In the Lou

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Sep 01 2008

The teacher or leader dilemma

Heisenberg is known in science for his uncertainty principle. The more one knows about the location of an electron, the less one knows about the direction the electron is heading. The reverse holds true, as well. I have discovered a similar paradox in my teaching world, but unlike Heisenberg, I am not uncertain about anything.

Much of the effort of the professional development planned and executed both by Teach For America and by my school district for new teachers focuses on becoming a better teacher. The premise is that it takes much time and effort on the part of both the system and the teacher to develop the skills of a self-reflective practitioner. Skills, knowledge, mindset and time are needed to continually increase effectiveness in the classroom.

Today’s schools, on the whole, suffer from a vacuum of leadership. When a highly qualified teacher comes to practice who also happens to be a highly qualified leader, the tendency is to maximize the new resources available to the school. As such, the new teacher must accept roles as a leader. This takes away from the cycle of growth and improvement of that individual as a teacher. So instead of experiences that build one’s arsenal of teaching strategies, the experiences at the beginning of the career are driving the qualified teacher/leader into a long-term leadership role.

This is my third-year of teaching. While I recognize that I seek out professional development experiences that may have advanced my teaching skill more quickly than others that I know, I am baffled to think of all the things I have been given to do or have reason/opportunity to take on that fall outside the role of being a beginning teacher. Please know I am not complaining. However, I have considered this week the possible outcomes if my energy were not so often diverted from my teaching duties to tasks that might otherwise be described with words like supervising. When I think about the defining aspects of what I’ve achieved for education while in St. Louis, most of it would consist of effects outside my classroom. The more I exist within this system, the further away I get from reflective-teacher modalities being at the top of my priorities. Do not mistake that I imply that I am a poor teacher as a result, it is just that other duties seem to be placed first before my responsibilities as a teacher.

Again, I accept that I function a certain way within any given system — a way which makes me me and makes me valuable for whom I work. Nonetheless the opportunities which I’ve had are a a result of a system so starved for leaders that I am, in essence, being sucked away from the classroom into the nebulous void of administration and systematic decision making. This is ok as per my personal outlook and how I see myself working on education in the long-term. But this is not ok when given as a diagnosis of what’s going on. Teach For America preaches the teacher as leader, but the teachers who can be leaders are being pushed, pulled and stretched within a matrix of different needs all the while overlooking that we do so at the cost of cultivating good classroom instructional leaders who stay in the classroom. I am starting to believe that one can not be both teacher and leader. Like Heisenberg’s principle, I think it is more true to say that we must be teacher or leader; the more we are of one, the less we are of the other.

There is no solution proposed here, I know. It’s just scary to be witness to a process that is further diminishing the human capital of the teaching profession.

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    a Teach for America science teacher in St. Louis

    St. Louis
    Middle School

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