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Thinking About Teacher Leadership

Note: This week and next RHSU is featuring guest bloggers from the National Network of State Teachers of the Year. For more on NNSTOY, check them out here. Today's post is from Barbara J. Hopkins. Barbara was Nebraska teacher of the year in 1988.

I loved teaching and never saw myself in any other role. However, as life evolved, and mentors guided me, it led me to paths I had never imagined. I had unique and wonderful opportunities that were extremely entrepreneurial as education leadership positions go. And all too rare.

Jim Clifton, Gallup's current CEO, was my boss while I was at the University of Nebraska. I watched his work, and learned as he asked open-ended questions, listened intently and earnestly, and learned. I've used that method and made sure to take the time to think, particularly about teacher leadership and what it means to public education and students.

Strengths Help Us Soar

Strengths! Evaluations of teachers don't always focus on strengths, nor do schools. How will we best utilize our strengths to make a difference for students? How will we help our students soar?

Professionally, I learned to focus on my strengths as an educator and to partner for my non-strengths. I have greatly appreciated and become a better teacher and leader because of peer connections, either with peer assistance review, or peer coaching, or professional learning communities. Time spent in this way was much more productive, and authentic, than any evaluation that I ever received from an administrator. Do our contracts or school structures allow for this, and pay for time for educators to work together, so we can do a better job in teaching our students?

A Path to Teacher Leadership is Professional/Union Engagement

My superintendent of 18 years, Dr. Phil Schoo, was really remarkable. One of the things he knew from his own background is that educators who are strong in association/union work have additional great training, and can become great leaders. Instead of looking down on people who were active in the union/professional association, as some do and/or did, he actually sought them out and made them partners. Association activists were dedicated, knew the contract, knew how to be more collaborative, and were well-respected by peers.

Teacher Leaders Build Community Support

In my small, rural Nebraska town we had 32 students in my class. And that was a big class. After what I am sure was an economical act, multiple towns combined and consolidated their schools (for a class of about 50). In small communities, everyone knows the teacher, and understands that the viability of the community, and the future of students, depends on everyone working together to provide an excellent public education. Three points here:

Economics drives public education, due to the tax structure.

Teachers are the most trusted voice in communities in many ways. And we have to strengthen programs that aid in connecting those voices.

Teachers are community leaders--in running Boy or Girl Scout programs, teaching religious classes, coaching ball teams, teaching exercise classes, painting houses in the summer, and sometimes even serving as the mayor or on city council.

How can we expect the community to fund public education when we have no real pathway to integrate business, education, and community in most cities? We need to remember, and connect, in a more systematic way. We need to "teach" why community should be engaged, what they need to know, and how they can help.

Teacher Leaders Need Pathways and Pay

I frequently ask my colleagues from across the country if they have a part-time job. The resounding answer is yes: teaching summer school, teaching online college classes, clerking at local stores--the list goes on and on and on.

Certainly many teacher leaders are constantly learning, to move up salary schedules, be more marketable in education, or just to do a better a job! But what is their career path? I've not heard the answers as clearly. This greatly concerns me, as we fail to retain teachers. Who will be those wonderful veterans and leaders who led the way for me?

The National Network of State Teachers of the Year has done a study of career pathways of their membership, which provides some insight. But, overall, models of career pathways, and their prevalence, are sorely lacking. The system needs to change, or we all lose.

Teacher Leadership Takes Professional Time

Teacher leadership takes time. Time to develop curriculum and assessments, time to talk about students and their learning, time to learn, time to spend with peers in professional learning communities, and time to explore in order to make a difference for their students.

In public education we need to: 1) give teachers the time they need to utilize their strengths and partner with peers on non-strengths; 2) embrace teacher leadership in professional activism; 3) engage the community in an ongoing, strategic, and sustainable fashion; 4) create more career pathways and salary options for leadership in order to retain exceptional educators in public education; and 5) communicate clearly and succinctly the systems needed to provide time for teachers to lead, and make a difference.

Clearly, teacher leadership matters! Think about it!

--Barbara J. Hopkins

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