The following blog post is a final project for one of my graduate classes this spring at Michigan State University – TE872 – Teachers as Teacher Leaders.
The project encouraged us to address a problem or issue in education, provide reasons why it should be changed, modified, or widely known or available to teachers, make recommendations, and support this work. References will be found at the bottom of the post and the resources referenced will be posted on the “Teacher Voice” resource page.
A teacher’s “teacher voice” is unique teacher to teacher. Some are loud, some soft. Others are nurturing or caring, while others can be strict or harsh. The most common understanding is that the “teacher voice” is the voice a teacher uses when they talk to their students.
Occasionally, spouses and partners or friends and family members will call out a teacher off the clock and say something along the lines of “don’t use your teacher voice with me.” This can either be said in the heat of the moment or in jest.
Regardless, a teacher’s voice is their tool to instruct their students through curriculum, standards, assignments, and assessments. It is the voice that students will recall in the hallways and at lunch during their time with us and, again, when they’re reminiscing at class reunions and get togethers.
Throughout the spring, I have been engaging in conversations and assigned readings about teachers as teacher leaders in a course at Michigan State University for my Master of Arts in Teaching and Curriculum. This course has allowed me to believe that ANY teacher can be a leader; that they need to find their voice to do so. I have put together a resource page about the ways in which teachers can find their voices. These resources have provided me with lessons and inspirational ideas about how I can continue to be a leader within the educational spaces I am a member of. It is my hope that other teachers, no matter their level of education or experience, can also find their teacher voice and rise up as teacher leaders.
Being a Leader Is Easy
In the world of education, leadership can be scary for teachers because it often means we have to step out of our comfort zones. In a TED talk titled “How to Start a Movement”, Derek Sivers addressed the awkward stance that soon-to-be leaders must take in order for an idea or movement to take shape.
He uses a humorous example of a concertgoer on a large hill at an outdoor venue. The lone concertgoer is dancing in what is perceived as a crazy fashion. Sivers notes that often leaders’ ideas are “easy to follow” yet people often get “ridiculed” for having these different ideas.
As the video plays out and people begin to join the concertgoer, he embraces them, shows them how to dance freely, and motivates others to join him. By the end of the short clip, a crowd of other concertgoers have joined in on the fun and are dancing together on the large hill at the outdoor amphitheater.
Sivers ends the talk by stating that “leadership is over-glorified” and that anyone, no matter how crazy the action or movement, can obtain the title of a leader (2010). I think that this is important to begin with this light and somewhat trivial example because “leadership” is in all of our wheelhouses, as teachers. Sure, we lead our students, but we can also lead each other as long as we find our purposes, listen to advice, embody servant leadership, and practice being a leader everyday.
Find Your Purpose
Finding the purpose or why we are assuming leadership within our colleagues, departments, buildings, schools, districts, and communities takes courage and strength. As Sivers pointed out ideas are easy to follow yet are easy to be ridiculed by others. We may feel silly standing up for what we believe, but we may also feel threatened.
Boniface Mwangi’s, a famous photographer from Kenya, was taught from a young age that silence was the way to live a happy life. If you stood up for what you believed in in his country you ended up dead. Mwangi recounted in a 2014 TED Talk that over the course of a tumultuous few years where he was responsible for documenting destruction and violence he found his voice and began to stand up for what he believed in. Of course the movement took time and left him feeling alone and unsure if he had made the right decision, but he stuck it out and became a strong voice for what he believed in. At the end of the TED Talk, Mwangi reflected, “I discovered who I really am, … and there’s such beauty in doing that” (2014).
Some may find the use of Mwangi’s example to be extreme. They may say that school districts do not directly correlate to the political turmoil of African countries, such as Kenya. If you have never experienced an educational life or death scenario or heard of one within the U.S. education system, it’s time to take off the blinders and stop considering your experiences to be that of everyone else teaching in America’s schools.
Unfortunately, you have given in to the danger of a single story. Yes, I’m using Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED Talk. While this TED Talk is beginning to be recogonized by the masses, it has a strong messge that carries into the point I’m trying to make about the need for teachers to find and use their teacher voice to assume leadership within the profession.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie reminds us that “stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity” (2009). Hearing stories from colleagues in a less than ideal situation within their classroom, building, or district can bring us together towards their voices. We can help them find their voice and purpose and support them throughout the process. If we believe only our story we are giving in to the notion that “the single story creates stereotypes, (which) are incomplete. They make one story become the only story” (2009).
Colleagues in all corners of the country are facing administrators that rule with the similar “iron fist” that Mwangi described in the TED Talk. Instead of people being subject being arrested or killed, their careers and livelihood are at stake. Finding one’s “teacher voice” may be difficult in situations like this, so that is when a teacher should turn to a mentor for advice.
Mentors Are Leaders
Usually when a teacher joins a district, they will be assigned a mentor, regardless of the number of years they have prior to entering the district. This mentor is to be the go-to person if the new-to-the-district teacher has questions about protocols, policies, and whereabouts in the building or district. The mentor can also become a great person to bounce ideas off of, especially if they are within the department that the new teacher is teaching in. If they are not, they are still a great resource to be used.
New teachers should not stop there.
Mentors can be sought out any where within the new teacher’s realm in the building and/or district. These people have the potential to become allies, colleagues, and friends depending on the frequency they are seen and the amount of information that is shared between the two people. Overall, mentors are wonderful resources that a new teacher can utilize in order to figure out how and when they can utilize their “teacher voice”.
Heather Wolpert-Gawron, an award winning middle school educator and blogger for Edutopia, agrees in the value of a mentor for new and old teachers alike.
Wolpert-Gawron believes a mentor should hold the following characteristics:
- “Respects what you’re trying to do, and helps push you to solve the problem using a different perspective
- Listens, but knows when to hold up her hand to make you pause and listen
- Collaborates, shares the air, and lives for reciprocal learning
- Celebrates your successes
- Gives you a safe space to vent, air, complain, and feel shame
- Models best practices while still appreciating differences in teaching style” (2018).
Mentors are assuming leadership roles and using their “teacher voices” and expertise to assist and guide new teachers through the ropes. They want to make sure the teacher knows how to operate and be successful both in the present and in the future.
Mentorship is a powerful form of leadership amongst each other because it retains teachers, improves teaching practice and instruction, keeps all parties involved engaged, and improves practice (Wolpert-Gawron, 2018).
Prior to this academic year (2018-2019), I had not heard of or witnessed servant leadership. Servant leadership is a philosophy and mindset where the leader is to serve those that they lead. As this idea began to tumble around in my head, I thought to myself that teachers are often an excellent example of servant leaders. We serve our students in more ways than I can count, yet it often goes unnoticed.
The way that I have witnessed servant leadership in action is by my current administrators through their understanding and application of Jon Gordon’s The Energy Bus: 10 Rules to Fuel Your Life, Work, and Team with Positive Energy.
The ten rules that Gordon lays out are broken down into a bus metaphor which is catchy for those of us in the school system. The rules are as follows:
- “You’re the driver of the your bus.
- Desire, vision, and focus move your bus in the right direction.
- Fuel your ride with positive energy.
- Invite people on your bus and share your vision for the road ahead.
- Don’t waste your energy on those who don’t get on your bus.
- Post a sign that says NO ENERGY VAMPIRES ALLOWED on your bus.
- Enthusiasm attracts more passengers and energizes them during the ride.
- Love your passengers.
- Drive with purpose.
- Have fun and enjoy the ride” (Gordon, 2017, pp. 157).
By applying these rules to both our classrooms and our movement, we can continue to build momentum into finding our teacher voice and gaining leadership as a teacher leader.
After finding our purpose, listening to the guidance from a mentor, and considering servant leadership, I believe teachers are ready to embrace their “teacher voices” and assume the role of a teacher leader each and every day.
Drew Dudley points out in his TED Talk that a large amount of people will not acknowledge that they are a leader because “we have made leadership into something bigger than us; something beyond us.” He also claims that “we’ve made leadership about changing the world, and there is no world. There’s only six billion understandings of it” (2010). Dudley believes that in order to be a leader, you need to change one person’s understanding of the world in order to make a difference AND it doesn’t matter how large or small that change is, you’re still a leader. And, to conclude, that action of being a leader with your “teach voice” can happen every day because it should now be easy to do.
“Teacher Voices” In Action
I leave you with a few teacher leaders who have found their “teacher voice” and are using it to bring awareness to other teachers and the world outside of education. I hope that it showcases what you can do with your “teacher voice”.
As a final note, it was brought to my attention by a teacher and colleague that had reached out to a Michigan Education Association attorney that teachers should be mindful of three things when using their “teacher voice” – “district and school board policies, freedom of speech and job protections, and FERPA” (Murchie, 2018). Check out the resources page for more information.
Clint Smith | The Danger of Silence
Taylor Mali | What Teachers Make
Anna Baldwin | Finding My Teacher Voice
Adichie, C. N. (2009, July). Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: The danger of a single story [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story
DevlinPix. (2012, May 28). SlamNation: Taylor Mali – “What Teachers Make” [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RGKm201n-U4
Dudley, D. (2010, September). Drew Dudley: Everyday leadership [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/drew_dudley_everyday_leadership.
Gordon. J. (2007). The energy bus: 10 rules to fuel your life, work, and team with positive energy. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc
Murchie, S. (2019, Febrary). Political activist / Public servant? Presentation at Red Cedar Writing Project Mid-Winter Mini-Conference, East Lansing, MI.
Mwangi, B. (2014, October). Boniface Mwangi: The day I stood up alone [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/boniface_mwangi_boniface_mwangi_the_day_i_stood_up_alone
Sivers, D. (2010, February). Derek Sivers: How to start a movement [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/derek_sivers_how_to_start_a_movement
Smith, C. (2014, July). Clint Smith: The danger of silence [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/clint_smith_the_danger_of_silence#t-246579
TEDx Talks. (2015, May 20). Finding my teacher voice | Anna Baldwin | TEDxBozeman [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=02R286PdCj0
Wolpert-Gawron, H. (2018, March 27). Every teacher needs a mentor [Blog Post]. Retrieved from https://www.edutopia.org/article/every-teacher-needs-mentor