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The Teacher Leadership Mambo

Had an energizing weekend, in a sunny Western state, working with a group of educators who want to find ways to share the realities and challenges of teaching with the larger world. They're fine-tuning their blog game, looking for ways to use social media and networking, thinking about core messages and sifting through the education policy discourse--sorting hard truth from harmful fallacy.

It's the holy grail of teacher leadership: We will accept full responsibility for educating our students well, but listen to what we say. Honor what experience has taught us. We won't make excuses or whine--but let us give you a candid window into the what, who and why of public education in 2010. You can't know how to "fix" schools when you drive past them, on your way to your real life. You can't know what kids need, until you know the kids.

I sat next to a warm and dynamic teacher at lunch, and she told me this story:

She taught for 16 years in one of the poorest schools in an enormous urban system. Their scores were perennially low, but the teachers were a caring bunch--and dedicated to doing right for the kids. She challenged herself--earning National Board Certification, taking on leadership roles--and then she did the absolute hardest thing for teachers to do: she challenged her colleagues to improve their practice.

Because the staff knew her work ethic and trusted her, they bought into her plan: a year's worth of rigorous professional development, all voluntary. It was a time of collaboration, energy and high hopes. A major university and statewide organizations signed on--and the idea that teachers in a low-performing school might control their own productive professional growth got some positive media exposure.

And then--there was the predictable backlash. Who were these teachers, stepping out to choose their own learning path? What made them so special? And who told them they could make the choice to investigate and fine-tune their own work? Who validated their impulse to be better teachers, to lead?

The story was convoluted and complicated--lots of hierarchical finger-pointing and ego-driven recrimination--but eventually, she had to leave the school and the colleagues she loved. She was quickly hired in a school a couple of socio-economic notches above her first workplace--a district with considerably better testing data. Asked what she misses most about her old school, she mentions stepping into the parents' lounge and hearing a group of moms speaking Spanish.

But there are always new things to learn, new ways to lead. What was the most significant revelation, in moving to a new school?

Well, she said--thinking for a moment--I always believed there was little genuine correlation between the quality of the teacher and student achievement data. In my old school, I saw excellent teachers work very hard to get small bumps in the numbers. In my new school, I have first-hand evidence--in the opposite direction-- that my theory is true. And then she smiled.

And left me thinking about what Albert Einstein said: The led must not be compelled; they must be able to choose their own leader.

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