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Cage-Busting 21st Century Systems


Over the past several months, I have become quite friendly with the staff at the American Enterprise Institute and have been observing their excitement as they’ve approached the launch of Rick Hess’s new book Cage-Busting leadership.  I have also heard Rick present on the theme of this book – that to be successful, school administrators have to bust through various cages that the system places in their way.

Rick and I have had some brief conversations about the similar cages that successful teachers and teacher leaders have to break through in order to transform education and help students succeed.  These conversations sparked the Webinar that Rick is doing for us next week.  He is now looking into writing a book about cage-busting for teachers.

This, and several conversations recently around the incredible use that the Teacher Leader Model Standards (TLMS) (www.teacherleaderstandards.org) are receiving, both here and abroad, has me thinking a great deal about what it takes to truly succeed as a teacher leader and a teacher leader reformer in today’s schools.

In their 2007 article, Ten Roles for Teacher Leaders, http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/sept07/vol65/num01/Ten-Roles-for-Teacher-Leaders.aspx Joellen Killion and Cindy Harrison defined these potential TL roles:

  1. Resource provider
  2. Instructional specialist
  3. Curriculum specialist
  4. Classroom supporter
  5. Learning facilitator
  6. Mentor
  7. School leader
  8. Data coach
  9. Catalyst for change
  10. Learner

It is now five years later, and I think that I would add some additional roles like technology innovator, virtual coach (mentor), information coordinator, policy advocate, research leader, to name a few.

The seven domains of the TLMS are (hyperlinked so that you can go to them):

Domain I: Fostering a Collaborative Culture to Support Educator Development and Student Learning

Domain II: Accessing and Using Research to Improve Practice and Student Learning

Domain III: Promoting Professional Learning for Continuous Improvement

Domain IV: Facilitating Improvements in Instruction and Student Learning

Domain V: Promoting the Use of Assessments and Data for School and District Improvement

Domain VI: Improving Outreach and Collaboration with Families and Community

Domain VII: Advocating for Student Learning and the Profession

In today’s schools, if teacher leaders were to truly function as the standards outline, what would have to change?  What are our ‘mountains’ as Rick Hess calls them, what cages would we have to bust in order to succeed?   Here are a few of my thoughts.

We hear a great deal about 21st century learning, 21st century students, teaching for the 21st century, but we don’t hear much about 21st century education systems.  Some of the mountains that we would have to eradicate from our systems, in my view, include:

  • Physical space:  even if we could get a district to agree to combining students and teachers into an Art Wise or Molly Lasagna type model, with multiple teachers and many more students in one ‘classroom’ our buildings could not accommodate that structure.  Our classrooms were built for 20-30 students and one teacher.
  • Time:  to me, this is one of our biggest mountains.  Until we let go of a school schedule that is driven by the bus schedule, we will have severe limitations on the degree to which we can develop collaborative communities, let alone collaborative practice.
  • School calendar:  why are we still tied to a 180 plus day calendar that leaves a two and a half month gap in the middle?  Agricultural needs from the turn of the century?  Need for shore communities to have a teenage labor force in the summer?  Let’s put student learning ahead of tradition.
  • Building-based learning:  why does all learning have to take place in school, in order to ‘count’?  States like New Hampshire are showing us that it does not.   Music students can use private lessons as time towards graduation, for example. And service learning counts.
  • Antiquated technology infrastructure:  in so many of our schools, the technology infrastructures cannot handle a truly innovative use of technology for instruction; there are ways around this, but we need to get serious about replacing and upgrading these systems.
  • Different strokes for different states:  each state has its own requirements for licensing and certifying educators; this creates issues when schools try to share resources across state lines, for example, in virtual teaching environments.
  • Valuing innovation:  too often, the culture of schools tells us to stay in our rooms, close our doors, and don’t be different!  Innovation is not accepted readily; how many of our STOYs have experienced this after their Year of Recognition?
  • Policy input:  Ellen Behrstock Sherratt and colleagues have recently written a book, Everyone At the Table, focused on requiring that educators have a voice in policy making.  The STOY Class of 2007 has put the same concept into Federal legislation with the Teachers at the Table Act, now tied to ESEA.  How do we make this the norm and not the exception?
  • Public perception:  elevating the profession in the eyes of the general public is critical; until teachers are perceived as professionals, they won’t be treated as such
  • Compensation:  we are simple not competitive, and therefore, cannot increase our pipeline
  • Lack of career advancement and distributed leadership models:  if it takes ten years to build expertise, and we are losing 40 percent of our workforce before that, we have a serious problem.  And, if there are no actual structures in our systems to allow for leadership opportunities other than top/down models, we are in more trouble.  Teachers who leave tell us that this is a huge factor.
  • Teacher OR researcher:  why?  Teacher-researcher.  Look at Finland.

These are just a few of the mountains that I see when I view the education landscape; and until we find ways to navigate them, we will have difficulty implementing viable teacher leader models.  What mountains do you see?  How you propose we navigate them?

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