Think about “Star Wars.” How would the tale have ended if Luke had confronted Darth Vader, but had yet to meet Obi-Wan Kenobi and learn the ways of The Force? Or, consider a storyline where the Karate Kid had never met Mr. Miyagi and famously polished the latter’s car while muttering the mantra, “Wax On. Wax Off.” Imagine Rocky climbing into the ring with Apollo Creed, without having trained with Mickey. What if Harry Potter had not attended Hogwarts Wizard School, yet still faced Ralph Fiennes – undoubtedly angry for not having a nose – in the film’s final battle?
You guessed it. They would have been short and very depressing movies. None of our heroes would have stood a chance.
These fictional encounters with a mentor represent a critical stage in the archetypical hero narrative, as described by noted sociologist and mythologist Joseph Campbell. From “The Lion King” to “The Odyssey,” this stage of the journey is ubiquitous in both film and literature. Many believe its prevalence as a successful narrative framework is grounded in its appeal as a logical and natural expectation in our real lives. We expect heroes to have developed their skills through crucial learning phases that prepare them for the daunting tasks they will face.
What happens to the tale without this critical experience and learning? The narrative collapses, and the hero inevitably fails.
In essence, we reflect reality in our fiction, through the notion that heroes are born with the potential, but not necessarily the mindset to recognize the difficulties and opportunities ahead. Further, they often do not possess the requisite skills, nor do they understand the power that they potentially wield.
In short, they are not ready. Knowing there is a problem does not prepare one to navigate the challenges of designing and implementing a remedy.
Our real hero challenge centers around teacher leadership. Educators are constantly reminded that they need to lead, yet rarely have a “Mr. Miyagi Moment.” Nowhere in undergraduate work, and rarely in professional development opportunities, do teachers have the opportunity to develop the aptitude required to lead. They do not learn about systems, stages of change, or even frameworks around engaging with adults. Then, we curiously wonder why they often struggle navigating advocacy efforts or policy conversations. It’s actually surprising to us that teachers are often more effective engaging and leading children than their peers.
However, that is exactly what we trained them to do.
At last week’s Teach to Lead Summit, I had the good fortune to interact with over 100 blossoming leaders, as well as dozens of partner representatives and critical friends. In reality, the weekend could be considered a representation of another of Campbell’s monomyth stages, known as “The Acceptance of the Call.” These teachers recognized that they were ready to learn about leadership, as well as strategize around a plan for improvement within their own contexts. They were eager to positively impact the world, or at least their school. These teachers were sponges, eager to learn as much as they could from partner organizations, as well as mentors that were strategically engaged with each group. And, in the end, I was struck with how much they had learned over the course of one weekend.
Imagine their potential with more time and commitment. Simply put, Teach to Lead should only be the prologue to a new tale of skill development and teacher-leadership. It should tell the story of how we are empowering teachers to navigate complicated systems and manage delicate relationships, while improving their schools, districts, or states using the knowledge and experience that only they possess.
Prior to the start of the event, I visited Gust Elementary School, part of the Denver Public School system, as it had been recommended as a site that showcased amazing teacher-leadership and unsurpassed collaboration between administration and staff. The school’s principal, Jamie Roybal, was kind enough to give me two hours of her time to discuss how she develops and maintains such an effective culture. I quickly was impressed with what I heard and saw, however, one element of her strategy emerged as something that others often forget.
Mrs. Roybal formally and strategically trains her teacher-leaders on several highly effective leadership models that she feels are necessary for them to be successful in their critical roles. In her estimation, such training is essential, and the strength of her logic is exemplified by what she has accomplished at Gust. It is a school where teachers want to teach, that is adaptable to the needs of students, and a place where problems are addressed with fluidity and creativity. Gust is the type of school you would want your own children to attend, and its culture and leadership structures are embedded deep within the staff.
Teachers at Gust were not simply directed to lead, they were taught to lead. Mrs. Roybal identified natural talent and then equipped those teachers with the skills to be successful. The results speak for themselves.
Institutionalized teacher-leadership is key to effectively rethinking our schools, allowing them to be more responsive and effective in their purpose. However, simply elevating teachers to higher levels of responsibility is not authentic teacher-leadership, and can potentially do more harm than good. Doubters inevitably point to any ineffectiveness as an example of why the hierarchy must continue. Yet, did we ever expect a different result?
We intuitively understand the progression of a leader, and this is why the monomyth described by Campbell resonates across cultures. We understand the value of invested mentors, training time, and the importance of repeatedly honing skills. We know the value of these steps in a galaxy far, far away. Yet, we do not apply this knowledge in our own backyard.
The answer may be in the room, but we must recognize that leading is a honed skill that must be taught, fostered, and practiced with guidance. Before we ask them to fight the battle, we should afford them the tools they need to be successful.
Being strategic about effectively preparing teachers to lead will decide the outcome of our story. If we get it right, our heroes’ journey will undoubtedly serve as a rousing crowd-pleaser that actually matters.