail to honor the truths of the communities that they set out to serve. Instead they offer a solution to a problem that is generalized and doesn’t speak to the real lives of those who have to live with it. Despite their well-meaning intentions, these types of initiatives fail to gain traction time and again because they fail to ask the question of community members: “What would you like to do for yourself?” This speaks to the reality of why teacher leadership is so important. Teachers are the people with the boots on the ground and their bodies in the trenches each day. There are few people that have a better idea of the pulse of the school community than teachers.
The very premise upon which our plan is built is to honor the truth of the community in which we exist. Every person in our community should have a voice and feel valued. The problem with most school initiatives is the fact that it comes from a sole administrator and and fails to ever ask for thoughts from the people who actually have to carry it out. If this question was ever asked, it would come as no surprise as to why the initiative has failed. The last thing that we want to create is another system that is forced onto teachers without first asking for their input. If we give teachers a voice and let them lead, the results can be extraordinary.
One of the sad truths of the teaching profession is the flood gate of teachers exiting the profession each year. Although it is true that some of the teachers who leave had no business teaching in the first place, the majority of these those leaving are people who have just lost hope in their ability to bring about the change that wanted to created when getting into the profession. Teaching is a difficult profession. We are constantly being asked to multitask in a way that would make the majority of people wish that they had sixteen arms and a ten heads. Compounding on the fact that teaching in itself is difficult, teachers are constantly being blamed for the failures that are largely out of their control.
I have been in two very different situations while teaching— a place where I have felt empowered and one in which I have felt powerless. In the latter, I found myself looking at the door and wondering if I would be able to find the exit fast enough. In order to retain teachers, we need to create spaces in which teachers are able to take the lead and create real solutions to the problems facing their students and the schools in which they serve. We need to work together to rebuild and revision the profession in a way that puts teachers in the driver’s seat to envisioning the way that education looks. When teachers are doing the steering, we find ways to ensure that are we are making space for other teachers to show up their brilliance and take charge. The plan that we are partnering to create envisions a school where all voices are valued and problems are solved through the collective.
For many years, the only people being referred to as leaders in schools were principals and other administration. The truth is: we can solve more problems as a collective then we can ever solve with only one person at the helm. No matter who is the symbolic leader of the school, we can do better when we empower teachers to become leaders alongside. At the end of the day, we can get more done when teachers feel as though they are a part of building systems and creating the solutions.
There needs to be space for many different types of leadership to support all of the different needs of a school. We all have our own area of expertise. Schools will do well by realizing this and allowing teacher leaders to shine while partnering to solve the many challenges arising each day. Leveraging the brilliance of the school-wide staff community can only work to move the organization as a whole in a positive direction.
One of the most forward, but truest things that I heard at the summit was: “Administrators are afraid of teachers.” Although I don’t think that what is meant by this is the sense of fear that one would have when staring down the edge of a cliff, there is a level of discomfort when teachers are bringing important school structures to light. As teachers who want to move a vision forward, the best thing that we can do is acknowledge this fact. We are operating on two sides of the same coin. Each of us ultimately wants provide the best education that we can for our students. However, when we go into a conversation with a potential administrative partner without acknowledge the fact that we are pushing on something that they had a large hand in crafting, then we will fail to move the conversation forward.
We must acknowledge the truths of the people who we desire to build partnerships with. We should not only go into a conversation with a goal, a vision and a rationale, but with the intent to build a partnership where compromise and collaboration are required. You don’t have to look too far to see what happens when people come in guns ablazin’ and an unwillingness to compromise. Just take a look at congress and you can see what happens when you point fingers, place blame, and are unwilling to compromise— nothing.
If you are an emerging teacher leader and are looking for a place to continue the difficult work that comes with building your vision, then gather your tribe and take a look at the upcoming Teach to Lead Summits. Our country needs to continue to empower teachers and teachers need to step up to the plate in an effort to redefine the profession. In our profession we face many challenges. Many times, teachers are the best people to step up to the plate and do the work to solve them.
A special thanks to the Sprout Fund for providing funding for our tribe to go to New Orleans and begin the difficult work of creating a plan that honors the values of the community in which we serve.