The Time Is Ripe (Again) by Roland Barth

Making a School Into a Community of Leaders

(Originally titled “The Time Is Ripe (Again)”)

In this thoughtful article in Educational Leadership, leadership guru Roland Barth explains why teacher leadership hasn’t taken off:

First, principals want to be in control. “If I, as a principal, delegate or accept a teacher’s leadership of something and it goes badly,” says Barth, “…the superintendent isn’t going to call that teacher. He or she is going to call me.” 

Second, some teachers resent a colleague with special responsibilities. “Who the heck do you think you are?!”

Third, teachers’ plates are full. With increasing accountability for student achievement, most teachers can’t find time for schoolwide matters.

Fourth, teacher leadership can be seen as siding with the enemy. In many schools, there’s an us-versus-them dynamic.

Finally, the business model in schools doesn’t support teacher leadership. The usual message to line workers is, “Do your job.”

These headwinds notwithstanding, Barth believes teacher leadership can make progress because:

School leadership is too big a job for one person. “For a long time, people have realized that the principal alone can’t run something as complex and enormous as a school,” says Barth. “But now I think principals realize that.” As a school leader, Barth asked teachers every September what piece of the school they wanted to take responsibility for – the parent committee, PD, etc. “If all teachers are expected to be leaders,” he says, “no one is breaking the taboo about standing higher than the others because everyone is on the same higher level.” 

The Common Core is a golden opportunity for teacher leadership. It spells out what students should know, not how it should be taught. The road is wide open for teachers to shape the classroom details. 

New models of leadership are emerging. A number of schools are experimenting with new roles for teachers. Colleges and universities are a good model here – professors are involved in decisions about curriculum, graduation requirements, scheduling, hiring of colleagues and administrators, finance, and use of space. 

Barth believes that one key to teacher leadership is unlocking teachers’ secret passions. “Teachers tend to keep two sets of books,” he says. “One lists what they have to do to comply; the other lists what they believe is best for their students.” As principal, Barth got everyone involved in a weekly two-hour elective where they could teach something they really cared about, and the energy and enthusiasm filtered into the rest of the week.

Barth flinches when he hears, “I’m just a teacher.” All teachers are significant leaders of their students, he says. “The shift comes when you also take a piece of leading the school. There’s tremendous satisfaction that comes from making that jump, to being an owner rather than a renter here.” That’s when everyone’s learning curve – teachers, students, principals – gets a lot steeper. 

“The Time Is Ripe (Again)” by Roland Barth in Educational Leadership, October 2013 (Vol. 71, #2, p. 10-16), 

From the Marshall Memo #505


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