Educational Leaders

When someone asks you to recommend a great educational leader, whose names come to your mind?

[CC image credit: Leo Reynolds]


Next question… how many of them are currently in the classroom?

Please don’t get me wrong. This is not a post* that is about bashing administrators, educational consultants, or others whose names often come up in leadership conversations. Some of the people I respect the most and who are my very good friends are people with these titles.

I’m concerned, though, that the lack of respect for classroom teachers isn’t just a problem among non-educators. I think WE are all guilty of it, too.

Oh sure… there are the times when a classroom teacher wins an award with a lot of publicity. You’ll hear that teacher’s name often. He/she might be asked to special events, meet with dignitaries, etc. After a year (or maybe less), nada.

It’s ironic when those of us in education discuss educational reform and blame our society’s lack of respect for the teaching profession… yet, is it all that different in our own ranks? Seriously. When was the last time you had a keynote speaker that was someone in the classroom RIGHT NOW?

Don’t even get me started on the percentage of women or minorities invited to share their expertise. Yes, you could name some right now in the comments section, and they would probably be the same people I would list. Compare that number, however, against the norm.

Is it because we, as classroom teachers, are not great at self-marketing by nature? Is that what it takes? Personally, I get tired of people marketing themselves all over Twitter and blogs. Maybe that’s just me.

Or, and this is my sincere question to you, is it because we really don’t respect the people in the classroom as much as we think we do?Β 

I welcome your thoughts. Thanks for reading.


*Please know that I am more than aware of how important administrators are in a school. They can make such a huge difference in empowering their teachers and children to move forward, take risks, and create an incredible learning environment. I’ve also known, however, many teachers doing amazing things IN SPITE of lousy administrators. This is NOT an anti-admin post. πŸ™‚


40 thoughts on “Educational Leaders

  1. Josh Stumpenhorst


    All hockey jokes aside…you are spot on. These so-called leaders do have a perspective that is valuable and I know for sure I learn from them. However, I always take it with a grain of salt if they are not currently in the classroom. I am not going to give advice to NBA basketball players on how to play basketball and handle their schedules as I have never been in that environment. Too many people think that because they were in classrooms as students or in some cases spent a short amount of time as a teacher, that they know what it is like. Lots of backseat drivers in edu these days.

    That being said, there are some tremendous examples of administrators who do stay very much in touch with the classroom. I see them sharing the work of their teachers and you can tell they maintain a strong connection with the work being done there. Yet, I think they are in the minority.

    I would love to see more classroom teachers and students keynoting these conferences rather than these “experts” that have not been in a classroom or not in a long time…


    • Michelle Baldwin

      Thanks, Stump. I guess I should really be more clear that I don’t want fewer admins, consultants, etc. on the circuit. They’re sharing great things. I DO want to hear more from teachers. There are some voices that don’t get enough air time… is that because they are “merely” teachers?

      Your point is well-taken. When I was in PD, I always made sure to bring up my classroom experience when I taught a class to teachers. That helped them when they felt I understood what they were going through.

  2. William Chamberlain

    This is an interesting post, and something I have thought about as well. The funny thing is, when someone asks me (or if I see someone needing help) I almost always refer them to a classroom teacher. There is something more relatable (reliable?) with a teacher that is using the tools or has that specific classroom knowledge.

    I don’t get to many conferences each year, usually only Edcamps and METC, so I guess it bothers me less than it might. I do have a bigger problem with people that are outside of education that get noticed more for ‘discovering’ something we already know and have been talking about for years.

    • Michelle Baldwin

      Thanks, William. Just to be clear, I didn’t intend to put the focus on the number of teachers, or the lack thereof, presenting/keynoting at conferences. That was an example only (and, I’m realizing, a poor one).

      Totally agree with you about people outside of education “helping” to reform education. I like to hear different perspectives, and I definitely want to hear from people who have suggestions for change based upon experiences they’ve had or that their children have had. I don’t think you have to be an educational expert to provide feedback and give input. However, it is troubling to see so many with no educational background at all dictating what should be done.

  3. I absolutely think it’s because our lack of respect for classroom teachers is an epidemic. One symptom of this, as I see it, is the assumption that anyone who is innovative or interested in leadership should leave the classroom to do so.

    As for your observation of the lack of women and minorities in these leadership positions, I would definitely say that it is an elephant in all of our rooms that really needs attending to.

    Thanks for writing this post.

    • Michelle Baldwin

      Thanks, Royan.

      I’ve noticed many school districts now have “leadership programs.” The goal for those teachers entering the program is to become an admin. ?? That’s puzzling to me. Why can’t one lead from within the classroom? Again, I go back to the problem with the hierarchy in schools.

      Thank you also for speaking to the elephant in the room. People don’t want to admit that it’s still an issue… but most definitely it is.

      • Carol McLaughlin

        My principal asked me many times to get my administration degree because she sees me as a leader. I told her, respectively, “Well, shouldn’t I stay in the classroom then? We need leaders with the kids.”

  4. Michelle,

    I appreciated your post! I have a similar post idea in mind and recently wrote one about the “numbers” on Twitter. This ties to my thoughts about how because of Twitter people are “elevated” based on some article that says they are a Top 10 admin or teacher to follow on Twitter. Suddenly they are some kind of guru and keynote speaking all over the country. The keynote thing hit me especially because I am completely perplexed as to why or how those people are selected and paid when often times if we picked from teachers and admin locally we would be just fine. There is an obsession with pulling in some kind of expert when the “expert” could be right within their own district or school.
    Anyway, those are some of thoughts that you rustled up in me.
    Thanks for pushing me.

    • Michelle Baldwin

      Thanks, CAT. πŸ™‚

      We’re never experts in our own “backyard,” right? Isn’t there a 50 mile radius rule, or something like that? haha

      I’m interested to read the post you write. Be sure to share!

  5. One reason we don’t often think of teachers as ‘leaders’ is because they rarely get to lead. They don’t have any authority or power in most school systems.

    Who gets to …?

    set the vision
    control the budget
    reassign personnel
    empower others
    alter school culture
    establish priorities
    facilitate buy-in
    reallocate resources
    ensure organizational alignment
    and so on

    Formal leaders do. Principals and superintendents. If we gave teachers greater ability to do some of this stuff, maybe we’d lean more their direction when someone said ‘think of a great leader?’

    • Thanks, Scott. Good points.
      At EduCon this year, Scott Floyd led a conversation about what a Utopian school would look like. Some brought up shared responsibilities, but that it becomes too difficult in schools/districts that are so large. I think we need to go back to communities, small schools, and shared leadership and accountability in those schools. The hierarchical structures in schools now promote the “boss” and “subordinate” roles that are not conducive to innovation and do not always help to facilitate change in a timely manner.

      When I look at your list again through the lens of the school where I currently teach, we DO share a majority of those responsibilities… and that’s intentional.

      What if we DIDN’T have large school districts that required a superintendent or district office? What if each building was able to set its own priorities, and that included those responsibilities in your list? Would that change the way we view teachers? I don’t know.

  6. Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about something similar – “If a teacher has some talent for presentations and professional development, why does he or she have to leave the classroom to pursue it?”

    It often seems like a person can only do one or the other. However, I believe there is great value in what both types of people can share. A “professional” presenter can often discover new and innovative technologies and strategies. But a classroom teacher can share his or her pitfalls and successes with what they are doing in the classroom.

    Like Scott said above, teachers should be given more opportunities to be leaders. I feel lucky that I currently work at a school where teachers are given that opportunity. However, not every school is this way.

    I believe my classroom experience makes me a better leader and being given opportunities to lead makes me a better classroom teacher.

    Thanks Michelle for starting an engaging and important conversation.

    • Michelle Baldwin

      Thanks, Matt! I feel very much like you do – I’m in a school where we all have opportunities to lead. Luckily, we don’t all try to lead at the same time, or we wouldn’t get anywhere.

      One point you bring up – when teachers leave the classroom to pursue leadership opportunities… I think that’s mostly what I was trying to tackle in this post. I’ve visited schools and been a part of schools and school districts where there were teacher leaders specifically targeted for a “move upward.” That troubles me.

      Thanks for being a part of the conversation. I’m still “chewing” on this one a bit. Appreciate your comment!

      • I just had to comment on the “move upward” part. I have had principals and district curriculum supervisors ask me to think about administration or coaching. There answer is “Yeah but you can do so much more.” That always made me sad. I turn to them and say “We need good educators in the classrooms. That is my more.”

  7. I feel ya, but this… “Next question… how many of them are currently in the classroom?”

    How far does this extend? Is nobody allowed to speak on matters unless they are actually doing that work? Does this preclude classroom teachers from telling principals how to do their job?

    Also, is this issue education-specific? I mean, do truck drivers complain about non truck drivers developing/passing transportation policy?

    Again, I know your frustration, but I’m just throwing these questions into the mix…

    • Thanks, Jon. Was hoping to hear from you.

      I don’t think it should be an “either/or” situation. Why not “and?” I value very highly what I learn in sessions from those who are not in the classroom. I’m just wondering why there are so few who ARE in the classroom in that specific circuit.

      It’s not just speaking, presenting, though. I watch people solicit advice on Twitter from “leaders.” I read recommended blog posts by people sharing what they think teachers should or shouldn’t do. One of the things I used to hear a lot when I was coordinating PD for a large school district, “How do we get teacher buy-in?” But then they ignored what teachers were doing, learning, etc. and would bring in people who had never been in the classroom.

      If we value and respect teaching as much as we think or say we do, why aren’t we seeing more examples of those “leaders?”

  8. I am a world language teacher (Spanish) and I notice that people who get the recognition at the state or national level are people who, while they might be very good teachers, are the “connected” teachers in the professional organization. It is all very political. These people might be great in the classroom, but frankly I doubt anyone actually goes and observes them. By the way, I am not sure how many language teachers are women, but my guess is it is higher than 85%. The last two years the ACTFL teacher of the year have been male. Last year it was a white male. Why? This strikes me as odd. In a profession that is highly female and minority dominated, these are really the BEST?

    • Michelle Baldwin

      Thanks, Kristy! I think it’s interesting that we look at leaders as people who are recognized at some level. Politics most definitely play a role in recognition.

      I don’t know much at all about the ACTFL… do you think the recognition of male teachers is an attempt to bring in MORE male teachers? Just wondering if there are other motives. Hmm.

      Appreciate your comment!

  9. Michelle,
    Wonderful post. I wholeheartedly agree with everything you said. So many wonderful teachers out there, but the only ones you hear about (with a few exceptions) are the ones who are “marketing” themselves. Many of these teachers then leave the classroom for the “lecture circuit” as consultants. It makes me sad to see exemplary teachers not have a direct impact on students anymore.
    Many of us in the classroom may be unwilling, uncomfortable, or unknowing about how to “toot our own horn”. It shouldn’t have to be that way. It’s nice to hear, especially in the current educational environment, “hey, what a great job you are doing”.

    • Michelle Baldwin

      Thanks, Christine. So… are you saying that you think the general population, or even just educators in general, only see leaders in those who self-promote?

  10. Carol McLaughlin

    Thanks for your post. I think the reason classroom teachers are not seen as educational leaders stems from the fact that we aren’t the ones leading seminars and conference sessions because we are busy teaching. You know how hard it is to get ready for a substitute plus there is always this guilty feeling that you should be teaching your class. Many connections are made at meetings held during the school day. Classroom teachers are in their rooms, not at meetings. The teachers who are promoting themselves are ones who are now tech/math/reading coaches who now have time to write books.

    I tend to choose conference sessions led by classroom teachers. I know they know the limitations of time better than those who have not been in the classroom years (or ever). I respect classroom teachers greatly but then again I am currently in that role.

    NO worries about the disclaimer. You can tell this pos is not about bashing administration. It is a good question.

    • Carol McLaughlin

      Please disregard typos or errors. Fighting sinus issues and pure exhaustion.

      • Michelle Baldwin

        Thanks, Carol. Really appreciate your point of view.
        As I read through your comment, I’m wondering what you think about the teachers who promote themselves and then become tech/math/reading coaches with time to read books. Do YOU see those people as having more leadership qualities, or do you think THEY do?

        No worries about typos/errors. πŸ™‚ It made sense to me. Thanks!

        • I do not think the coaches have more leadership qualities. I think they just are in positions that make them more visible as leaders in the educational arena. I have been thinking about your post a lot this week. I think one reason I love twitter is that I can speak to leaders and hopefully be one myself there. I get disheartened sometimes. I love trying new things and I like to share. I get a lot of “you need a life.” I have a life outside of school but I also believe that teaching is a passion and kids deserve someone who wants to learn from other educational leaders via books, conferences, twitter, blogs, or great conversations. You are definitely a leader I follow and admire!

  11. Michael Kaechele

    I feel that I am a leader in my local area because my admin. does give me both voice and responsibility. I am making a difference at my school with other staff and students. Since we are a lab school I also feel that we have influence in our area and it is growing as we are only in our second year.

    As far as the larger stage events I agree with Kristy that awards are often political and I really don’t care about them. As far as keynotes go I think there is also something to being a professional presenter. These people do this everyday as their job and develop a good skill at delivering a few talks. It is almost like being a traveling comedian. I think this skill is not identical to being a good teacher and many great teachers would not make good keynote speakers.

    • Michelle Baldwin

      Thanks for your comment, Michael. I agree that a good teacher doesn’t necessarily make a good keynote, and vice versa. I regret using that as an example, because it somehow became the focus in the comments.

      I’m so happy for you that you are in a position where you feel you’re a leader… I feel the same way. I work with people whom I would consider leaders. We’re in an environment of respect and empowerment.

      Would love to visit your school some day… and you’re invited to come see us, too! Would be great to share notes.

  12. Great post Michelle,
    I agree with you whole heartedly. Too often, teachers are not given their due respect. How many times have we heard the horrible quote “Those who can’t do teach.” Educators are often given a bad rap because it’s simply not understood what they do or how many expectations are placed upon them. I think this is partially because due to society having a lack of understanding and the media often pointing out the flaws in the system. And I think that may be why we end up with scenarios as you describe. (Although, at least in my neck of the woods, we do see a number of teachers presenting and sharing at conferences and they are often the best sessions.) However, I don’t think it is just the classroom teacher who feels this way. Everyone in education – be it administrators or support staff – often share your sentiments. We hear it all the time on the social networks. What we must remember is we are all essential cogs in the great machine that is education with what should be one main goal: to produce the best students that we can. Unfortunately, these are the individuals who most often get lost in the shuffle. We ALL matter. I believe what is essential to empowering an individual is that we communicate, respect and listen to each other. When communication breaks down we tend to loose the plot and that’s unfortunate. Know that I appreciate you and the fact that you wrote this post so that the conversation can continue to happen!

    • Michelle Baldwin

      Thanks, James! I think you have touched on a very important part, and that is the point that we all matter in the lives of kids. Our kids don’t care how many letters we have behind our names, how many conferences we attend, or how many followers we have on Twitter. Communication, respect, and listening to each other is vital, and that’s how we go about doing what is best for kids.

  13. Hi Michelle

    First of all — thank you for being brave enough to click the SUBMIT button. This is a topic that many have muttered under their breath — but not posted.

    Second of all — if I might — my thoughts — a few reasons why I feel this is so.

    We (I don’t feel I stand alone in this sentiment) have equated leader with content. Those who are active on twitter, blog frequently, perhaps even have written a book……to them, the stamp of leadership has been placed upon. And for most, I would say an honor Well-Deserved.

    And, true, many of these “leaders” have left the classroom — no longer teachers —

    but they are still definitely educators!!!

    I must agree with Kristy’s comment in that I do see a lot of “politics” involved with the label of the title “leader”. And also a bit of knowing “who’s who” and also “who is endorsing who.” But that is an entirely different post.

    As I mentioned on twitter, I do think “in classroom” teachers NEED to speak up much more. And yes, I understand the hardship (and often impossibility) of leaving your classroom to attend an out of state conference
    — but there are other ways to share your voice — twitter, blogs, local edcamps, and local conferences. (Perhaps it is just my locality – but pretty much there is something available at least 1 time a month – CUE, DEN, EdCamps, etc) And with the availability now of hangouts, skype, etc — you can virtually place yourself in a variety of localities!!

    And it is up to us — those who have a voice (even if it is a small voice) to mention those in-class teachers A LOT. On twitter, in our blog posts, and when we do speak at conferences!

    So we can showcase “in classroom” teachers who are LEADERS.

    Just my thoughts

  14. Interesting post, Michelle! In answer to your first question, “If someone asks you to recommend a great educational leader…” the first names that come to mind are three unbelievably dedicated and skilled teachers I have worked with. I agree with you, however, “Is it because we, as classroom teachers, are not great at self-marketing by nature?” These individuals do not think they are anything special. They have high expectations for themselves and their students. They don’t consider that there are others in the building (or anywhere else) who don’t feel the same way.

    I didn’t totally understand this until I moved into the position of instructional technology specialist in a K-8 school and was able to see first hand that not everyone has the same view or drive for excellence in providing well-planned, differentiated, creative, innovative, and engaging learning opportunities for their students.

    How would classroom teachers ever really know what goes on in other classrooms in the building? I was in a unique position in that I was able to observe and assist teachers with technology integration, but most other teachers have no idea what goes on elsewhere.

    Whenever I had time slotted at a faculty meeting, I made it a point to invite teachers and sometimes students to share their technology accomplishments. Again, some teachers are just not comfortable with ‘self-marketing,’ however, if another teacher asked them for help, they would spend as much time as necessary assisting them.

    Is this a leadership weakness? How would they know they are special if no one tells them they are? What would give one of these educators the confidence to attempt to try and lead at their school or at a conference? I think there is a place for administration to get involved in promoting and encouraging teachers who exemplify excellence to share inside and outside of their buildings.

    • Michelle Baldwin

      Thanks, Debbie. This is great! When I worked at the district level in PD, I often heard teachers say, “well, I’m just a teacher, but…” — and it broke my heart. In some places, the US vs THEM mentality (sometimes buildings vs district, sometimes teachers vs admin) is alive and kicking. It’s so counterproductive to doing what is best for kids. In my opinion, true educational leadership is about just that– what is best for kids, and how can I get out of the way, empower the people around me, and make that happen?

      Really appreciate your comment… thanks!

  15. Michelle,

    I enjoyed reading your post and think that you should always have the courage to express your opinions and ideas because you have so much to offer. I have always considered you a leader because you inspire others (including me) to be better each day through your words and sharing on Twitter. I work very closely with three amazing teachers who have designed amazing learning opportunities for students and they are everything that a leader should be. I learn from them every day, even though officially I am the administrator.

    Leadership is not about a title, it’s about inspiring those around you to excel and achieve at levels they did not believe were possible. It’s about encouraging others to take risks and being there to cheer them on when they succeed and redirect and learn when they fall short. It’s about having the courage to make decisions that are not commonplace because in your gut you know they are best for students and others. It’s about having the fortitude to be true to yourself despite obstacles and barriers. If you rely on a title for any of that then you are destined to failure. Great teachers, like you and our blended teachers, are real leaders!


    • Michelle Baldwin

      Thanks, Stacy!

      Oddly enough, I DO consider myself an educational leader. This post wasn’t really written for how I feel as a teacher.

      I love what you said about the teachers you work with, and I imagine that they are able to do amazing things as educational leaders because they’re in an environment that provides for that. That’s a testament to you as well!

  16. George Couros

    I have read this post over and over and I am wondering who is at fault for this? Are you saying that teachers are at fault because they do not look to each other enough?

    I look at my own school division and think of a lot of “leaders” that are in the classroom and doing amazing things. Do they keynote conferences? Nope, but I am not sure they would have a significant amount of time to do that either. The first few that come to my mind are actually all women as well.

    You can be a leader but not a great keynote speaker right? I don’t think that is what defines a leader. Could the issue maybe even be what you consider a “leader” is or your perception of them? Leaders also do not have to have a mass of followers on Twitter or anything like that. They can lead by example and do many amazing things without the fan fare.

    You are someone I would consider a leader and you still teach right?

    • Michelle Baldwin

      Thanks for your response, George.

      I wonder if too much emphasis was placed on those who keynote conferences… which wasn’t my intent. Just an example.

      My post was in response to a discussion I saw on Twitter and some follow-up posts, but I didn’t want it to seem like I was calling out one specific person. I didn’t link to those posts for that very reason. The sheer number of responses to this post (compared to my other posts) shows me that there is some room for growth here.

      Here’s the thing – you are an example of a different kind of leader. You value teachers and lead by example by sharing what they do. The teachers you work with feel like educational leaders because they are given respect and are empowered to lead. (I know this, because I read their blog posts.)

      This doesn’t happen everywhere. I’m not blaming any one person, and I’m definitely not looking to point fingers and say that a specific group is at fault. That would be easy, but misguided.

      Instead, I’m hoping that we all take a look inward and see where we need to change. It’s not about who is keynoting conferences (my fault for using that as an example), but how teachers are viewed… even amongst themselves.

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