Schools in Iowa (and around the country) are facing challenges. That’s not new news to anyone who reads this blog. Legislators see education issues as a chance to play politics. The Governor and the Iowa House majority see public education as something that needs to be tamed. They see public schools as bloated and teachers as greedy and uninterested in student achievement. In order to demonstrate their control over public schools they withhold funding decisions until the last possible moment (in violation of Iowa law), they increase unfunded mandates (more expensive testing, retention etc.), and they do it all with little or no public debate or dialogue. As I said, we face challenges.
In the midst of these challenges we have also been given an opportunity. The single educational initiative that has come out of the Branstad administration is the Teacher Leadership and Compensation program (TLC). The program was always meant to supplement instruction and not supplant funding, but the funding of this program by year two had clearly supplanted some general school funding. Many Iowans have spent two pretty active years fighting the Governor and House majority on school funding issues and, quite frankly, have lost. As I said, we face challenges, yet we have an opportunity.
At the heart of the TLC program is the belief that by providing teachers with an opportunity to grow, refine, and share their expertise with peers that student learning will increase. Maybe most importantly an effective TLC program will provide an opportunity for more teachers to be at the decision making table when important instructional and systemic decisions are being made. During my 25 year career in education it would be impossible to count the number of times that I said, “If only I was in the room when that decision was being made…”. Like most organizations, schools have traditional been run from the top down. Decisions were made at the top and those of us at the bottom implemented what we were told.
While it is shameful that legislatively the TLC grants have supplanted other funds that are sorely needed in our schools, it is our current reality that the grant funds must go towards supporting teachers taking on leadership roles in their districts. We must see this as an opportunity. It is an opportunity to walk the walk. I am a teacher who has always said that the only people who know more about schools than teachers are the students. It is important for teachers to find ways to influence the important decisions that are being made in our schools. Yet, teachers are not able to make these decisions on their own. In order to be most effective, I believe that schools must move to a model of shared leadership. School administrators and teacher leaders must begin to operate in an organizational model that engages in conversations about current reality, looks at data to determine strengths and weaknesses, and create and implement action plans that respond to that data. It seems pretty simple, and yet it is challenging work.
I have the privilege of working on an eight person team that includes four administrators and four teachers. We have great respect for each other, we share a passion for learning, and we laugh together a lot. It is a great team, and yet we often find ourselves challenged by the evolving nature of school leadership. Even when we agree on a course of action there it is often difficult to clarify who initiates the actual action. When we disagree it is sometimes difficult to determine how to come to consensus and how we ultimate arrive at a decision. We have made it work pretty well, but if a group such as ours struggles with sharing leadership, I am certain that it is much harder in situations where there isn’t near as much trust or rapport. Dr. Bill Donahue says that “Real shared leadership will begin to take hold when there is a commitment to becoming a true community of leaders with mutual accountability, vision, goals, trust, blame, and rewards.” Most schools aren’t there yet. Sometimes shared leadership looks like this:
I have a lot of colleagues who are dubious about what the TLC grant looks like in their schools and districts. I understand that. Some good teachers are moving out of classrooms to help support their peers in new ways. I look at it from the lens of my previous role as a high school band director. I would do my best to help my students play their best. I used all of the tools in my toolkit to prepare them for success. When I thought they were doing really well I then brought in someone smarter than me to rehearse them. Brilliant teachers such as Bob Meunier, Steve Shanley, Bob Washut, and Paul Brizzi, among others, would come in and uncover all sorts of things that the band needed in order to improve. Allowing those people into my classroom to support the learning of me and my students was invaluable. We can all benefit by some coaching from master teachers.
Is a teacher leadership program a “silver bullet” that will solve all of our education challenges? Of course not. Do I believe that schools are better when teachers have an active role in making decisions that directly impact student learning? I absolutely do. We are going to have to prove that there is a measurable impact on student learning and well-being based on sharing leadership in our schools. That will take some time. It will take a willingness to be vulnerable to make mistakes. It will take some risk-taking. It will also be important that teacher leadership doesn’t just become another layer in the bureaucracy that education often is. We must also make sure that ALL teachers feel empowered to lead. Formalized teacher leadership won’t work if it comes off as “us” vs. “them” no matter who us and them is.
If we believe that schools are better when educators are making important decisions, then we owe it to ourselves to do the work of teacher leadership right.