Calling a Teacher a Leader Is Not Enough

Calling a Teacher a Leader Is Not Enough

By Tom Rademacher

The following was delivered as a speech to the Minneapolis Teach to Lead Summit. Video of the speech is included below.

Let me tell you about the first time I almost got fired.

In my first year of teaching, I was doing one of those special and important extra duties we reserve for new teachers since their jobs aren’t hard enough yet. I was watching sixth grade lunch, and I was stressed. I had very recently been almost fired for talking about same-sex couples in my classroom. An elementary teacher in our district was being attacked for coming out to his students, articles were being written and my class read one of them and had a conversation about it. Some of my students decided to write a letter to the editor, and all the sudden I was being yelled at by anyone with an administrator license my school could find.

While I stood in the lunchroom, shaken, and mostly just waiting to be fired, looking out at a field of corn-dogs, chocolate milk, watching the girl tables trying not to look at the boy tables and watching the boy tables trying to resist putting french fries up their own noses, another teacher came up to me. This teacher, older and more experienced, knew exactly the look on my face, and didn’t need to ask anything before launching into advice.

“Close your door,” he said, looking out at the lunchroom with his arm around me, like Mufasa, like, One day, Simba, every ketchup packet these fluorescent lights touch will be yours.

“Close your door,” he said. “Close your door and teach. Don’t worry about the school, don’t worry about the world. Just teach.”

Kinda like…Screw the pride Simba. You do you.

I tried it for awhile. Part of what made it such bad advice was that it sounded like such good advice. Part of what made it such good advice is that it kinda worked.

Focusing on my classroom gave me the space to grow my skills and instincts as a teacher. The closer I got to comfortable, the more I was able to push the limits of what I thought I could do. The classroom is where I learned to innovate.

But, things just weren’t right in my school. Things just weren’t right in ways that I couldn’t touch from within my classroom. So, I started opening my door, because I needed to have impact beyond my walls.

It wasn’t always easy, but I found every place I could where people would listen. In the right places, people were hungry for it. Nothing compares and nothing can synthesize the work of teaching. Teachers have insight into what is working and what isn’t in a way that no one else does, and in a way almost no one making decisions about school has.

Innovation. Impact. Insight. These are our strengths and our goals as teacher leaders.

For me, that path started, as many good ideas do in Minnesota, with hotdish.

There were divisions, deep divisions among the staff members of my building. Those divisions were defined almost exclusively with age. There was a group of experienced teachers that the younger teachers called the “Crankies.” There was a group of younger teachers that the old teachers called “The Beautiful Things.”

The older teachers were upset, often rightly so, that the younger teachers were not respecting the work they had done to establish the school as it was, and that those younger teachers had the ear and support of administration in a way they didn’t.

The younger teachers were upset, often rightly so, that the older teachers would push against good ideas that weren’t their ideas, that after a decade of growth that created success in a building, they had become conservative in their approach, wary of anything new. Also, the younger teachers were upset at just how goddamn cranky the older teachers were almost all the time.

Both were right, both were wrong. Most importantly, the division was doing nothing but hurt our students.

At the end of one year, we lost a couple of really toxic people from each camp, and the time seemed right to do things better.

So, I invited many of our strongest and most respected voices on staff together, made some hotdish, and after two or three more bottles of wine than were professionally responsible, we had formed a sort of de-facto leadership team, with me as the de-facto leader.

The next couple of years were, on average, pretty great. The group worked to ease tensions on staff and to mediate larger disputes as they came up. The group lifted up new ideas in a cooperative way, and formed a productive relationship with building administration. I knew then what I have too often forgot since: Good leadership is disruptive. Good leadership keeps us from being comfortable with whatever worsts we’ve decided to live with.

So there were some years there of unofficial leadership. I was kinda one of the leads of a high school, though my school didn’t have that position. At one point, I had a principal tell me that I had more power to move my staff than anyone in the building, including him, which was nice, but I was still never really asked what I thought about stuff. I brought new things to staff meetings, but staff meetings were, as they often are, a place where good ideas go to die, picked apart by people both overworked and overly comfortable in what we have.

I was feeling the stress and the strength of unofficial leadership, so I took a job last year that was more official. I was to be a teacher coach and middle school lead. Monday mornings were spent in leadership meetings. As were tuesday afternoons, and also Wednesdays and Thursdays and, every other Friday, meeting all day with the other teacher leaders from other buildings all day.

When I was in a classroom, I always worried about what was happening in all those meetings the leadership was having all day. Now I know. They were sitting and worrying about what was happening in classrooms all day.

And for all for worrying and for all the planning, for all the google docs created and shared, we often did more that categorized or recorded or described practice than we did really change it. I was a teacher leader though, so even though that meant sitting quiet in a bunch of meetings, or saying things that no one was hearing, I was a teacher leader. My job title said so.

An example, then, of just how much leading I did last year:

There was a screw up somewhere high up, and a new piece of software that almost no one really cared about didn’t really work the way that it should. Someone somewhere was obviously upset, and likely someones somewhere were worried how it would make them look. So? Call in the teacher leaders.

On an every-other Friday when teacher leaders came together, we were told, as leaders, it’s your job to really sell your staff on this new what-have-you and be excited about it and, essentially, smooth that mess over. Thank you for your leadership, thank you for your professionalism in this. We were the mouth-pieces to smooth over the word from on high, but no one up there was really interested in what we had to say.

So that’s not leadership. Leadership is not middle-management. Leadership is not the excusing of mistakes or the perpetuating of bad ideas. Leadership is not one-way communication, and leadership is not perpetuating an existing system. Simply calling a teacher a leader isn’t enough.

Sometimes, it seems, we use the word “leader” as a way keep teachers from doing too much.

We use the word “professional” the same way. It means we should tame ourselves, it means to play within the lines, to stay within our lanes. Acting professional often means not trying too hard to really get anything done.

And so we have this model growing in front of us. I’ve talked to enough people to know that it is better in some places, but bad in too many. This model of a professional teacher leader, someone who has built the respect of their colleagues, someone, often, who has been awarded or is being rewarded for their talent and skill. They are being elevated in name, but not pay, and then are asked to follow more than lead. But they are called leaders, which is something we as teachers so rarely are, and so maybe we’re making progress, but we aren’t doing enough, not nearly enough yet. We have so much room to grow what it means to be teacher leaders.

I failed last year at being a teacher leader. Failed at innovation, at impact, and, oh man, did I fail at really providing insight.

The insight one was the one that almost killed me.

As a leader, and as someone who truly struggles to keep my mouth shut, I found myself playing a role where I lent my name or my body in a room as proof of teacher input without really being asked what I think, I found myself pushing and pushing race onto the table only to be thanked for “pushing people’s thinking” while their actions stayed the same.

We did lots of things that felt like school leadership, like effective leadership even. We wrote and planned so many things, but nothing, really, got better.

By the end of the year, I struggled to believe that our students wouldn’t have been better off had we all picked a struggling classroom and spent all day every day in it. No meetings. No planning, no mission statements, no observations, no professional development, just be in classrooms all day.

So, what was our leadership doing?

What should school leadership do?

These are the questions teacher leaders must answer.

How much are we willing to work, how much are we willing to risk, to use our role as leaders to create real and radical change?

I’m speaking to myself here as much as anyone else. Challenging myself to do better next year.

If your leadership, if your work, is not directly addressing racism, not directly the failure and the failure to reach potential of our students of color, I plead with you to do so. Please, please, as leaders, let us reflect constantly on what more we can do to fix the biggest problems in schools.

I did some things last year in my role in school, but I still worry about the things that didn’t work. I still lose sleep over the things I didn’t even try. I tried, I worked hard, and I did pretty good, but my pretty good wasn’t good enough.

Our pretty good isn’t good enough…

If we are not interrupting suspensions.

If our leadership is not specifically creating space for Black Lives to Matter in our schools.

If we do not lead to allow brilliance rather than manage behavior.

If we are not disrupting our dangerous norms, then we are not living up to what it means to lead a school.

You are here for a reason, doing this work for a reason. You were chosen to be here because you have work worth doing, big ideas that got bigger this weekend, you are reaching for something. Keep reaching.

There will always be a reason why not.

There will always be a reason why less, why less quickly.

Don’t take less.

Don’t take what they give you. Take what you need.

Pretty good is not good enough.

If you are a leader, then lead. Lead us away from the worst of what we do.

Do not lead comfortably

Do not lead with complacency.

Lead disruptively.

Lead with insight, through innovation, for impact.



Tom Rademacher (Mr. Rad to his students) is the 2014 Minnesota State Teacher of the Year and a member of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year (NNSTOY). He teaches English in Minneapolis, Minnesota. 

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