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Certification, Genuine Teacher Leadership, and Power Struggles

Nearly thirty years into my teaching career, I took a two-year leave of absence to work for a national education nonprofit. This was permitted under my teaching contract--as a "career" leave. Someone was hired to take my position as middle school band teacher. When I returned (which seemed to come as an unwelcome surprise to the district), instead of disrupting the new band teacher's career, I let Central Office know they could move me into another music position, although I was still the senior music teacher on staff and contractually able to reclaim my old job.

The district crafted a kind of Frankenstein position for me, composed of bits and pieces that nobody wanted to teach: two newly created sections of middle school choir, with 70+ students in each (which I was qualified to teach), a course called "Enrichment" where teachers rode herd over kids who hadn't turned in assignments (which, theoretically, anyone could teach), our first-ever English as a Second Language class (which nobody in the district was qualified to teach), and a section of 7th grade math (which I was not qualified to teach). All of these classes met in the auxiliary gymnasium, behind a curtain.

I grieved this placement--mostly on behalf of the 7th grade math students, who were entitled to a better teacher, and the ESL students who deserved someone who had a clue about second-language pedagogy. I lost the grievance. The Superintendent sent me a message: You have that fancy National Board Certification. You can teach anything.

Big story this week: Ann Marie Corgill, Alabama Teacher of the Year '14, and finalist for National Teacher of the Year, quit her job in disgust after being involuntarily moved to a grade level she wasn't qualified to teach, under Alabama certification rules, but met the parameters of her National Board Certification. The district Corgill moved to--in her personal effort to put the best teachers where they're needed most--jerked her around, then failed to pay her, then let her know she wasn't "qualified," for a job she loved and appeared to be doing very well.

What's interesting is the way casual readers have interpreted this story. Who's the villain here? Is it her new district? Is it the Alabama Department of Education for being nit-picky and having irrational rules? Is this just another story of how damaged public education has become, that demonstrably excellent teachers are leaving mid-year? And--what good is a National Certification program if not recognized by individual states?

Which raise still more questions: If a teacher is certified to teach elementary grades, how much of a stretch is it to move from one grade to the next? Is it a simple matter of extra effort on the part of a good teacher, to learn a new curriculum and adapt teaching methods for students at a different developmental level? Or is a leap from third grade to fifth grade something for which an entirely new certification is required? Are we looking for flexible generalists or developmentally specific specialists in our teacher workforce?

These questions were hot topics when NCLB's "highly qualified" teacher language was first rolled out. School leaders were quick to point out that while large suburban districts could hire a chemistry teacher, rural districts probably needed someone who could teach biology, earth science, and physics and chemistry in alternating years. A science generalist, who would be of great value for a long time, through changing demographics and curricular shifts.

This of course was back in the good old days, when LEAs believed in their own ability to discern what is/is not quality teaching, and how to best use the talent they hired. It took some time (and waivers plus hoop-jumping) to sort out just who was allowed to teach what under NCLB.

I don't believe, however, that this story has much to do with arcane rules around certification. Nor do I believe Ann Marie Corgill was anything less than an outstanding fifth grade teacher. This is a story about power and control--and visible teacher leadership.

When authentic, experienced teacher leaders step out of their boxes to speak about education issues, they always run the risk of stepping on the toes--or in the limelight--of someone above them in the pecking order.  Simply expressing a widely shared viewpoint (Right now, I feel as if I've never taught a day in my life and woke up in the wrong profession!) feels like insubordination to some school leaders. When teachers have a national platform and thousands of readers or fans--when their voice and leadership are elevated--they become a threat.

Don't believe it? See: Rafe Esquith--who inspired tens of thousands of teachers to teach as if their hair was on fire, and whose reputation is currently in tatters. Or Jaime Escalante, whose single-minded focus on success isolated him as "not a team player"--and caused an uptick in "faculty politics and petty jealousies" wherever he went.

It's hard to find much of Ann Marie Corgill's thinking online at the moment; some blog posts, articles and Corgill's Facebook page have quietly disappeared. I have great respect for her, as a fellow State Teacher of the Year, and know she will land on her feet--perhaps using the experience as a lens for how quickly we disenfranchise the voices of genuine teacher expertise. It's hard to keep a good teacher down.

And--my ugly-patchwork job, a punishment for having the temerity to step outside the district, lasted one year. I learned to love--and actually teach--constructivist math, and did my best for the ESL kids. (Did you know there are 36 letters in the Albanian alphabet?) I survived, and had some great days. But it was a lesson learned: Never think that your world-class professional performance will protect you, when someone in the hierarchy wants you gone.

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