When You're a Teacher Leader, Waiting for That First Follower
By Sarah Brown Wessling
By now, many of us have probably seen Derek Siver's fantastic TEDTalk on leadership, celebrating the importance of the "first follower" in generating a movement. It speaks to me on so many levels, and I share it as often as I can. Yet, for all of love I give his cogent observation about leadership, there's one thing it doesn't address: just how arduous waiting for that first follower can be.
If I had a nickel for every teacher leader who has told me a version of this story...
I met "Rachel" many years ago when she was a young classroom teacher. Even then, her dedication to the profession and her commitment to developing a deliberate pedagogy was clear. Students loved her. Parents appreciated her. Colleagues respected her. Her attention to getting better in the classroom was matched by her commitment to service outside of it. She challenged herself and took on leadership positions within her school. Then her district started talking about teacher leadership, instructional coaching, hybrid positions. The timing seemed right. She would leave her classroom and take that same energy to working alongside teachers in a teacher leadership role.
With energy and excitement she plunged into the work. But, soon, it became painfully clear that those same colleagues who had offered so much respect and interest in her work before, now were skeptical of her intentions. They became hesitant to open their doors, reticent to ask questions or talk honestly. Some even outright deterred her. In short, Rachel was a teacher leader, isolated and in wait for a first follower.
As many of our systems work to make space for elevating the profession by calling on the wisdom and expertise of our best practicing teachers, they must simultaneously flatten hierarchies within that system to create a culture wherein teacher leaders aren't separate from their colleagues, but in balance with them. For all the language of mindsets and culture we may wrap around this goal, getting there requires geology: time and careful pressure for change. If you are a teacher leader who finds yourself working furiously, but still waiting for that first follower to make you feel not so alone, here are some dollops of wisdom I've collected from others like you.
Be patient. It goes without saying, I know. But patience can be some of the toughest work, especially when you're already missing the rhythm of a classroom and are seeking to replace it with this new one. Patience requires presence and while you are and others are growing into this leadership role, use the time to read voraciously and learn all you can about those pockets of pedagogy that may not have been part of your classroom experience. Be the engaged learner you want to see in others. This said, you don't have to be an expert, you have to be real.
Be vulnerable. Being real means being vulnerable and being vulnerable means living a beginner's mindset. It means you're not looking for answers, but trying to ask the right questions. It means you're not pressuring yourself to devise a vision for learning, but collecting one from the best of what you know and observe. It means you are looking for possibility in the most unlikely places and throwing out ten bad ideas to make space for the seed of one good one. It means you make mistakes and publicly learn from them. It means whatever you hope teachers will start doing, you go first.
Be empathetic and resist judgment. With all of this vulnerability you're bound to be spreading, it can stir up back-handed compliments or even outright snarky ones. These are the moments to be most empathetic and least judgmental. Remember that all anger comes from fear and as you suspend judgement when it's taking f-o-r-e-v-e-r for momentum to emerge, you must seek to understand others' fear. Look past the complaints or hesitancy and reach for the real reasons. Nurture those.
Be a teacher first. Never take the teacher out of the leader. Ever. You are a leader because you are an accomplished teacher. Remember, you still have learners who need opportunity and need time to construct their own understanding. Your best skills in the classroom are your best skills now: use them. Respond, question, celebrate, revise, construct, laugh, individualize, design, let go, follow-through. As my mentor Jon Quam always says, "Figure out what they need to learn and how you need to teach it."
Then be watchful for the first follower, who may emerge from the most unlikely source. And dance like crazy!
Sarah Brown Wessling is a high school English teacher in Johnston, Iowa. She is the 2010 National Teacher of the Year and a member of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year.