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Deeper Dialogue On Teacher Leader Certification

July 2, 2013
capitol building

Do we want teacher leader certification to run through Sacramento? (State Capitol Building, photo by the author)

Two weeks ago I posted a poll about the idea of certifying teacher leaders through formal programs at the state or district level. At this point, a majority of people responding to the poll agreed that “States should develop formal/official pathways to leadership certification.” A distant second in the poll was “While we need teacher leadership, we don’t need formal certification of teacher leaders.” Still further behind, surprisingly to me, was “Any leadership certification program should be developed at the local level.” I would have expected a little less interest in the state-level option and a more desire to see innovations led at the local level – as Riverside County has done. Maybe it depends how much faith or trust you have in your county or district, or whether you even thought a local educational agency could develop such a program at all.

rcoe tlca

Should we keep teacher leadership programs local? (Riverside Co. teachers collaborating on leadership certification projects, photo by the author)

There have been a few comments on the poll, but not as many as I’d hoped. I think this is a topic where we can and should have a genuine dialogue. I know there are strong arguments all around, and educators with similar goals who disagree about how to achieve success. I’m copying some of the exchanges below, and hoping to spark more. If you didn’t cast your vote in the original poll, or if you’d like some links to read more on this topic before voting or commenting, you can use either of the links above as your starting point.

Heather Wolpert-Gawron wrote:

I guess I get a little worried about any kind of certification process because, by definition, it has to standardize the process, right? Yes, we can base it on something as successful as [National Board Certification], but won’t it make quantitative the contributions that a person gives to educational leadership? … I like the idea of different recognized gradations of teachers and teacher quality, but I would fear adding one more hoop that can be hopped by anyone who simply goes through the process.

I replied:

I understand your concerns, and whatever we come up with, there will be some “head-scratchers” in the final outcome. There will always be some who slip through who leave you wondering how that happened. Whether it’s a driver’s license, college admission, or someone hired for almost any job, or who receives some certification or recognition… I think about it this way: if we create this new pathway, on balance, will it advance the goals of improving teaching and learning, and improving the profession? I think if it’s designed well, such a program would address the needs of teachers we know well, who are looking for that extra opportunity and still motivated to stay in the classroom. My biggest concern is how “thin” and uninspired the design might be if it’s all run at the state level. In my dream world, I think it would be locally designed and run, but with some way to make the program align to some state standards, and therefore make the certification meaningful around the state, and relevant in state policies and statewide opportunities for teachers.

Mark wrote:

This is a really interesting premise. I tend to prefer the idea of empowering people to be leaders, as opposed to certifying them to become leaders. I’m not opposed to the certification, but I think the “needs” for leadership roles differ so greatly from context to context–even within the same district.

I replied:

I know what you mean about variations within districts. We have a lot of that in Palo Alto. I think some of that variability is inevitable, and some is cultivated, and I think it plays out as both a strength and a challenge. So, knowing what we know about variability, are there commonalities around which we could, and should, formalize pathways to leadership roles, and expectations regarding how the jobs are filled, what the expectations are, responsibilities, pay, etc.? As you’ve probably inferred, I’m inclined to say yes, though I would be very cautious about how it’s done so that it avoids some predictable traps:

  •  appearance of favoritism, excess subjectivity
  •  too easy or too hard to attain
  •  hoop-jumping exercise, checklist-o-rama that lacks substance
  •  diminished focus on classroom practice and student learning
  •  more work without real responsibility, or without appropriate compensation

Much of what I say and write on this topic comes from the ACT report on teacher compensation and career pathways – learn more here.

What do you think? Is teacher leader certification an idea whose time has come, a fad or diversion?  Share your thoughts and experiences.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. Jim Davis permalink
    July 2, 2013 6:41 am

    Certification seems preoccupied with position, as has happened with principals and others. The better teacher leadership/stewardship I see is more fluid and dynamic than positional, and better for it. Some of the “traps” you mention are a function of appointment to positions rather than of teachers moving in and out of roles and activities through which they exert leader influence. Besides, we need leaderful schools more than we need certifiably “led” schools.

    • David B. Cohen permalink*
      July 2, 2013 9:37 am

      Hi Jim – thanks for jumping in. I’d be curious about some examples if you’d have the time and inclination to go further – not because I’m skeptical, but rather because I want insights into different experience and points of view. I’ve seen some of that informal leadership in schools, but what I’ve seen is largely about school culture: setting a tone, shaping opinions, supporting a positive set of norms. Then there are roles and responsibilities that are semi-formal, subject to the vascillations of budgets and changes in school/district leadership, and often voluntary or poorly compensated. I know someone who took on a peer-support role that involved many hours of extra work in exchange for a $1000/yr stipend – a little better than minimum wage for the hours she put in, and supposedly this was really important work and a “feather in her cap”. I’m interested in seeing teachers take on more significant roles, really distributing the leadership in schools and districts – with their time and/or pay reflecting higher levels of responsibility in the organization. As I wrote that, the word “promotion” came to mind. Can a teacher in the U.S. be “promoted”? I think there are many who would say that being an asst. principal or principal is not really a teaching promotion – though I’m sure it looks quite different in various types of schools.

  2. Lisa Alva Wood permalink
    July 2, 2013 3:42 pm

    David knows someone who did important work at her school, earned some stripes and was badly underpaid. We all do, if it’s not us ourselves. If certification came from the State, would there also be guidelines about compensation? It’s tricky how we teachers get accustomed to self-sacrifice and we don’t negotiate our salaries at the school level at all. We get admin credentials, get an admin-style job (like being a coordinator), continue to work 60-80 hour weeks and then tell ourselves, “Well, at least I’m not taking papers home to grade,” while we wait until midnight with the last team member who needs a ride home. The latest trend in LAUSD is to save money by hiring “Instructional Specialists” in place of assistant principals. Our management (PLAS) flew three of these at my school because “they cost less than an AP and basically do the same thing.” So is being an AP a promotion? I guess that depends. At the local level here, I don’t see it that way. If it depended on a State-level credential and a union-negotiated set of parameters (rather than “other duties as assigned” and no extra pay), teacher leadership might have a different flavor.

  3. July 3, 2013 7:03 am

    I like Jim Davis’s words: dynamic and fluid, rather than positional. And I spent a great deal of time trying to get “teacher leadership” standards aloft, both at state and non-profit level. I’m not sure you can certify leadership, any more, although it’s certainly a real thing.

    Here’s what I am sure of: creating programs that certify leadership will earn someone money. It’s something we CAN do–we’re great at building programs and reports w/ blue-ribbon committees–so we happily jump on another bandwagon of standards, benchmarks and assessments, for something that develops much more organically.

    • Lisa Alva Wood permalink
      July 3, 2013 9:05 am

      Nancy, at what level do we do this, and is someone working on it now? Can I help?

  4. July 7, 2013 7:23 pm

    The five bullets, the traps, that you outline above are some of what my concerns would be. I really don’t know where I land on this topic yet. I do think that the more opportunities that exist to cultivate teacher leadership potential, the better. Does that mean certification? Perhaps that is one pathway, as you suggest. I’ve been lucky this year to be in a role that still permits me to be in the classroom with students over half the day, which has done a great deal to keep me “credible” in the eyes of the colleagues I am striving to lead… I’m not living in an abstract world of theory or trend, I’m having to walk my talk alongside them.

    If this is something that give teachers skills to be leaders–and teachers–at the same time, I say it is a good thing.


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