The Red-Flag Phrase of Teacher Leadership: 'Don't Worry. You're Already Doing This.'
By Sarah Brown Wessling
I've heard it countless times. I've used it in moments of desperation or uncertainty or even passivity. No doubt, you've heard them too. But it's time to let go of this oft called upon phrase, this unlikely nemesis of teacher leadership: "Don't worry. You're already doing this." I know why we say it. We say it because we've just stood in front of our colleagues after being asked to help "roll out" the new initiative. We say it because we look out at their faces and know how tired, how overloaded they already are and the idea of adding one more thing becomes just too much. We say it because sometimes teacher leaders are exhausted from diffusing toxic resistance from the adults in their schools. Believe me. I've stood in all of these shoes with the magic words of erasure on the tip of my tongue.
That's the invisible juggernaut. They seem magic, but invoking them means invoking their shadow consequences.
It means we're also saying this learning is about compliance. Which, of course, isn't learning at all. If we aren't to worry, then the accidental message may be that this new learning is about proving we're already doing this strategy, this technique in our classrooms and now we've just reduced a process of learning to the completion of a task. Instead, we could think about asking teachers to affirm their already-effective practices by recognizing how the new learning informs their proven successes. We could challenge them to see what happens when they re-frame the rhythm of their classrooms with this new learning.
It means we're also saying learning should feel comfortable. I tell my students all the time that if you're not feeling a little uncomfortable then you're not learning. The same premise applies to all of us: we have to struggle to learn. There should be a rub, a question, a moment of uncertainty that catalyzes re-thinking or change. If teachers are to be the lead learners in schools, they too, have to remember what it feels like to grow. Instead of trying to alleviate this natural feeling, perhaps we can confront it head-on. We can be vulnerable first and talk about our own struggles, our own mistakes, our own processes of encountering classroom insecurity that usually finds a comfortable hiding place in habit and routine.
It means we're also saying the real purpose of this work may be eluding us. And it's true. Maybe we can't quite wrap our heads around why this particular initiative or strategy or professional learning connects to the work already underway. It's also true that despite this realization, the choice to continue or abandon may not be ours to make. Then, with smiles on our faces, those too-tempting sugar words to "not worry" are actually solidifying the unsaid message that we should be really worried if we don't know why this work matters. Instead, we can be honest. We can ask our colleagues to help construct the most relevant purpose, and listen. We can read. We can research. We can connect. But we don't have to pretend to have answers that we don't.
When I think about teacher leadership, I never think about educators who are perfect or models. Rather, I think of those teachers who are willing to be open and not insular; the ones who expose the messiness of learning in any context for the benefit of others. And that's why this red-flag phrase is a special reminder that under the surface of this moniker awaits the kind of complex work that compels any teacher leader.
Sarah Brown Wessling is a high school English teacher at Johnston High School, in Johnston, Iowa. She is the 2010 National and Iowa State Teacher of the Year. She is also the co-author of a book titled, "Students in a Time of Core Standards: Grades 9-12."