Teacher Leadership – Empowerment & Distraction

Teacher leadership is on my mind, as a powerful professional development path and a simultaneous potential distraction from the core driver of student learning. I am transitioning from 16 years of teaching and serving as a teacher leader for much of that time to a full-time teacher leader role with responsibility for curriculum development and instructional coaching, among other areas. The constant tension between various teacher leadership hats and full-time teaching is one I am certain many other teacher leaders have felt and negotiated, as well, between pride in adult leadership well-done and dedication to student learning. Such tensions stress us out; people start talking about work-life balance, managing stress. Is there a tipping point between empowering teacher leadership and distracting teachers from the daily business of learning? I think so.

At their core, schools exist to guide each member of their community, in the words of John Dewey, “to be fully and adequately what one is capable of becoming through association with others in all the offices of life,” whether adult or child (1985, p. 368). Teacher leadership in a distributive model offers an egalitarian model for schooling that can break authoritarian impulses deeply embedded in the traditional culture of education. “Egalitarianism implies a democratic workplace where employees participate in decision making” as “a matter of style and climate” (Bolman & Deal, 2008, p. 155). Investing in and empowering teachers to lead and make decisions may reflect down into the teaching and learning, as well, creating an impetus to welcoming student voice and choice into the classroom, for example.

Additionally, teachers teach daily. As such, teacher leadership might keep a school’s focus on learning more so than if all the decisions flow down from the office alone. The vision of high-quality, authentic learning for every child every day may be realized by empowering teachers who hold this aspiration at the heart of their practice to lead. Vision through action, if you will.

But what if the tipping point between empowering teacher leaders and distracting them (or just plain stressing them out) lies in vision and culture? What are the teacher leaders empowered to do? When teachers are empowered to pursue a passion and lead on it – say, mindfulness in schools, they can get pretty deep into the topic, become engrossed, and find a strong voice to share practices. Pursuing passions with single-mindedness is engrossing and fulfilling, and I feel very lucky to have made one of my passions my life’s work. The downside? Passion turns to frustration pretty quickly when their passion and new leadership work can’t find an avenue into application. Likewise, when teachers are empowered to lead on aspects of school life that aren’t teaching and learning, like a class dean with disciplinary responsibilities or a part-time athletic director, those responsibilities can start to take over and obscure the primacy of student learning. There are lots of reasons why, I think, from the personal to the professional, teacher leaders chase the leadership rabbit and lose sight of the core work, but a culture and vision relentlessly focused on student learning can mitigate the distraction.

Hopefully, teachers and administrators are familiar with the science on divided attention, but I love Dewey on this, too, who defines “single-mindedness” (in teaching method) as “Completeness of interest, unity of purpose,” which he equates with “mental integrity.” Single-mindedness is fostered by “Absorption, engrossment, full concern with subject matter for it’s own sake,” which sounds a lot like the flow states described in the Times article linked above (and here) about needing a little less balance in our lives (183). Heresy! More Dewey on this, because it’s so good (and suggestive of contemporaneous political/social battles, but…):

“Obvious is the loss of energy of thought immediately available when one is consciously trying (or seeming to try) to attend to one matter, while unconsciously one’s imagination is spontaneously going out to more congenial affairs. More subtle and more permanently crippling to efficiency of intellectual activity is a fostering of habitual self-deception, with the confused sense of reality which accompanies it. A double standard of reality, one for our own private and more or less concealed interests, and another for public and acknowledged concerns, hampers, in most of us, integrity and completeness of mental action.”(184)

That’s a pretty deep parsing of the mental effects of divided attention, and I see it as the battle of competing priorities for the teacher leader between what she must do and what she really wants to do. The task for the administrator is to keep the must and the want to laser focused on advancing student learning, always. Otherwise, the distributive leadership model forces teacher leaders into what Parker Palmer terms a “divided,” not authentic, life, assuming their reasons for teaching are learning focused. Yikes.

Philosophical, maybe, but also practical. School leaders need to be fully engaged in the goal of learning, authentically. As Shamir & Eilam claim, authentic leaders are “motivated by goals that represent their actual passions as well as their central values and beliefs” and “internal commitment” (2005, p. 398). Of course, the buses still need to run, but if the vision and culture are embodied by leaders and flow down to teacher leaders, there will be a clear reason why the buses need to run. As roles are developed or imagined for teacher leaders, the core purpose of improving student learning should drive decision making – mindfulness? What’s the relationship to learning? How does it fit? How will leadership support the teacher with money and minutes to lead on this initiative if it indeed supports student learning? If the answers to those questions aren’t clear, wait to empower the teacher to lead until the answers become clear.

Often, but not always, our most competent teachers get rewarded with ever more responsibility that isn’t teaching. Don’t let competence become a curse; stay focused on learning.

Unlinked Works Cited

Bolman, L., & Deal, T. (2008) Reframing Organizations: Artistry, Choice, and Leadership, 4th Edition. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 4th edition.

Dewey, J. (1985). Democracy and education, 1916. J. A. Boydston, & P. Baysinger (Eds.). Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.

Shamir, B., Eilam, G., (2005). “What’s your story?” A life-stories approach to authentic leadership development. The Leadership Quarterly, 16, 395-417

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