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Philosophical Meanderings

Who’s the Boss?

This past Friday, my school attended a mini-conference at another school. When I arrived, I was amazed to find out that my two sessions had been pre-selected for me. I didn’t quite know what to think. As a co-organizer of edcamp Philly, an unconference, it was mind-blowing to have no choice in what I was to learn that day.  Someone on Twitter responded to my tweet about it reminding me that what I was experiencing is what most students experience on a daily basis.

I, of course, did not attend the session I was assigned, but rather attended one on creativity that appealed more to me and my teaching practices.

At lunch, I admitted to that I had not attended the Classroom Management session that I had been pre-registered for. I was told that the whole staff was supposed to attend that session to get information on how we can better handle management at the school. From what I heard about the session, it was interesting, but pretty worthless as a catalyst for change. I mentioned that perhaps it would be better if we, as a staff, came together to discuss what works in our classrooms and to give each other advice for issues we were having. I was met with silence.

I immediately tweeted: “I think I need to be a principal.”

I see the potential in the young teachers around me (they are nearly all under 30, many under 25), but I see it squandered on test prep and a ‘teaching to the test’ mindset that crushes creativity in not just the students, but also the staff.

I had a lot of kind responses to my tweet telling me to ‘go for it,’ but truly, I don’t want to be ‘in charge.’ In fact, I believe that the time of someone being ‘in charge’ is on the way out. This is apparent through the existence of the site Teachers in Charge and idea #2 on this thought-provoking post by blogger (and Twitter colleague) Kelly Tenkely which helped breed the idea of a Twitter Academy of teachers who are innovative and dedicated to learner-centered, progressive education.

Don’t get me wrong. My school has a great staff that works hard and works together. Our admins stress that we are a team.

My experience planning edcamp proved that great things can be accomplished without anyone being ‘in charge.’ Teaching is, by nature, a collaborative effort. Schools can and should be run by teachers who share the responsibility for educating students and hold each other accountable much like an athletic team.

I don’t want to be in charge, but I DO want to be part of a leadership team that makes decisions together, sets goals together and takes equal responsibility for educating their students.

To those who would say, “start a charter school,” as the Teachers in Charge site suggests, I would argue that we need to stop thinking of teacher-run schools as unique and we need to start moving in that direction.  As a recent article on Finnish schools describes, quoting a member of an international review team, teachers need to be empowered. “Finnish teachers pick books and customize lessons as they shape students to national standards. ‘In most countries, education feels like a car factory. In Finland, the teachers are the entrepreneurs.'”

Let’s make it a reality.


17 thoughts on “Who’s the Boss?

  1. As someone who works in a school where teacher leadership is crucial to our success, I can tell you that it works. We do have a head of school but almost every decision about our school, we make ourselves.

    We choose what resources we need. We decide what our work schedule will be and when our breaks will be, and how long our lunch our is. We decide fairly what extra-curricular activities are run, and by whom and we all take our turn making sure these vital clubs run. We choose what field trips we want and when. We run our classrooms with autonomy, and we support each other. We’ve decided as a staff on “Real Restitution” for our student discipline model because it works and we’ve seen the changes in our students, especially the ones who have been at the school for a while.

    Teachers can be empowered to collaboratively lead their schools. It works, and I’m sure it has a lot to do with how committed and engaged our staff is to making our school work.

    Posted by David | November 1, 2010, 12:34 am
    • I am always jealous, David, when I hear about the teamwork at your school! I think that it does require a lot of work, but it’s worth it. Until you experience it first hand, it’s hard to believe that a system of cooperation, collaboration and flat leadership can really work. I think you also touch on something important when you said “especially the ones who have been at the school for a while.” It takes time to build a community and time to build a team that works together seamlessly. Time well spent, I’m sure you would agree!

      Posted by Mary Beth Hertz | November 1, 2010, 4:59 pm
  2. There is a sizable system to dismantle – and another to build – in order for shared teacher-leadership to become the norm. I’m all for the idea -in fact, I would go further and include kids. I love the Free School model with 1 vote per person at the school and with administrative tasks distributed among all adults.

    To carry this off in public schools, I think we would need smaller schools to prevent gridlock and political fracturing, we would need to do away with stipended positions like department chairs (unless those positions became solely about service, but, then, why stipend them?), and we would need to be serious about consensus, rather than majority rule, to prevent the majority at any school from ruling without compromise. Arts teachers would need just as much protected say as teachers of tested-subjects; rookies and veterans’ voices would need to be heard. Decision-making would take a lot more time and folks would have to commit to that time, as well, and consciously work to avoid the temptation of ceding individual responsibility and control to a charismatic, level-4-type leader or faction. In such a system, we would, essentially, have to become educated voters on all aspects of a school. I suspect that middle steps include faculty senates and the triumvirate you sometimes see in private schools or public charters where there is a school director, a business manager, and some kind of dean of student affairs.

    Depending on your state, the best way to create a model for change may very well be a charter, school-within-a-school, specialty center or other alternative ed program. Here’s my take.

    I think another issue is here has less to do with, “Who’s the boss?”, and more to do with, “How do we get everyone to share leadership?”, or, “How do we get everyone to take responsibility for their own learning?”, so teachers who want to go to different professional development sessions are not left alone explaining themselves to principals. How would such a situation be different if 5, 10, or all teachers at a school explained what they wanted to do and why? If this was a student and teacher scenario?


    Posted by Chad Sansing | November 1, 2010, 6:02 am
    • Chad,

      I completely agree that we need smaller schools. Schools need to be communities, not factories. It is a hard shift to make, and maybe the best way to do it is through Charters. My only worry is that everyone will say, “well of course it works at a charter school because…..” To me, it’s important that we prove that it can be done in a traditional ‘neighborhood school’ for the model to be taken seriously. As for professional development, there need to be open lines of communication where teachers can voice their needs and share what they learn with each other.

      I like your Shoestring School idea. I can tell that you’ve really thought about these issues!

      Posted by Mary Beth Hertz | November 1, 2010, 5:08 pm
  3. Coming back from a long while on the road, immersed in the culture of teaching and learning at a huge professional development conference for K-12 teachers and administrators in Illinois last week, I guess I just have to echo how deeply a part of the conventional teaching culture SOMEONE BEING IN CHARGE is. Teachers “comply” and act passive aggressively when they are being asked to do something they have to do (sit through a session to get a “sticker” for credit for attending; they authorize someone else to have knowledge (not them, much too often); they raise their hand to be heard, and sit towards the back so they can duck out early. (If they’ve got their sticker.) Mary Beth, I agree that teachers being in charge isn’t a solution. But how do you move a culture from being externally authorized, to internally empowered?

    Posted by Kirsten Olson | November 1, 2010, 2:50 pm
    • Kirsten,

      It is so true that teachers are used to having things done to them, not with them. For this reason, they have learned to just sit back and ‘take it.’ I would offer that experience is the best teacher. The edcamp professional development model, with teachers teaching teachers, is a huge game changer. Teachers are respected for their ideas by their peers, no one is there to judge them and no one pretends to be the ‘expert.’ Teachers who attend this kind of conversational experience are forever changed.

      What is very interesting is that the behavior you describe (which I have witnessed time and time again) is no different than the behavior of our students who are forced to do what we tell them to do with little or no choice in the matter. As I told Chad, it comes down to empowerment. We need to know what we stand for and what our deepest beliefs are before we can move forward.

      Posted by Mary Beth Hertz | November 1, 2010, 5:13 pm
  4. There’s another mistake lurking here: why were all the staff from your school supposed to attend the same workshop? If that was the plan, you could’ve sent the best note-taker and let everyone else stay home.

    The better option would have been to let teachers have some say in which workshops they attended and try to maximize your attendance at as many workshops as possible. Then arrange to share what you learned at a meeting after you return to your school. As there were two sessions, each of you should have had the opportunity to attend one workshop you really wanted, and another that was recommended to you or that helped max out the coverage among your staff.

    Posted by Karen E. Lund | November 1, 2010, 4:51 pm
  5. Found this and though of this conversation! Not that you must read it, but if you like!

    Teachers as Transformers: Learning from outstanding primary school teachers

    Click to access tat.pdf

    here is a sample chapter heading

    “Teachers as entrepreneurs: ‘Edupreneurs'”


    Posted by dloitz | November 2, 2010, 3:20 am
  6. Hello! I am in EDM 310 at the University of South Alabama, in Dr. Stange’s class. I was assigned to read your blog. I really enjoyed reading your post. I agree education needs some changes. Teachers need to be more creative and engage the students in activities and projects were they can really learn something useful, instead of learning a test. I also like the Finnish idea of teachers being entrepreneurs.

    Posted by Whitney Bosarge | November 2, 2010, 6:18 pm
    • Whitney,

      Thanks so much for joining the conversation here at the Co-op. I am interested to know from your unique vantage point as an education student, what sort of things are you doing or would you prefer to be doing in your college coursework that would “engage the students in activities and projects were they can really learn something useful, instead of learning a test.” I don’t want to put you in an uncomfortable position with Dr. Stange (although I am pretty sure he would welcome the feedback), so feel free to use other examples of other classes and it doesn’t have to be by name.

      What are the things you want to know and be able to do by the end of your current college experience? Does your coursework support or hinder you from accomplishing these goals? If it hinders it what are the things you would prefer to be learning and doing that you aren’t because of the time and demands of the pre-designated curriculum you need to cover in order to achieve your goal of a degree?

      Undoubtedly the paradigm changes we talk about here are applicable from pre-k to PhD, and I think its important we look at every opportunity for change.

      Thanks again for joining us, and as they say around here, I am “always pushing” a pun on my blog, Pushing Upward. I hope I have done so in a respectful manner.

      All the best,

      Posted by Adam Burk | November 3, 2010, 10:40 am
  7. Great questions Adam. Whitney, I hope you respond. I look forward to hearing what you have to say.

    Posted by Kirsten Olson | November 3, 2010, 11:07 am
  8. Right now I am working on a project to visit 12 teacher-led schools nationwide for Education|Evolving, and we have an inventory of about five dozen of them nationally. My visits are to determine “What’s Different When Teachers Control Their Work?” (What they teach, what colleagues, how the school is organized, how to spend the budget, and more.)

    We determine if a school is teacher-led by determining whether they have collective final decision-making authority in various areas (about 9). We consider there to be a spectrum of teacher led schools. Indeed some have ALL the autonomy (all 9 areas), and these are in chartered schools. BUT there are also many in district schools — see Phoenix Academy in Kennewick Washington or the Math and Science Leadership Academy in Denver. These are relatively new. But I will visit one this week in New Haven, Connecticut called High School in the Community that has existed fro 40 years!

    Teachers in Charge uses some Education|Evolving materials but is not affiliated with us. They are a management group encouraging start-up.

    The word is out in the national press. Here is an article just yesterday from Ed Week. Teacher-led schools flip the script:

    I posted this a few weeks back–a Delicious account of articles:

    We hope to have our inventory up later this month at

    Posted by Kim FB | November 9, 2010, 8:07 am


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