When I am most generous, I see earning the title of “teacher-leader” as the natural evolution of distinguished teaching, that teaching doesn’t stop with students but must carry over into that gray, awkward but also rewarding area of adults teaching adults. Here, Piaget’s developmental stages no longer exist. Each of us is our own entity: complex, scarred, motivated by powers sometimes unknown even to us. Here, we acknowledge our multitudes, assume best intentions, make compromises, aspire and thus, admit when someone possesses something we want to learn so we can keep evolving.
When I’m most cranky, on the other hand, I see the very title as another unfair stop-gap caused by cursory teacher-prep programs, ineffective professional development, and irresolute administrators — all the products of a harried, scattershot system.
I — molded by generosity and crankiness in equal part — do my best to hang tight in the banal but productive middle ground of pragmatism.
I would like to share what I consider one pragmatic method of approaching teacher-leadership. I call it “I don’t know what I’m doing.”
Recently, I was sporadically tasked with leading a group of teachers at my school. The exact purpose and outcomes were vague. I was a good teacher. So, you know, teach them.
Such a scenario — when the teacher is supposed to provide the vision — is treacherous.
How to do the job without sounding superior?
Without looking like administration’s pet?
Without being ignored?
Without looking slapdash, since you just “earned” this job with little warning, and why would someone as disorganized as you be teaching me?
Without bitterness, since the PD person–whose job this is–actually repels teachers?
These questions circled within me as the teachers entered my room, sat at the table, and waited.
With no more time to hem and haw, I grabbed a book off my shelf — Making Thinking Visible — and tossed it on the table.
“What do you all think about trying out some protocols, reflecting on how they work and, if they do work, discussing when to use them in our classrooms?”
That first day, we tried three protocols from the book. Some required texts. Spur of the moment, I brought up photos on the New York Times’ What’s Going On in this Picture? or quickly pulled out short texts from Jim Burke’s Uncharted Territory. Because I had no time to prepare and texts were selected haphazardly, the teachers assumed no ulterior motive, the poison of teacher relationships.
When the texts didn’t fully align with the protocols, we either talked through how the protocols could be adapted or just conceded: wrong text for this protocol. Even failure felt light. Because no one claimed expertise, there was no bitter joy in proving, see, it’s another thing that doesn’t work.
I didn’t arrive with answers, just the ideas of a third party. I claimed no expertise, just a willingness to facilitate.
We met several times and repeated this laissez-faire process with different protocols. At our last meeting, we finished the book and made our own If/Then charts synthesizing when and why we would use the protocols we found most helpful. I looked around out at a table of smiling teachers.
I’ve learned that doing what teachers are asked to do on the spot and collaboratively creates an authenticity lacking in a lot of professional development. We did it earnestly and dare I say, happily. Furthermore, many of us in the group have actually used what we learned in our classrooms. For me, this is the most concrete benchmark of success. Was it worth the angst, the effort?
When I’m my most generous, I say, yes. Kids will learn more and have a more inclusive experience, and that’s why I got in this profession. Plus, it ultimately felt good and brought us together.
When I’m cranky, I’m not sure. Frankly, I find it exhausting, inefficient, and more “middle-man” than leader.
But it also confirms what most of us teachers know and almost never experience in PD: direct instruction might be quick and dirty but it often doesn’t result in deep learning. Inquiry, practice, reflection, and collaboration — on repeat — do lead to deep learning.
In an environment of pedagogical egalitarianism, one pragmatic principle of teacher-leadership I offer you, is to profess, “I don’t know how this will work. Can we try it together and see?”
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