On Ron Thorpe and The Bridge Between Teaching and Leading

Jose VilsonJose

A few years ago, John Holland and I started this blog called The Future of Teaching [now defunct], dedicated to the themes of the book Teaching2030: What We Must Do … When we first started in 2009, we wanted a clearer vision for what teacher leadership looks like in our local and national context, not ruffling feathers (!) per se, but tackling the more complex subjects from the book.

Something changed around 2011.

I’m not sure whether it was because we gained notoriety with people we considered frenemies, or because we called out a whole host of organizations for not seeing teachers in the future of education, but we noticed how people responded to our candid calls for bridging the gap between those who teach and those who lead. So when John Holland posted this, I was like “Oh I see you.” The frustration with the National Board of Professional Learning Standards (NBPTS) was palpable with all of my National Board friends. We needed the best and brightest teachers at the forefront of discussing education reform, and many felt like NBPTS as an organization was working counter to that goal.

Still, how do you call out a man who had two hugely successful teaching conferences in New York City (WNET’s Celebration of Teaching and Learning) and hadn’t even started his first official day as president of the NBPTS? But it wasn’t just a regular guy. It was Ron Thorpe (full comment in the link):

“Since you have sent your thoughts in an open letter to me, I hope you don’t mind if I respond similarly.  First of all, THANK YOU for writing what you did.  The mere fact that you value such communication and took the time to fashion such a thoughtful set of observations is exactly what I’m hoping to find many times over — maybe 91,000 times over! — among National Board Certified Teachers. […]

Let me end with what I think is your most compelling observation:  the need for the National Board to fully exercise its commitment to that third goal of advancing ‘other education reforms for the purpose of improving student learning in American schools.’  That is the area that most interests me at the National Board.  I am not an “assessment” guy, nor am I very well versed in the technical side of what it requires to establish strong and meaningful standards.  What I care about most is using that foundation — which is so well established by the NBPTS over the last 25 years — and using it to forge the profession teaching truly deserves to be.  Much of that knowledge — and almost all of the muscle — will come from those teachers who have pursued Board Certification and who continue to set the bar not only around what teachers should know and be able to do, but around how teachers behave as professionals.  The culture of K-12 education is inextricably linked to the culture of the individuals who lead classrooms and who create the environment in which learning takes place.  Among U.S. teachers today, fewer than 3% are National Board Certified.  They have a powerful voice that needs to be heard, and they are making a profound difference in the profession, but their numbers are still too small.  3 to 100 are pretty long odds, even when the 3 are the best of the best.  We need to change that balance, and we need to find ways to support teachers who want to take up the challenge. […]

I thank you, John, for your open letter and your dedication to teaching and learning.  I also thank you for your disenchantment.  As I lead the National Board into its second quarter-century, I need to know what we must do better, where the new opportunities are, and who the people are who care enough to expect NBPTS to stand for more than a credential.  In that regard, I realize that I have much in common with the teachers the National Board was created to serve.  And I am honored to be share in the work.

Ron Thorpe
Not yet, but soon to be the new President and CEO of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards”

After that, I sat there staring at my computer screen like, “What did we do?” John must have been thinking the same thing. I thought we got ourselves in trouble by being so direct, but the opposite was true instead.

It was the first time a leader of a major education organization had responded to a blog we wrote directly in the comment box, contrary to the passive-aggressive and pernicious nature of second-handed e-mails. When we called out the New York Times, for example, they responded by opening 40 tickets for teachers to go and eventually putting up a teacher as a panelist (and refused to invite me of course). Mr. Thorpe, on the other hand, took his time at 5:39pm on a Friday, no less, to carefully lay out his new vision for NBPTS on John’s blog.

Even without much classroom experience, Ron was a thoughtful and affirmative education leader, who envisioned something better than the current direction education reform is going. He empowered many of my teacher friends who work in teacher leadership to speak up in ways they didn’t feel they had before. In a space full of movers and shakers, many of them disingenuous about their motives for getting into education, Ron Thorpe stood out early and often for the passion he had for this work and the empathy he had for others.

Four years after that comment, I got to go to the conference he built up, a conference I never had access to since I’m not board certified (yet). Throughout the conference, you almost got the sense that his work, while magnificent, was far from over.

And now that he’s passed on, he’s probably listening from wherever he is, thinking about he’s gonna say next. We’re all listening intently.

photo c/o