‘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.

When Teachers Write about Their Practice

My fellow edu-blogger, Peter Greene, just put up another great blog. This happens with some regularity, and if you’re not reading his stuff, you should be. Not just the ready-for-primetime Forbes pieces, but his more free-wheeling personal blog.

Greene writes, with a certain edge, about a variety of education topics, and he has receipts for his opinions. When I read his words, I am right back at C lunch, listening to the veteran teachers I worked with grumble and snicker about the people who were trying to ‘fix’ schools. And didn’t have a clue about how schools worked, or what happened in real classrooms.

How could you know that every class is a balancing act—attention, content, challenge—whether your students are six or sixteen, unless you’d spent considerable time in front of a classroom? And did so recently—not 40 years ago, when we didn’t expect kindergarteners to read and everyone to take Algebra II?

As we wrestle with ‘To Mask or Not to Mask’ and just what Critical Race Theory actually is and isn’t, we need to hear lots more from experienced teachers.  Greene’s aforementioned blog, titled How I Taught Controversial Texts, is precisely what persuadable parents should read right now.

Persuadable parents are those who genuinely care more about the education their children are getting than scoring political points, or throwing their weight around. They’re curious; they want the best for their children. They may be liberal or conservative, Republican or Democrat—but they’re mostly wondering ‘What kinds of things might our kids talk about in class? What will they learn?’

Well, Peter Greene tells you. In doing so, he condenses decades worth of teacher wisdom into a few pithy paragraphs, around ideas like this:

Teachers often say that students are welcome to their own opinions in the classroom, but students will wait to see if you mean it, or if this is a class where you get points for agreeing with the teacher. So you have to show them. Once students believe that they really don’t have to agree with you, all sorts of good stuff can happen.

Offer perspectives, but let them wrangle. Let them have the argument in their own voices.

 Students are where they are. Despite all the panic over teacher indoctrination, the fact is that you will rarely budge the needle on the beliefs that they bring from home.

Don’t get out the controversial stuff before you’ve built an environment of trust, respect, and safety.

There’s more—read it here—but Greene sounded like every good teacher I ever worked with: a person with a deep understanding of their students and a strong sense of the content and activities that would push those kids to think deeply and express themselves clearly.

Of course, my teaching career in a small town in Michigan and Peter Greene’s career in a small town in Pennsylvania overlapped considerably—and we both spent a long time teaching in one place, where families learn to trust teachers.

Teaching has changed radically in the immediate past, mostly due to terrible policy-making at multiple levels, policies that have chipped away at teachers’ professional work and judgment. The pandemic explains only some of those bad decisions.

It’s time we started listening to the unfiltered voices of teachers.

I spent several years reading 12-page portfolio entries, coaching for teachers seeking National Board Certification. I was always amazed at the differing ways teachers wrote about their practice.

It was an honor to tap into their thinking (and watch videos of their lessons). For some, explaining their choices and results seemed to come naturally, something they did every day. They could explicate and justify their learning goals, and included language like Peter Greene used: Trust. Respect. Safety. Let them have the argument in their own voices.

The National Board’s word for this kind of practice is reflection. But teaching public school in 2021 doesn’t leave much time for introspection, planning learning goals and checking for results. Having your state legislature pile on doesn’t lead to better teaching or learning, either.

We seem to be at a kind of awful tipping point: Who’s in charge of teachers’ lessons?

Writing about what it’s like to be in the classroom now may be the only way well-meaning parents get some insight into ordinary life in schools–the constant effort to turn students of all ages into engaged and curious citizens, good neighbors and conscientious workers. Especially difficult now, when their young lives have been seriously impacted by an uncontrolled virus.

Keep sharing your perspectives, teachers. We need to hear from you.