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“Teacher Leadership in the Aftermath of a Pandemic #1: Taking stock”, by Ben Owens.

“With the closure of school buildings, we see that knowledge will find a way to flow, even if the traditional pathways are stoppered.” --Grant Lichtman --

The above quote is from a recent article that highlights how the concept of "flow," a universal force in nature, also applies to knowledge and information, especially in the midst of a global pandemic. As COVID-19 disrupted schools around the world, the flow of knowledge not only didn’t stop, it accelerated! Like water flowing into the fissures of a rock, education stakeholders are finding new ways to connect and share the information they need and in many cases, teachers are the ones leading this work, opening up new ways for connection to students, families, and colleagues.

Like no reform effort has been able to do, this crisis has created an unprecedented level of public will for change. Parents and caregivers have seen the artifacts on their kitchen tables of an archaic model of school in a way they might have previously taken for granted. As a result, they are demanding that we shift away from an artificial construct of education to something that is more relevant and aligned to the future of learning and the future of work.

The good news is that countless teachers are stepping up to leverage the flow of knowledge that has resulted from the crisis and in so doing, are leading a true transformation to education. Rather than waiting for directions or answers from the traditional, hierarchical institutions that have dominated the conversation for far too long, these teacher leaders are actively engaging in crowdsourced sharing and collaboration with peers from all over the planet, accelerating the pace of change like we’ve never seen. Teacher leadership is accelerating. And this genie is not going back in the bottle!

As awful as the current crisis is, the radical connectivity and free sharing of ideas, knowledge, and resources that has resulted from it gives me optimism. We might actually be reaching the long sought after tipping point to finally transform our education systems from a closed, industrialized model to one that is more nimble and responsive to our students and communities. The fact that so many teachers are taking the initiative to find ways to build connections and networks they may never have considered in the past is creating an unprecedented level of grassroots collaboration. Such collaboration is allowing them to see the intrinsic value of open sharing of information and empowering them to lead localized, student-centered change. 

Teacher leaders such as Shannon, a middle school teacher in Raleigh, North Carolina who is working with a colleague to create a Design for Change webinar for students under the hashtag, #DoGoodFromHome. Leaders like Tellania, a high school math teacher from Oklahoma has created and shared a virtual project for students to take advantage of the US census data. And leaders like Chris, an educator and coach who has been working in a partnership with Cincinnati (Ohio) Public Schools to provide remote content for students through a video series called Science Around Cincy, which is not only online, but is now being broadcast on TV via local providers, thus lowering the barriers to entry for households without broadband access.

In our policy paper we point to a few examples (out of countless numbers) of teachers who are not waiting to be told to innovate. We show how teacher leaders are collaborating, sharing, and remixing ideas so that more students can experience the kind of engaging, relevant education that we know every young person deserves. And as more and more teachers step out to show this kind of authentic leadership, our legacy institutions are forced to make a critical decision: We either embrace this kind of grassroots innovation and collective leadership, or face the brutal reality of irrelevance. The flow is going to happen!

While it is true that systemic, cultural change is never easy, especially in an environment where high stakes testing influences a reticence to take risks, what the current crisis has highlighted is the power of teachers tapping into networked innovation like never before. Rather than waiting for permission, teachers are leading this change by recalibrating their True North from a closed, hierarchical model to an open one with limitless possibilities. In doing so, they are demonstrating that anyone in our communities of learning has the capacity to innovate. Teachers who may have spent careers in relative isolation or who have had their ideas thwarted by bureaucratic minutiae are now connecting with peers from around the globe to share and adapt crowdsourced ideas to their own context. Whether it's a first year teacher or a seasoned veteran, when they collaborate, prototype ideas, share what they have seen works on such a scale as we are now seeing, they lead the positive change society demands from this crisis.

This is what Grant  also reminds us in Good Ideas, Shared More Often, Drive Change, we are on the cusp of a more open ecosystem of education. The teacher leadership that has emerged can’t be stopped - now or when we return to our school buildings. It’s the catalyst that I believe will help us finally overcome the institutional inertia of the status quo and transform our schools into the potent student-centered environments that we know are possible.

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Note: This article is one of three excerpts from “Teacher Leadership in the Aftermath of a Pandemic: The Now, The Dance, The Transformation”, by Barnett Berry, Armand Doucet, and Ben Owens. You can read the other two here: “Teacher Leadership in the Aftermath of a Pandemic #2: Learning lessons”, by Barnett Berry and “Teacher Leadership in the Aftermath of a Pandemic #3: Moving forward”, by Armand Doucet.


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Ben Owens

Ben Owens worked as an engineer for 20 years before becoming a math and physics teacher for 11 years at a Teacher Powered and wall-to-wall Project-Based Learning school in rural Appalachia. After co-authoring the book “Open Up, Education!” in 2018, Ben founded the nonprofit, Open Way Learning, and now helps schools create the cultural conditions for localized, learner-centered innovation. Ben was the 2017 Bridging the Gap Distinguished Teacher in STEM Education; the 2016 North Carolina Center for Science, Mathematics, & Technology Outstanding 9-16 Educator; a member of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Teacher Advisory Council; and a Hope Street Group National Teaching Fellow. He is on the National Faculty for PBLWorks, a member of Transcend’s Yellow Hats League, and is an Open Organization Ambassador.

 

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