‘Self-Care’ vs. Sustainable Leadership

I once was on a panel at a Governors Summit on Education in Michigan. The topic was ‘teacher leadership.’ It was the usual format—each panelist gets a pre-determined number of minutes to pontificate (which they invariably overrun)—and then (theoretically) there is open discussion among the panelists, and questions from the audience. The line-up was: A state legislator, a representative from one of Michigan’s two teacher unions, and me.

I was the first speaker and started with the premise—copped from Roland Barth—that if all students can learn, then all teachers can lead. I fleshed that idea out, a bit—that practicing teachers need a voice at the policy-making table, that teachers’ control over their own professional work would enhance their practice and enthusiasm for teaching, as well as their efficacy. And so on.

Legislator was the second speaker and he strongly disagreed. He asserted that his role, over so-called teacher leadership, was oversight. Teachers are public employees who need to be kept on a tight rein; their work rigorously evaluated. If they want to lead, they can lead their second-graders out to the playground for recess (audience laughs). He and his colleagues were the rule-makers and goal setters, not teachers.

Then the union guy spoke. And he, too, felt that ‘all teachers can lead’ was a falsehood. Teachers had no business sticking their nose into policy. That was the union’s job. And it was an administrators’ job to lead a district or building—and suffer the consequences of failure. He knew plenty of teachers who were excellent classroom practitioners but didn’t have the skills, desire or moxie to lead. If they wanted to lead, they should run for a position in their union, or get administrative certification. Applause.

Because the Summit was on a weekday, the hundreds of people sitting in the ballroom were mostly legislators or their staffers, heavily from the Governor’s party, plus university and Department of Ed folks, and reporters. Not teachers.

Although I enjoyed a delicious, expensive banquet lunch afterward, I met nobody whose thinking was aligned with mine, re: organic teacher leadership.

Not a great experience. But telling.

Now, many years later, I still believe that experienced teachers want to lead, and are well-positioned to inform the conversation around education policy.

In fact, I think a lot of what happened to Democrats in Virginia—in a race they should have won handily—had to do with suppressing the threat of genuine teacher voices around what gets taught in real classrooms, maybe taking down public education in the process. Plus the utter disruption of a pandemic–and racism, of course.

Teachers are under siege. It’s not surprising that free-floating angst, generated by a highly disruptive pandemic, has been aimed at public schools. It happens cyclically—everything from rising pregnancy rates to chronic illiteracy in poverty-ridden neighborhoods is blamed on educators.

Because–you know what’s coming–everyone went to school and thinks they understand schooling. A pandemic that shuts the entire system down, however, is exponentially catastrophic, impacting everyone. Anger at public schools, even for made-up reasons, is inevitable. It’s the nearest target.

For the last century or so, teachers have been an increasingly female workforce, seriously underpaid and subject to increasingly rigid control from government and on-site leadership. Pretty much the model my co-panelists understood and defended: Some of us make the decisions, others do the work. And hey—enjoy your summers!

But it’s a relatively young and inexperienced teacher workforce now, and the frightening stories about teachers leaving, in droves, with nobody to replace them, ought to force the education community to ask themselves: What would keep the EXPERIENCED TEACHERS WE ALREADY HAVE (sorry) in the classroom for a couple more years, until we rebuild a leaky pipeline?

Well, it isn’t the ‘Wellbeing’ worksheet (see photo, below), which feels like one of those make-work reproducible masters teachers used to pull out on a sub day. Self-care dittos.

Here—fill this out. Feel better! Clearly, whoever designed this worksheet does not understand the relationship between drinking more water and the one three-minute window per day when peeing is possible.

Look, I understand that there’s no easy remedy for the conditions teachers are working under: Angry parents. Lies about the curriculum. Anti-vaxxer moms and virus daredevils. What could a school leader who really wanted to support her staff do?

Grow a backbone. Support public education. Here’s a list of 14 viable suggestions for doing that.

Hiring the best possible people, paying them fairly, giving them time to work collaboratively, honoring their expertise, and releasing their creativity? How does that sound as a recipe for school-based self-care?

What do teachers want? What all professionals want: Autonomy. Mastery. Purpose.

6 Comments

  1. I have begun to dread going to bed at night since my sleep is regularly interrupted by nightmares, usually involving children in distress at the hands of evildoers. It is a reaction, I believe, to the low-grade anxiety pervading all aspects of my waking hours. I even had a run-in with an out-of-control woman at the pool where I escape daily for an hour of meditative swimming. Zen destroyed.
    I work with teachers, exhausted teachers who are still miraculously doing graduate work here in the great state of Virginia. We do not discuss politics but we do discuss deep learning and how to achieve it, what psychological development the second graders might be lacking after being isolated at home since the final quarter of kindergarten, reflecting on how the school year is progressing, marrying the art of teaching with the science of what works, and how to deal with the pacing guide prescribed from above. The pressure of that pacing guide enters into every weekly conversation.
    Meanwhile, Joe Manchin just simply cannot find it in his heart to pass legislation that would support families and their children, and I turn from the news in disgust.
    Last night, I was short four teachers–two with migraines, another one ill, and one who left to tend ill and aging parents. It felt like the group had hit the wall. Besides being teachers, these employees are also mothers and daughters experiencing all the pressures those roles entail.
    I am not sure what is going to happen in education, but I fear we are all going to collectively run off a cliff like a panicked herd.
    And, of course, I agree with your view of teaching wholeheartedly. When I had the attention of the Assistant Super way back in 2004 I told her that money wasn’t the only thing that could keep teachers in the classroom. We could

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  2. That well being worksheet is an insult. It reminds a bit of behavior contracts that were in vogue when I was teaching. I’m trying to think of another profession that feels the need to infantilize their professional staff.

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    1. Hey, I’m in favor of all those things–getting enough sleep, eating well, taking breaks. But they’re not things you can mandate or manage remotely.

      I just read an article about a superintendent who, last minute, gave his staff a day off–a day that had been scheduled as a PD day. They didn’t have to come in (and were welcomed to do nothing except things that gave them pleasure and relaxation). But the building was open, if they wanted to spend uninterrupted time in their classrooms. For every administrator asking ‘but how will I fill the PD day with worthwhile activities?’ —there’s a suggestion.

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      1. “…they’re not things you can mandate or manage remotely. ”
        They’re not things that should be mandated. It’s not like we can’t figure out those things without “adult supervision.” I think I could fall in love with that superintendent who gave his staff a day off.

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