A Tale of Two Systems, Part II: The Teacher Leader
Jessica Keigan is a secondary language arts teacher at Horizon High School in Thornton, Colorado, and a teacher leader for the Denver New Millennium Initiative. This post is the second in a multiple-part series. You can read Part I here.
I met Stefan Wolf early in my trip and knew almost instantly that I had found a kindred spirit. Not only did we share a strange affinity for dry British humor, we were both actively involved in leadership in our schools and systems. These similarities led to many stimulating conversations about the state of education on a global scale.
As a 2008 participant in the Teacher Spring Seminar sponsored by the Fulbright Commission, Stefan embodies the typical characteristics of a teacher leader—eagerness to learn and a passion for creating opportunities for his students. After his experience with Fulbright, he established two GAPP exchanges for his school (one with Horizon High School in Thornton, Colorado, and one with Doherty High School in Colorado Springs, Colorado). Additionally, he created a language immersion experience for seventh-graders by taking groups of students to England each summer during his vacation.
Unfortunately, as is the case for teacher leaders all over the world, the system is not always conducive to this kind of thinking. Stefan’s insistence on creating an authentic cultural experience for his students means an incredible amount of work and personal cost. While his administration benefits from the publicity of his work, they insist on maintaining bureaucratic red tape that creates boundaries making it difficult to fulfill his vision.
It seems that even in Germany, teacher leaders are treated with wariness rather than excitement. I can’t help but wonder what kinds of innovation and change could happen if we were to give teachers like Stefan space to create.
As it is, he is limited in his future leadership opportunities to the path of curricular overseer, a role he already has as the lead teacher of the English department, or to the more traditional leadership roles that would take him from the classroom and place him in one of two administrative roles: headmaster of the school or head teacher responsible for scheduling and discipline.
In his current role as lead teacher of the English department, he is a teacher set apart from his peers rather than integrated into the system. His leadership is not readily mimicked and expanded on, but kept to the confines of his duties, which include reviewing his peers’ assessments before they are given and again after they have been graded to assure standardization. There is a great opportunity for collaborative growth in this model, but without the right focus of instruction, it becomes another way for his peers to see him as a pseudo-administrator rather than the master teacher he is.
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Peer reviewers seen as a threat rather than a boon. Innovation deemed impossible or too complicated rather than embraced and expanded. Teacher leaders being kept down by the system rather than propelled forward for the benefit of others.
Teacher leaders all over the world need two things: support and opportunity. Just as I have done, Stefan has sought and created opportunity for himself. Unfortunately, he has not experienced the same level of support that I have been blessed with. Even with those barriers and reasons for cynical pessimism, when Stefan speaks of his students, there is hope.
Now he just needs networks and support systems that will allow this hope to grow and become more tangible. We need to empower teacher leaders like Stefan so that the system can benefit as much from his leadership and vision as I have.