Reimagining ‘Leadership’ In (and From) The Classroom

Jennifer Weinblatt teaches 6th Grade English at Harding Academy in Nashville, TN. She is an active member of The Educators’ Cooperative and its Leadership Committee. In this installment of the CoOp Corner, she examines how we value leadership and some of the alternative qualities that are worth nurturing.

If this were a face-to-face conversation, I would whisper this next sentence: I am so tired of the word leadership. It feels blasphemous to admit that as an educator. The discourse of education these days is full of the word and its variations. We are nurturing leaders, giving students leadership opportunities, asking our students to lead by example. My inbox is routinely populated with messages from organizations wanting to help me train young leaders and help students discover the leader within them. Every year I fill out student recommendation forms that ask me to assess a student’s leadership potential. I want to say, “Enough, already, with leadership!”
 
Leadership isn’t something we should admire and cultivate for its own sake.  Divorced from a specific context, it seems suspect to me. I always struggle to rate a student’s leadership potential when completing student recommendation forms. There are so many wonderful children whose strengths do not include leadership potential. I feel as if I am implying something negative, suggesting a deficit, when I check that “average” box on a rec form. Some of my favorite students have been fragile and inward-looking, sloppy and unorganized. Not exactly leadership material. But they are lovable and interesting and bound to make their way–and every bit as deserving of an excellent education and great opportunities as are our future leaders. 
 
I suspect that much of my distaste for the term leadership stems from its inherent affirmation of hierarchy. Leaders stand above others; when we bombard students with lessons in leadership, we risk encouraging them to think of themselves as more than others–more valuable, more important, more able. We also risk presenting a narrow vision of success. Not everyone dreams of leadership, and being a leader is not the only way to achieve success. Would it not, perhaps, be wiser to speak to our students about pursuing their passions, developing perseverance, staying curious, than about becoming leaders? 
 
One of my favorite things about the Educators’ Cooperative is the way it reimagines leadership for teachers. Most of the teachers I know are not power-hungry or eager for leadership opportunities. Dedicated teachers are hungry to grow professionally. We want to keep learning and exploring. We want to put our expertise to good use. And we want to stay in the classroom. EdCo’s idea of leadership is more horizontal than vertical; it encourages teachers to reach out–to each other–rather than up for their professional growth. EdCo teachers become “leaders” in the sense that we have a constantly renewing source of support, resources, and ideas to bring back to the teachers and students with whom we work daily. 

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