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What It Takes for Teachers to Lead

Across the U.S., teachers and "reformers" have been engaged in a heated stand-off. Reformers push for accountability systems, charter schooling, and teacher evaluation as the path to school improvement. Teachers say what they really need is more support, autonomy, and professional regard, and frequently denounce such measures as a distraction, at best, or a personal attack, at worst.

One of the preoccupations of my forthcoming book, The Cage-Busting Teacher, is helping teachers lead us to a better place. After all, both sides have a point. Teachers are right that school improvement is ultimately about what happens between students and teachers in classrooms, and that means supporting instruction and empowering teachers. But reformers are right to fear that some teachers can't be trusted with that authority. Moreover, reformers and policymakers have a point when they note that school systems have done an uneven job of setting high expectations and holding professionals responsible.

We know the concerns of "reformers" and policymakers are legitimate, and not just an excuse to attack educators . . . because teachers say so. Nationally, teachers report that five percent of those teaching in their local schools deserve an "F" grade (and another eight percent deserve a "D"). As Peter Greene, veteran English teacher and former union president in Pennsylvania, has observed, "Teachers know full well that bad teachers exist, probably better than anyone; after all, your kid was in Mr. McNumbnutt's class for a year, but I've been working next door to him for ten."

If police excuse irresponsible colleagues, we lose trust in their judgment. Shattered trust undermines professional authority. If mediocre teachers gets a pass—even if their numbers are small and even if the blame really lies with district officials rather than teachers—it can undermine the profession as a whole. The path towards empowerment starts by addressing those weak links with tools like evaluation and accountability.

But it only starts there. Teachers are right to note that the school improvement agenda has often felt top-down and punitive, and that too many reformers seem to imply that firing teachers is the path to excellence. Embracing the principle of accountability gives teachers the credibility they need to lead from inside the classroom.

Now, embracing the principle of accountability does not mean teachers are obliged to embrace any particular model or approach—much less to turn a blind eye to goofily constructed or not-ready-for-prime time evaluation systems. It does mean that teachers need to put forward their own workable alternatives, take the desire for accountability seriously, and engage with policymakers in good faith.

The credibility that teachers earn by doing this can offer a brighter path to teachers frustrated by the status quo. Jeff Hinton, retired Marine and 2014 Nevada teacher of the year, explains how frustrating things can be today for even terrific teachers. Hinton notes, "There are teachers who are passionate about teaching, love what they do, and want a bigger seat at the table, without necessarily going into administration . . . But we're so locked into old-line thinking that this never happens. In the military, it's different. There, you're used to people climbing ranks and the subdivision of labor. In schooling, teachers are trapped in our little cages."

Hinton says, "Teachers have very little influence over district reform. We're trapped in our little dungeons. We go in our classrooms and close our doors." Hinton is right. Teachers need to be heard more. And that's on policymakers and district leaders.

But teachers must also deserve to be heard. They need to insist upon excellence, understand how others see the problem, and offer practical solutions. Michelle Wheatfill, a fifth grade teacher at Walter Bracken STEAM Academy, in Clark County, Nevada, explains what it looks like when this works. She says, "In our school, when we go to our principal's office, we better have thought up some kind of solution and not just be going in to complain. I'll never go to my principal unless I have some idea of what we want fixed and a solution."

Her principal doesn't agree with every proposal, but Wheatfill raves about how respected and empowered she and her colleagues feel. It's no surprise that their school is one of the state's most highly regarded. 

Leaders need to listen and teachers need to show up with workable solutions. If policymakers do their part, school and district leaders do theirs, and teachers do theirs, we may see that the school reform "wars" have been as much a product of misunderstanding and mistrust as actual disagreement.  

A version of this piece previously ran in the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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