Cairns #80 – Teachers as Leaders

Cairns #80 – End of the Long Nights – 2015

Alysia has become, officially, an ambassador for teacher-powered schools. She even gets to go to Washington next month, all expenses paid, to be on a panel at a conference. I was reading the webpage of the group sponsoring the conference. It contained a link that had a link to a blogger writing about teacher leaders. He opened with reference to remarks Arne Duncan, secretary of education, had made about how we need to change our current organizational model in which a master teacher, worthy of more influence and salary within public education, must leave the classroom and move up into the district hierarchy to gain that influence and salary. Secretary Duncan was saying we needed to develop ways that teachers could become leaders while remaining within the classroom.

This brought to mind an experience I once had in the early days of Chrysalis. I was giving our annual report to our sponsoring district board shortly after the governor had declared that all eighth graders would take algebra. I said somewhat self-righteously, flaunting the independence of charter schools, that we did not believe that all eighth graders were ready for algebra and we would not be teaching algebra to all of our eighth graders. The superintendent cut me off, saying this was not appropriate for a board report; that he thought that all eighth graders could succeed at algebra and that the district, with proper instruction at the earlier grades, would achieve this goal.

We continued not putting all of our eighth graders into algebra. A few years later we heard from the high schools of too many freshman ending up in remedial algebra classes and often failing it again and repeating it again because they had been pushed too fast in previous grades to get them ready for algebra and they had no secure foundation and the high schools couldn’t take the time to go all the way back to teach fractions.

Many years later, at a meeting, that same superintendent remarked to the group that the latest research showed that not all eighth graders were ready for algebra and should not be required to take it. He acknowledged that he had thought it was possible and they had attempted it and they had been wrong. (He turned to me when he said that which I thought was very gracious of him.)

That district had many good teachers and some of their very best had been promoted into the district hierarchy as curriculum specialists to inservice the other teachers in the district. I know that many teachers benefited from their knowledge. But they also went along with implementing the governor’s declaration that all eighth graders would take algebra. Surely they must have known it was not right but they had to go along because that is how the chain of command works. You assist passing the command from the top down to the teachers.

So when I read that Arne Duncan wanted a way to create ways for teachers to become leaders without having to leave the classroom, I have to ask the question: what do you mean by leader? Do you mean fitting into the hierarchy of command, helping pass down the “one model fits all” solutions originating from on high? Or do you mean leading the teachers to take more of the power of deciding what happens within their classrooms, to overrule top-down commands that cause harm, and be able to send corrective feedback back up a chain of command that is open and responsive to it?


Just learning how to play with all of this.

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