Teacher Hierarchy, Leadership, and Schools

Social systems and hierarchies are part of nature, and serve their members well. Whether foraging for food, staying safe from predators, or ensuring propagation of the species, hierarchies help establish order allowing the social group to survive and flourish.  Interestingly, schools also have their hierarchies, though the structure is changing rapidly with the growing influence of teacher leadership. In the old days, staff ranking could be broken down by years of experience into rookies (non-tenured), burgeoning stars (tenured), veterans (tenured and sometimes damn good), and senior veterans (tenured, sometimes extraordinary, and have “seen it all”).

For the rookie, rules were simple. Play well with others. Know your content and improve your pedagogy. Manage classroom behavior. Chaperone and make yourself visible everywhere and anywhere there are administrators, students, parents or board members. Be respectful and kind to students, parents and colleagues. If you followed the rules, odds were you’d receive tenure and enter the next level. Fail in any of those areas and there’s a good chance you’d be out of a job. Once tenured, you developed your reputation and craft. Initially, you’d continue to be the recipient of professional development services, but later, you might become the source of information–the “go to person,” the “veteran.” Along the way, your professional network would expand as would your influence within and outside the school community. With the accrual of time, you’d become the senior veteran.There are many more subtleties and complexities to teacher hierarchical structures, but suffice it to say reaching the apex of the hierarchical structure was informal but generally comfortable and reliable.

With the advent of Race to the Top’s Career Teacher Leader Ladder, pathways to the top for educators have changed dramatically and for the better. Teachers are now being asked to formally assume leadership positions within their ranks, something that in the past was discouraged in some schools. With the burden of instructional leadership too great for any one super human principal, teachers are now encouraged (and sometimes pushed) to take on new and challenging roles including conducting peer observations, facilitating data-driven instruction sessions, monitoring action plans, implementing teacher improvement plans, supervising curriculum development projects, and so on. Mind you, these things have been done in some schools for decades informally by the superstars, veterans, and senior veterans. The difference is now schools are honoring and formally recognizing teacher leadership. Finally! How exciting! How necessary! How timely!

As we brace for another interesting year of school reform, let us remember leadership goes far beyond that of the school principal. Let us be sure to honor our teacher leaders, formally or informally, by supporting their efforts and working hard to ensure their success and that of our children. Let us encourage the best among us to pick up the torch and guide us through the next round of school reform. Today we have a leveraged opportunity to nourish and grow teacher leaders in schools across the nation. We’re at a tipping point, and our children (and profession) depend on us to do the right thing.  There is too much at stake to follow the old system of teacher hierarchies and do otherwise. Have a great school year. Peace.

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