Teacher advocacy is not without its heart aches. But for those who persevere, what doesn’t kill your career can transform you into a activist who rises like a phoenix. Read Katie’s story and find out how she used the lowest point in her teaching career to jumpstart a new brand of teacher leadership!

Katie Paetz, teaches in the Roosevelt Elementary School District of Phoenix, Arizona. The district serves a mainly minority population, 25% of whom live below the poverty level.

Katie Paetz also serves as a newly elected member on the Osborn School Board, also in Phoenix. The demographics of this community are only slightly different from where Katie teaches. But still too many people are without jobs.

As a teacher leader in both communities, Katie passionately believes that all students can be successful, regardless of their zip code. But she acknowledges, in order for this to happen, teachers’ voice and their expertise must influence all education policies and agendas.  “Teacher-centered schools are student-centered schools; what is best for teachers is also what is best for their students in the classroom. You must keep your work force empowered if you want to empower and educate students.”

I got to know Katie, over a year ago when she participated in the pilot for the Teacher Leadership Initiative (TLI), the joint endeavor of three highly regard education organizations. The Center for Teaching Quality, the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, and the National Education Association, launched the pilot this past January, with more than 150 teachers nation-wide.

Like Katie, many of these teachers seek to bring about meaningful changes in education, but don’t know where to begin. Which is why the goals of the initiative are to equip teachers to be effective change agents and to activate them to serve as leaders in the profession.

Recently, I had the opportunity to talk with Katie. It has been nearly a year since we first met, and I was curious to know how her teacher leadership journey led her to run a successful campaign for the Osborn School Board. Specifically, I wanted to know what caused an elementary classroom teacher to move out of her comfort zone and into the political fray?  Following is an overview of Katie’s leadership story.

Katie is an advocate to her core.

You can imagine then the challenges she faced, when she began to push back on the culture of silence that existed in the school where she began her career. “ I was the music teacher, the culture creator, and I began to speak out against a system that marginalized kids who were poor, and students of color. That way of thinking goes against everything I believe in.”

She credits her lowest point as a teacher as the jumpstart to her current hybrid career as both teacher and community leader.  It began after she lost her job. She fought through isolation, grief, and frustration, “I decided not to react in fear and preservation, but to move forward in courage. There are so many interesting things going on in education; I didn’t want to be stuck in the echo chamber of negativity.” She found a new avenue for her advocacy through a series of personal and professional decisions.

During our conversation Katie reflected on the lessons she learned that transformed her from an advocate to an activist:

  1. Be tactful:  In the early years of advocacy, “I could have gone about things differently. I was definitely the pointy end of the stick; and I lacked tack.”  Katie also says that now, “As the leader, sometimes I need to back off a bit, and move people forward from where they are.” Often a gentle nudge is more effective as a push!
  2. Develop a vision– Losing her job caused Katie began to read and research policy. Consequently, “I was like that fish who finally sees the ocean around her.” She began to explore ways to use her knowledge of policy to raise awareness of education issues and to create a unique path of teacher leadership.
  3. Connect with others– Katie returned to teaching and joined the association to elevate teachers’ voices. Her leadership in this arena led her to the TLI pilot. “I was connecting with like-minded professionals. It was extremely relevant to my career and for advocating for education.” She also used the power of connecting to share her core campaign message, door to door.
  4. Develop a core message: While in TLI, Katie began to understand where she could make the greatest impact, and went on to develop the core message that, “Educators must be a part of education policy.” She translated this message into a successful campaign slogan.
  5. Target the problem and not the person: In the beginning, “I hung all my frustrations on one person.” Now with her vision and message clearly before her, Katie is able to bridge diverse perspectives with her unifying message of teacher leadership as the lever for educational equity in her community.
  6. Take risks: Katie believes that when the cause is right, the risk is worth it. She encourages anyone who can resonate with the bumps in her career to, “Change your reality and take risks. Your success is one step beyond your last failure.”
  7. Dream big: Katie recalls the question that kept her moving forward in her uphill campaign to unseat the incumbent, during the Osborn School Board election.  “What would you do if you were not afraid?” The question now serves as the catalyst to amplify her message of teacher leadership in public service.

It was a friend and mentor who encouraged Katie to run for the Osborn School Board. Her core message of “educators must be a part of the education policy” could then serve as a guide to decision-making in a new role. So, Katie took her message door-to-door, to see if it could indeed resonate with the people in her community. It did. They elected Katie!

Listening to Katie reflect on her journey from an advocate to an activist, it is impossible to imagine the policy savvy teacher leader as anything other than the positive and impactful public servant she is today.

But her story serves as a reminder that to be a teacher, as well as a leader in the 21st century is to be an activist for teaching and learning. But it is not without risks. It is just a matter of identifying where you can make the greatest impact, counting the cost, and running with it. Literally.

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