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Take Me to Your Leader

Recently, Teach for America's Corps Member in Chief, Wendy Kopp, threw out a question in a keynote speech to the Commonwealth Club of California, in Silicon Valley:

What's the single greatest constraint to systemic school reform?

The first answer she got back: Money. No, Kopp said, firmly. There's plenty of money, plenty of people eager to invest. Then what's missing? Talent and leadership.

Kathryn Baron, reporting on this exchange, notes dryly that while money isn't the answer to all our education problems, many people would would be happy to try to solve them with some money.

Baron notes that surely Kopp realizes this, what with their $100 million endowment from the Broad foundation which has allowed TFA to build all the infrastructure it desires, and create a "special sauce" of targeted professional support for corps members--just as the moment when public school budgets are being bludgeoned.

Kopp persists in her line of thinking however, describing TFA alumni as "transformational" leaders, who will leverage their exceedingly short classroom careers into leadership roles in education, policy and media, reshaping the entire educational system. It's not just a few thousand TFA teachers in the classroom--a drop in the teaching bucket. It's a pool of dynamic leaders (who haven't actually done much work in the field)!

I know and have worked with enough TFA teachers to believe that the overwhelming majority of them go into the project with the best motivations. They're sincere, they're bright and they're usually quick studies. They are also clearly young people whose life experiences have included lots of success and affirmation--their very acceptance into Teach for America, beating out four, five (or, now, ten) talented competitors for a position gives them a certain faith in their own knowledge and perceptions. They speak as members of an exclusive leadership club with restricted membership, knowing their thoughts have automatic validity. Mentioning their TFA status in national blogs and gatherings gives their ideas credibility and cachet.

I am part of another marvelous group of honored, exemplary teachers--the Network of Michigan Educators--who design and host an annual conference on educational leadership in Michigan. Attendees are State Teachers of the Year, Presidential Math and Science awardees, National Board Certified Teachers, Milken Award winners, Disney teachers and more. Every year, we invite Michigan colleges and universities with teacher preparation programs to send their most outstanding student teachers to the conference. I have the privilege of creating a short workshop on leadership for these novice teachers.

The student teachers are an amazing group--whip-smart and self-confident, unafraid to stand and deliver in a room full of famous veteran teachers. Every one of them is a winner. What distinguishes these new teachers from those identified as transformational leaders by Wendy Kopp? For starters, their primary concern was actually getting a teaching job--soon. The student teachers' focus at the conference was on building relationships with award-winning veteran teachers, who could serve as valuable pipelines for support and ideas about an effective practice.

All of them were committed to becoming fabulous practitioners, launching long-term careers in education, becoming members of school-based work teams. I doubt if they would have had any opinions on Michelle Rhee or redefining the reform discourse. They simply--but passionately--wanted to teach. In a session on teacher preparation with State Board of Education members, they were clear that even five years was not enough coursework and field experience to make them fully prepared. They knew that it would take years of trial, error and reflection to make them masters--but they were absolutely burning to get started.

What's the takeaway here? Teach for America corps members assume they already have a seat at the table, a genuine voice in policy creation. The student teachers in Michigan were just trying to get hired. Leadership was something they would need to earn, along the way.

The contrast in their expectations could not be more different.

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