Confessions of a Soul-Searching Teacher Leader: Why I’m Pursuing a Principal License (I’ll Probably Never Use)

How are YOU leading without leaving? We need more opportunities to grow and expand teacher leadership. We need a career lattice — one that doesn’t lead to the principal’s office.

Confession: After ten years in the teaching profession, I’m finally starting to feel a smidge better than average.  A notch (and on good days maybe two or three?) above mediocre.

Of course, the more I learn, implement, assess, evaluate, reflect and refine in the classroom, the more I worry about everything I don’t know.  What I’m not doing.  Who I didn’t touch, teach or reach in a class period.  And everything I have to do to feel “ready” for tomorrow.

No matter how solid my plan, I never truly feel ready for tomorrow.

I’m not being humble, I’m being honest.

These feelings of inadequacy and the quest for constant improvement drive me to become a better teacher. It is also the reason why on some days I sigh with contentment. Those are the days when 25 smiling faces exit the room. Smiles that show me my students feel safe, happy, and satisfied. Smiles that demonstrate they are learning and growing, both as readers and writers, and as people.

And why on others days (like today) I can read something such as the recent interview with Rafe Esquith in The Washington Post—and weep. Big crocodile tears that roll down my cheeks in the same way they did when I was a first year teacher.

This is partly why I’ll never be a principal.

I’ve found a career and a calling where I’ll never reach mastery. I’ll never exhaust the possibilities for improvement. It will never be easy or predictable or perfunctory, because nothing about working with adolescents is easy or predictable or perfunctory.

Teaching will always be fresh. It will always be fun. It will always be full of frustrations both within and outside of my control.

And when it’s not—it will be time for me to leave the profession.

So, why am I pursuing a principal license I’ll probably never use?

Because I want to know what happens inside and outside the principal’s office. I want to know what preparation for school leadership looks like. I want to understand how budgets work, why and how decisions are made without teacher and community input, and why operational decisions (like bus routes and master schedules) often trump instructional priorities.

I want to empathize with my school leader. And I want access to the club. Until teacher leadership is taken as seriously as a principal license, I want to understand the system from a principal’s perspective. I want to know why some reforms succeed, and why so many others fail.

I want to know what principals know, but I don’t want to be a principal.

I left the classroom once, to become an instructional coach, and I didn’t like what it did to my soul. The first year, I learned alongside the teachers I supported. The second year, I learned some more. But by the third year, I spent most of my time in classrooms with a pit in my stomach. A growing realization that I was beginning to forget what it felt like to be a practicing teacher. I was coaching teachers who were grappling with new standards, new assessments, and new technologies that I had never tried myself as a practitioner.  It felt inauthentic. It felt uncomfortable. And it drove me back to the classroom this past year where I was a “first year teacher” in many ways all over again.

Don’t get me wrong. I respect the work of both instructional coaches and school leaders. I continue to benefit from the mentoring, feedback and support of both.

But I never want to feel like I’m forgetting what it’s like to be a teacher. So until the work of school leaders looks more like the work of classroom teachers, I don’t want to be a principal. I just want to be a better teacher leader.

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