I have a confession, and I also need to ask all classroom teachers for forgiveness. As recently as one day ago, I told a complete stranger that I am a teacher –- not I was, but I am. In my defense, the conversation went like this:
Stranger: Good morning.
Me: Good morning.
Stranger: So, what do you teach?
Me: How did you know I was a teacher?
The truth is my last group of students walked out of my classroom door May 2013, which can be considered a lifetime ago in the quickly changing world of public education. The last middle school students I taught graduated in May 2018. I was traveling for work, so I was unable to attend graduation in person. Instead, I woke up at 6 a.m. PST to watch a livestream of the ceremony at 9 a.m. EST, and my tears of joy marked the closing of yet another chapter. I live tweeted the event so that they would know I was there with them even though I couldn’t be there physically.
I left the classroom for a central office position in professional development. I wanted to make a larger impact and convinced myself that if I was able to impact teachers, then I could impact more students. While that may be numerically possible, the best way to impact students is to work directly with students.
I don’t regret my decision to walk away from a traditional classroom teaching role, but I miss it every day. The truth is my classroom and my students have shifted form. I have found other ways to teach. Besides, I have already admitted I have not given up my teacher identity and have no plans to do so.
My position as a professional development facilitator for Teaching Tolerance (www.tolerance.org) allows me to meet with teacher leaders from around the country and discuss what it means to be a social justice educator committed to antibias education.
I also get to talk to educators from around the world through #ClearTheAir, my passion project. #ClearTheAir is a diverse community of educators who use Twitter to discuss texts that address issues of race and other critical topics in education. Our hope is that in critically examining our personal attitudes, beliefs, and biases that we can become better humans and educators.
With each of the one-on-one conversations I have with educators in these spaces, I am inspired by their teacher leadership work and their commitment to make their marks in their communities. From veteran educators to preservice teachers, I meet people who are finding and cultivating their teacher leader voices with more courage than I certainly had when I was a classroom teacher.
Given those conversations and my own teacher leadership journey, I have identified a few key ideas that I want to share with current teacher leaders.
Get equipped. Before I recognized I was a teacher leader, my mentors saw something in me that made them want to invest in my development. They wanted to equip me for what was coming next even though no one knew what that would actually be. For example, I was tapped for a district initiative here, invited to participate on a panel there, and encouraged to make connections with other educators who were making moves. I didn’t think of these activities as equipping me at the time, but I constantly go back to them as foundational and necessary experiences.
My greatest experience, though, actually came from being involved with the Center for Teaching Quality (CTQ). I regularly tell teacher leaders that it was my CTQ family who raised me as a teacher leader. They taught me how to lead virtual communities, pushed me to blog, and convinced me that I had a story that needed to be told.
Your equipping may look like reading more about your content, presenting at conferences, or researching your own classroom. Whatever it may be, do it. Keep saying yes.
Continue to evolve. When I first joined social media (note: I swore I would never join SM–evolutionary move #1), I primarily operated in the EdTech space. I cared about the latest digital platforms and how they would impact my classroom.
Shortly after, I found myself live-tweeting educational conferences I attended. It was an opportunity to invite teachers who couldn’t afford to attend the conferences to still learn. I underestimated how important this access was for educators who were following along.
In 2016, I watched in horror as EduTwitter operated as if Donald Trump’s campaign rhetoric was normal and acceptable. I found that very few educators were willing to combine education and politics. It fired me up to use my voice and platform to fight for what I thought was right.
I share this anecdote because in order to sustain your teacher leadership work, you must identify what change you are fighting for that will continue to fuel you. It’s okay if that changes; in fact, that’s the best part of evolving. You can take what you learn in one stage of your development and apply it to the next. The overall goal is to keep moving forward in your purpose.
Get engaged and engage others. When Hollywood tells the story of a positive educator, it’s usually about an individual teacher and her heroic efforts. You may be familiar with Stand and Deliver, Dangerous Minds, or Freedom Writers.
We already know working alone is not how you build lasting change. The best work is done in community, so find one or create one.
Vanessa Siddle Walker teaches us in The Lost Education of Horace Tate that black educator networks had direct impacts on Brown v. Board of Education and future advocacy efforts:
“Necessarily invisible to prying eyes, black educators provided the plaintiffs, money, and data for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to generate the education case. . . . This time working from top to bottom in their networks, they crafted forms of purposeful education that infused black students with a civic and literary curriculum and with a power of purpose to fight for their full freedom absent in white school.”
I can’t say that I intentionally thought through these ideas while I was on a personal journey, but I keep them in my mind now by asking myself a series of questions: What more do I need to learn? How can I push myself out of my comfort zone? What is keeping me up at night? What experiences are my children having at school that need to be addressed as a larger education community? Who wants to do this work with me, and how can I connect with them?
With all of that said, current classroom teachers, I hope that I continue to make you proud and you are willing to call me one of your own.
Val brings more than 14 years of experience in public schools and higher education as a secondary ELA teacher, instructional coach, and professional development specialist. When she is not laughing with her family or learning with her EdD cohort, you can watch her bring the heat to educators on Twitter @ValeriaBrownEdu. She is currently a Professional Development Facilitator at Teaching Tolerance. She is also the founder of #ClearTheAir, a 2016 ASCD Emerging Leader, and the 2013 Seminole County (FL) Teacher of the Year.