Teachers as Leaders

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.

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11 Responses to Teachers as Leaders

  1. Karen Szymusiak says:

    Thanks for the ed leadership guest blog series. Great thinking from great people.

    Mary Beth,
    Thanks for the inspiration.

  2. Mary Beth,
    I love all the ideas you present and particularly the first one about allowing teachers time to pursue their interests that will fuel their teaching. I spend mindless, checked out hours in staff meetings not relevant to me while I doodle and outline ideas for my own professional growth. Thanks for also encouraging teachers to not “stay quiet”. It can be lonely to lead, but its what we need to grow in our profession. Many great ideas here!

    • Mary Beth Hertz says:

      It is sad how much time I have frittered away in professional development that has not helped me grow at all as a professional.

      You are so right that it can be lonely to lead, but someone has to get the fire started!

  3. It only takes removing a few cogs from the machine before it won’t work anymore. Good for you and your colleagues for starting some rattling in the machine, Mary Beth!

  4. Ann says:

    Great advice MaryBeth! Teachers can be very powerful when they take on leadership roles. I too have experienced this in my school and with the edcampPhilly Team. You are an inspiration to all of us.

    • Mary Beth Hertz says:

      Thanks, Ann. You have been an inspiration to me as well during or edcamp planning period!

  5. Jo Hawke says:

    I really need to make time to be involved in these discussions. I too often find myself in the “cog” state of mind you describe, Mary Beth: a bit boggled at the thought of effecting change at any level above my own classroom. This is not the kind of teacher I want to be, nor is it the kind example I want to set for my students.

    • Mary Beth Hertz says:


      If you have built a network of colleagues outside of your classroom, then you are off to a start! Bring that dialogue into your school. Maybe you can pull some colleagues into your network and lead them to a PLN of their own!

  6. I really appreciate your perspective, because I know how passionate you are about education, learning, and the best interests of students. I have seen teachers like you in several districts I’m familiar with who take initiative and run with things that are good for kids.

    Unfortunately I also know two other groups of teachers, and while they are thankfully in the minority, they can infect a staff with negative attitudes. The first group are the teachers whose focus is on their own best interests. These are the teachers to whom the skeptical public points any time test scores don’t skyrocket or taxes do. The second group are those who believe they know what’s best for students, but base their actions on assumption, supposition, guesswork, and instinct. How do those groups fit into your scheme? How do we deal with people who fundamentally disagree with each other about the best way to meet students’ needs (or even worse, disagree about whether we should even care about them). What if the passionate beliefs of different people in the system are mutually exclusive?

    I’ve noticed a theme cropping up in my personal sphere of awareness in the last few days: the contrast between inspiration and legislation, between encouragement and enforcement. Lee Kolbert wrote about this just yesterday. I commented that I felt we too often take the easy way out, and I think that applies here as well. It is much easier (at least in the short run) for an administrator to simply lay down an edict than it is to develop the relationships and leadership skills needed to build a consensus and gain trust.

    But I’m also learning that the perspective changes when you’re in a leadership position. You see and understand things differently than you can from the classroom. It’s not better, just different. For me, I’m often finding that things that seemed “obvious” and straightforward when I was a teacher are more subtle and more complex than I was able to recognize. The pressure to perform and to generate results increases proportionally (and possibly exponentially) with an increased title, and the farther you are away from the students, the more complicated it becomes to actually create those results.

    Ultimately, I disagree with you that the days of top-down management are coming to an end. Rather, I think it is the process and the intent that need to be rethought. I believe visionary, inspirational leaders are still essential in any organization, particularly one as complex as a school system. Without some kind of central leadership, we’re in danger of becoming aimless and unfocused.

    What we need, though, are leaders who choose the hard way: allowing and encouraging the autonomy that teachers need while influencing those same teachers to buy into the vision and act in the best interests of that vision and will choose to move as an organization rather than as individuals.

    I’m reminded of Princess Leia’s comment to Grand Moff Tarkin in Star Wars: “The more you tighten your grip, Tarkin, the more star systems will slip through your fingers.” As an administrator, I can choose to tighten my grip when teachers do things I believe aren’t in the best interests of kids. But that will only result in bitterness and antagonism. But I also think that teachers can choose to believe that administrators by definition are pawns of the Empire, or they can choose to give them a little credit. Just as I believe there are more teachers who are in it for the right reasons, I also believe that most administrators chose that path in order to lead and influence, not to wield power.

    We’re all on the same team. Maybe we should all start playing the game that way.

    • marybethhertz says:

      I knew I could count on you for a thoughtful and challenging comment! I’m a 100% sure that I am naive to many of the things that an administrator deals with on a daily basis that s/he must keep in mind when making decisions and running a school/district.

      There are a lot of negative teachers that I have come across in my time here in Philadelphia. In my experience, these teachers come in at 8:20am and leave at 3:09pm with the students. They won’t put in the effort unless they are forced to or coerced.

      I’ve also worked with teachers who truly believed that, no matter what they do, their students can’t learn. These teachers, too, are unlikely to take on a leadership role in the school without coercion. By coercion I mean overtime pay or other kinds of compensation.

      There are a few times when these negative teachers have stepped up to leadership roles. Sadly, this is usually as union members ‘fighting’ for their rights. As you described, for selfish reasons, not for the students.

      I don’t have a solution for these kinds of teachers, except that with strong leadership from administration that sees the talents in its staff that teachers with a positive outlook and innovative ideas will be nurtured as leaders in the school. Also, one would hope that those teachers who care strongly about their students would not let themselves be affected by the negativity.

      You may have noticed that I focused the post toward teachers, and did not make a lot of mention of admins except for the ‘top-down’ references. In a successful school, teachers are a team with administrators. Definitely, every school needs strong leadership, but it is more about HOW one leads. In my 7 years teaching here in Philadelphia I have even watched principals forced to enforce things that came from the top but had little or no application to their building or were poorly thought out and planned.

      I think that there are times when an administrator needs to make a smart decision for his or her students, which may involved tightening one’s grip. What I envision is a place where the flow of conversation is so open that it is less of a tightening grip and more of smart decision agreed on and understood by all parties involved.

      My last point is how admins’ hands are often tied when they try to weed out negativity or teachers in their building who don’t do what’s right for students. In the two schools I have worked at here in Philly I have seen these negative teachers gripe their way through the day, spreading their negativity to their students with the principal nearly powerless to, for lack of a better phrase, get rid of them. But that goes back to my politics post 🙂

      • See and that’s where I think we can all do a better job. Just as I believe all students can learn, I believe all teachers, negative or otherwise, can be taught to be effective. The struggle is in getting them to be willing to learn, to grow, and to put in the effort needed to get there.

        Children are a captive audience: they don’t have a choice to be in school. But that works both ways: we don’t have the choice to give up on them. The adults, however, can ultimately make their own choice not to grow. It is then up to both the teacher-leaders and the administrators to work together to either help turn them around, or help them find a new profession. I’m not sure I know how to do that yet.

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