Wendi Pillars, NC teacher and author of Visual Note-Taking for Educators, writes on developing her professional learning community and telling her teacher leadership journey with sketches.
I wouldn’t say I was trapped in my own classroom, but I rarely ventured outside of it with my teaching strategies and ideas. I have a go-to strategy I use as a teacher of English language learners. Visual note-taking: quick sketches ruled my classroom as a reliable tool for fun, effective, and quick clarification in the pre-Internet days. I used the strategy with all my students, in grades K-12, and although it was successful, I thought nothing of it.
I eventually realized that students were using the visual notes as resources and providing more nuanced input and ideas for me to add to them. My students were becoming engaged with the content in new and deeper ways.
Intention: Here’s where my classroom and I began to change and grow. I’d achieved National Board certification and had become not only deeply reflective but also more observant. When I saw my students using the visuals in different ways as study tools, shared reference points, discussion starters, and sparks for their thinking, I began to wonder how I could get better.
I had also recently joined the Teacher Leaders Network (now CTQ Collaboratory), which I realized was a space of open conversation, devoid of judgment, and heavy on support and guidance when needed or requested. Just being involved and having honest conversations I’d never had face to face increased my confidence and deepened my reflection.
I started using my visual notes more often, and imagined other uses as I became more intentional. With this newfound confidence I had from both NBPTS certification and other teachers’ experiences in my Professional Learning Network (PLN) through blogging, Twitter and the Collaboratory, I decided to try a new approach. If others outside my district and state were trying new things, falling short, then figuring out how to make it better, then why couldn’t I?
Stepping out: Out there? I began sketching more at conferences, and owning it. Gently. I realized what a mental stretch it was to listen, synthesize and sketch all at once for at least an hour at a time. Yet I was in a complete state of flow as each speaker talked. My brain was exhausted but exhilarated, and adults—both those in the audience and the speakers themselves—loved the affirmation and the way I captured their thinking.
Epiphany. My students needed to experience this, too, and I couldn’t just tell them about it. It was no longer enough for them to watch me and simply add ideas. I needed to ensure they had opportunities to try it firsthand. I also needed others to join me. Through CTQ, I opened up my classroom to the internet world and published an article about Visual Notetaking in the Classroom, virtually inviting others to try visual notetaking and share their results. A HUGE step. My virtual network, comprised largely of CTQ colleagues, was incredibly supportive, but what I liked most at this time were their pushes on my thinking:
- How do you use visual notetaking for _______?
- How do you start using visual notetaking with _______?
- What if I can’t draw? How does that influence student learning?
Invitation: These questions invited dialogue, more transparency, and reflection, and I was now part of something bigger. I’d been invited to the proverbial table “out there”; I was energized and grateful to have this support which I hadn’t found locally. I was also excited to share, thanks to steadily increasing confidence that comes when your authentic self is accepted.
I continued to teach and use visual notes, but now through a lens of scientific inquiry. I’d learned that being transparent about classroom practices demands even more reflection and intention. What were other ways I could use visual notes in other content areas? With other students? And how would I know they worked?
Opportunity: Not long after my article was published, the phone rang. It was an invitation from the editor of a publishing company: “Would you be interested in writing a book about this?” Incredulous, I took notes while she talked, and upon ending the conversation, I immediately called my friend at CTQ. “What do you think? What do you know about this company? Is this legit?” She was thrilled for me. Yes, it was legit. Yes, the company was fantastic. And yes, I accepted the invitation.
My book has now been published, but the next phase of this journey is just beginning. Throughout this process, my PLN has expanded exponentially, and now I have the confidence to jump in and invite others to that transformative table, with support, feedback, and gratitude. I have also, through the years of struggles and successes, learned to honor my authentic self because it was, and is, accepted and nourished by so many others along the way.
Takeaways: Through each step of my growing leadership journey, I’ve been bolstered by the understanding that I no longer represent just me; instead, I’ve learned that my work and desire to help student learning represent the teaching profession as a whole. Teachers ARE leaders, and these five transformative takeaways now inform my daily work:
- An effective teacher leader community is about the “do,” not the “be.” I’ve learned to focus on solutions, and how to take the “so what?” to the “now what?” phase.
- Teacher leaders push each other to be better through support and feedback rather than competition. I’ve learned to seek, trust, care about, then elevate, the potential in others.
- Teacher leaders take their work and expertise outside their classroom (or make it transparent). I’ve learned it’s no longer enough to just do what we do; sharing is advocacy.
- Teacher leaders need to be authentic because people, and the human element, matter deeply. We are human. And I’ve learned that that’s ok.
- We as teacher leaders have a responsibility to support and encourage others using our hands, hearts, and voices. I’ve learned that we must always, always, lift as we rise.