Perhaps no one embodies the spirit of Teacher Leader more than Mary Beth Hertz. A blogger and technology teacher from Philadelphia, her involvement as a moderator of the award winning #edchat each Tuesday on Twitter and a co-organizer of EdCamp Philly has made an impact on educators all over the world. So, when she agreed to provide a teacher’s perspective for this blog’s ed leadership guest blog series, I was incredibly thrilled. Thanks, Mary Beth.
As some readers of this blog may know, I am a moderator and weekly participant in the online Twitter hashtag conversation #edchat. Last week’s topic, “What Can Teachers Do to Have a Bigger Influence on Ed Reform?” really got me thinking about the roles teachers take on in their own schools and districts. Many times, teachers feel like a cog in the wheel without much opportunity or power to affect change.
The underlying theme of the #edchat dialogue was that teachers ARE leaders and NEED TO BE leaders in order for education to move forward into the 21st century. As Nancy Blair stated in her tweet that night: “To participate in ed reform, tchrs must embrace new roles & responsibilities, looking beyond their own classrooms” (the abbreviation is due to the 140 character limit on Twitter).
The days of top-down management are coming to end.
I just finished reading the inspirational book, Drive, by Daniel Pink in which he describes the movement in the corporate sector toward a less top-down approach to management with huge success. “Routine, not-so-interesting jobs require direction; nonroutine, more interesting work depends on self-direction,” says Pink. I think most teachers would agree that they hold ‘nonroutine, more interesting work’ than many who sit in a cubicle all day. Below is one of strongest arguments Pink makes for this shift:
“But today economic accomplishment, not to mention personal fulfillment, more often swings on a different hinge. It depends not on keeping our nature submerged but on allowing it to surface. It requires resisting the temptation to control people–and instead doing everything we can to reawaken their deep-seated sense of autonomy.”
He describes companies who give their employees time to work on projects of their choice. One of the most famous examples is Google, who gives their employees one day a week to work on a project of their choice. Some of their most innovative products and ideas have come from this ‘20% time.’
I was lucky enough, this year, to experience what happens when teachers come together with a common goal without prodding or direction from ‘the boss.’ A small group of teachers in my school, frustrated with the unruly climate in the school and hoping to create a school-wide incentive that was consistent and well-planned, came together to start a school store. I created a Google Group for us to use to communicate asynchronously, and, without extra pay or any kind of external ‘carrot,’ we collected items, ‘built’ the store on a cart and volunteered our time to take it from classroom to classroom on a weekly basis. Unfortunately, due to rigid scripted programs placed into our schedule, we had to change the model and now teachers must sign out the cart. Our original rotation schedule didn’t work and we were forced to stop taking the cart around as we had planned. No one gave us that 20% time that we needed.
However, the experience showed us how powerful we could be as a unified group. Since the initiative was not ‘top-down,’ there was buy-in by our colleagues. Since we were teachers ourselves, we designed the program to fit the needs of the teachers. It was also empowering to many of the group members to collaborate with each other on a project that was neither mandated nor prescribed by anyone ‘on high.’
I am also currently working as part of a team of teachers planning a free ‘unconference’ for educators, administrators and others involved in education. We met in November at BarCamp Philly, a free, open-format conference and decided to host our own with a focus on education. Edcamp Philly will occur in a few weeks and will be a platform for all of the attendees to learn from each other, teach each other, network and discuss ideas. It is free, there are no education credits offered for attending and we as organizers do not gain monetarily from hosting the event. There are, at this moment, 191 registrants. Proof once more that teachers do not need to be told to learn or told to collaborate. They don’t need to be coerced to become better teachers or perfect their craft. In fact, they can lead others to do the same.
So what are the applications of this for teachers and leadership?
Top down management in schools is counterproductive.
Give teachers time to work on projects, alone or collaboratively, to pursue their own goals and interests. The results will lead to happier teachers and better teaching. When we stifle this creativity, we miss out on the possibilities for innovative teaching and learning.
Teaching is a dynamic and creative science.
Good teaching does not come out of mandated curricula with rigid timelines, scripted programs and stifling of creativity.
Sometimes the most inspirational leader is your equal.
Who better understands your job, its challenges and delights than your colleagues?
Teachers need to stop thinking of themselves as ‘just teachers.’ They are educated professionals.
Too many teachers think that they need to leave the classroom or have a fancy title in order to be a leader.
Change takes time and preparation.
It is important to remember that these kinds of changes in mindset take time. Also, teacher leaders aren’t always born, they are often made. We must be teaching pre-service teachers how to work collaboratively and take on leadership roles in their own school. Once a group of leaders start an initiative, they must be patient and not try to take on too much at once. I myself am guilty of wanting immediate satisfaction, so this lesson was one of the most powerful ones for me. I began to realize over the course of the year that just the experience of working with my colleagues on a project of our own devising was exciting enough.
Don’t stay quiet. Share what you find, speak your mind and support other educators.
I find this to be my mantra. Some of my PLN members reminded me that not everyone is comfortable doing this due to job security issues. This in itself is a huge problem. Perhaps that is why so many of us have found solace in Twitter and blogging. We are allowed to speak our minds, share resources and support each other without fear.
I want to thank Tony for providing me the opportunity to contribute to this series. It is a great forum with a variety of perspectives, and I look forward to reading the whole series. I encourage teachers like myself to collaborate and discuss with your peers and to not shy away from taking on leadership roles in your school, no matter how small.