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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  • LoriNazareno

    Soul/Role Coherence

    Thank you so much for giving voice to the many teachers who are committed to teaching, yet want to take on additional leadership roles. Unfortunately, in the past the only way to take on those roles was by actually leaving that which we love so much. I know that, even when I was leading a teacher-led school, I felt significant amounts of incoherence between my role and what my soul was called to do. Parker Palmer in his book, A Hidden Wholeness, refers to this incoherence as a life divided.

    And, on behalf of the students whom you serve, thank you for returning to what your soul has called you to do. Not only does it serve you, it also serves them in HUGE ways!

    • danatucker

      The License Vs. The Experience

      “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.”

      Jessica, I loved your post. Not to oversimplify, but I do wonder is the licensure the best way to know and understand what it means to be a Principal? For instance, as a teacher was it the license and the prep program that gave you acess and understanding to the club? OR, was it the time on the ground working with kids each day?

      I would argue that spending money on a license is not the only means to achieve the training, experience, perspective and understandings of a school leader. Lori’s example is one means (a school setting that is teacher-led), but in our current school structures that are not teacher-led how might we develop our leadership identity while being a TEACHER? I think it’s possible, I think we have to work authentically and collaboratively with our school leaders and help them see that school leadership can exist in innovative ways. For instance, with our new evaluation system not only the Principal is the evaluator. How can we blur and blend our roles to provide meaningful feedback to our colleagues? Then we would experience a leader’s pespective on evaluating. How can we initiate school leadership teams? Then we would experience a leader’s perspective on driving teams of adult learners. How can we work collaboratively around the use of T.E. and funding? Or think through goals around implementation of the district initiatives ? So many of us already do these things at our sites. The only difference is that we are not “project lead” on these items. How can we become? At the school, district or even state level?

      So again, I wonder is it the license or the experience? 

      • JessicaCuthbertson

        Experience Matters!


        Absolutely — I completely think that experience and job-embedded learning is key and is a much deeper preparation experience than the coursework or assignments tied to licensure could ever be. My “principal prep” program does require a number of internship hours logged alongside a school leader and these insights and experiences have been much richer than reading about school leadership and writing about it from a theoretical perspective. 

        And I definitely think there must be increased opportunities to blur the lines and allow teacher leaders to do this work (as teacher leaders not as principals). After all, if teacher leaders had a true career lattice of possibilities — how many would choose to lead without leaving the classroom? 

        Thanks for your thoughtful comment!

  • Heather

    You nailed it!

    Your article, Jessica, inspired this blog post of mine:

    • JessicaCuthbertson

      Thanks and an “ask” 🙂


      Thanks so much!  I visited your post as well and am always happy to hear when my “confessions” resonate with other teachers.  I loved this quote from your post:   “I want to participate in the process that directly affects my role, and my students, but I don’t want to leave behind the motivation that drives me each day to BRING IT for the reasons that waltz past me each period of the day, five days per week, the reasons we’re all here:  the kids.”

      I feel like this participation in the process that  you describe is exactly what the Collaboratory is all about.  If you haven’t already, I encourage you to join solutions-oriented teacher leaders here at to engage further in these types of policy and practice discussions.  The Collaboratory also features a number of content and geo labs based on your interest (Common Core? Classroom Practice? Innovative Leadership? Teacher Evaluation? School (Re)Design?) — I know you, your enthusiasm, your ideas and your voice would contribute a great deal to this amazing virtual community of practice!  Hope to “see” you online soon!

      • Piangenti

        I’m here!

        Hi Jessica,

        Motivated by you, I’ve now joined the community.  Have a super afternoon!

        Heather R. Green

        • JessicaCuthbertson


          Welcome, Heather!

          This made my day!  Please explore the site and contribute to any discussions that pique your interest (or start a thread of your own!) We also host vibrant content labs on a range of topics that you might consider joining.  They include: Common Core (my personal current obsession ;), Innovative Leadership, Classroom Practice, Teacher Evaluation, and School Redesign.

          A huge welcome to the community and please let me or any other Collaboratory member know if you have questions or need anything!

  • ArielSacks

    I can relate!

    Jessica, I found myself nodding repeatedly as I read your post! I’m starting my tenth year as a full time classroom teacher, and I’m befuddled as to where my path will lead. I don’t want to leave the classroom! And yet I want to continue to stretch myself as leader; just like how you described never being completely satisfied with your work as a teacher (even though there are some awesome days to smile about!) I feel a similar ache about the state of the teaching profession and can’t just be a passive recipient of education policies. For the first time, I’ve been wondering if I might enjoy an admin degree program, though I don’t know that I’d want to be a principal. It was really interesting and inspiring to hear your reasons for wanting to learn about administration even if you never use it. Thank you for a great post!  I’m looking forward to hearing about your journey!

    • JessicaCuthbertson

      Thank YOU!

      Thanks, Ariel!  So…just as the MET data reveals there are so many of us out there: teachers passionate about our craft and our classrooms, who want to impact students, teachers and the profession beyond our clasroom walls.  I want “leading without leaving” to become a national movement! And I want school leaders to self-identify as teacher leaders first (and foremost). 

      And I wonder…what exactly would help make this happen?  This year several of my go-to colleagues in the district, master teachers who I admire and respect, took positions outside of the classroom — many as instructional coaches, administrative TOSA’s, principals or assistant principals. If they could “lead without leaving” the system and their students would reap the benefits.  I think compensation is a factor, as well as professional and personal growth.  The best teachers are constantly learning, changing and growing.  I imagine a more dynamic and flexible system that allows them to do this and still touch students every day.  I guess 2030 is just not soon enough for me! I guess in the meantime, it’s time for me to get back to reading Teacherpreneurs! 🙂

  • WendiPillars

    Thanks for voicing this


    Thanks for the courage it took to open up and write about this. Such a conundrum and a catch-22–the #roleforthesoul. I can understand why it would feel inauthentic to “help other teachers” when you have been out of the primary classroom role. Rules, regs, procedures, tech, etc.–they all change so quickly that it’s impossible to keep an accurate pulse without being in the middle of it all!

    But I really appreciated the reasoning behind why you’re pursuing a principal license–very enlightening, and I, as did Ariel, found myself nodding and doing the “ah-ha!” thing while reading. 

    The fact you’re being so deliberate about understanding diverse perspectives is wonderful–and such a testament to your leadership. Keep us posted on how things go, and the revelations you encounter!!


  • SusanGraham

    Blurring the lines between teaching and leading

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

    What an incredible lesson in humility. It made me realize that as teacher leaders, we sometimes trip ourselves up because we don’t hear the self-righteousness when we take position of “I know as much as principals know, but I don’t want to be a principal.” Paying dues by earning administrative accreditation gives validity to a teacher leader’s position of leading without leaving the classroom.  

    When teachers like Jessica speak from the position of  “Yes, but I choose to lead from the classroom…” rather than  “No, I won’t leave the classroom to lead…” it changes the conversation.  And hopefully, it will change the way we prepare and certify educators blurring the lines between teaching and leading.

  • SandyMerz

    Never stop learning

    I saw the quote recently, “When you’ve stopped learning, it’s time to stop teaching.”  That’s what you post and the comments make me think I’ll never know enough about teaching to leave the classroom.  And to you and Ariel, I’m starting year 27, roughly 3 years to every one of yours, and I hope you don’t hold on to any illusions that someday you’ll get it all.


  • RosemaryGrimm

    Teacher Leader

    WELL SAID!   I’m working on my masters, and I often start conversations about my studies with, “I don’t want to be a principal but…”   You said it all so well.  Also, your firsthand experience with leaving then returning to the classroom was honest and enlightening.  Thank you for sharing.  

  • jenniferbarnett

    Thanks, Jessica, for speaking my mind!

    Jess and everyone…

    This has been such a fascinating thread with much fodder for everyone in this community. Natural leaders cannot be satisfied easily. A quirky mechanism ticks inside us all causing us to consider possibilities we once might have ignored. Jessica, an incredibly analytical thinker, has done us such a wonderful service. Heather did as well! They probably thought they were inviting us inside their heads to explain the thinking that happens when the need to lead nips at one’s heels. But, they allowed us inside our own heads, as well! Often teacher leaders have such a difficult time finding time to clearly understand what they are feeling about their work. Rarely do they have many “teacher neighbors” to chat with in the hall, over lunch, or at the copier. We don’t do that. We’d come across as a self-righteous twit. We like to make and keep friends, not run them away!

    So, I say thank you! I’m overjoyed to read so many of my own thoughts in your words. This is why this community is necessary for teacher leaders. We need to experience validation for who we are and why we are a little different from others. Not better, just different.

    To all of you considering expanding yourself, keep this in mind. You already are by being here. Powerful stories change people. Are you willing to share your story? 

  • Emily Gaither

    Teacher Leadership

    Thank you Jessica for sharing your perspectives, much of which I feel is in line with my own thinking.  I have only recently begun to evaluate the differences between administration and teacher leadership.  I am currently working on my masters degree in the area of Teacher Leadership.  When I was evaluating programs, this stuck out for me.  I have been like you in that I am always critical of how I can improve or change.  My confidence as an “expert” or “experienced” teacher is still new, but continues to grow.  Even though the administration is considered at a higher level, I also see where teacher leaders that have emerged naturally might have more respect among their colleagues.  How would you describe the relationships between teacher leaders and teachers?

    This is my first year in a new position outside of the classroom.  After 10 years in 2nd grade, I was ready for a change.  I am still working with small groups of below level children in reading and math.  This has helped me to feel the need to stay current on instructional strategies and curriculum.  I have only just begun, but look forward to the possible impact I can make on students and teachers.

  • JustinMinkel

    the gap

    Love this piece, Jessica. 

    This line resonated with me: “I was coaching teachers who were grappling with new standards, new assessments, and new technologies that I had never tried myself as a practitioner.”

    My career trajectory looks like a hopscotch game–2 years teaching, 2 year Masters, 3 years teaching, 1 year sabbatical/1 year paternity leave, 3 years teaching, 2 years educational leave.

    Those times away have been invaluable in terms of gaining perspective, gaining new skills, and having more time with my kids.  But it hits me each time how quickly we forget.  The daily world of the classroom becomes abstract very quickly, and new waves like Common Core change the game considerably.

    Thanks for this reminder.  Paired with Jon Eckert’s piece “Do Not Operate…”, it’s an eloquent argument for teacher leadership in policy, research, higher ed, and PD.


  • Emily Gaither

    Lifelong Learning

    It is those waves of change that challenge teachers to be lifelong learning.  In this demanding profession, we must stay knowledgable of new instructional strategies and curriculum, as well as time and experience in the classroom.  One or the other is simply not enough.  Teacher leadership must be the role model for change while continuing to improve in their own classrooms.

  • allisonormond

    Career Pathways for Teachers

    This is an intriguing conversation, one I have had with other teacher leaders as well.  Jessica makes an excellent point regarding the importance that is placed on the principal licensure vs. teacher leadership.  I am currently an instructional coach in a high needs high school, and love most aspects of my job.  I work closely with our teaching staff to coach and support them.  I co-teach, model, conduct instructional rounds, conduct professional development, etc… As many of you mention, it is difficult to stay grounded in the classroom when you move into a role like this.  But overall, I am making it work.  The flip side is although I am not an administrator, I have chosen to complete a PhD in teacher education development, I am often pulled into admin duties.  I have learned a lot by working closely with my admin team, however (even budget! lol).  And  we do meet weekly to dicuss curriculum, instruction and assessment. 

    I often wonder what a licensure in Teacher Leadersip would entail? What coursework and “rules and regs” would we need to master in order to achieve such licensure.  What opportunities would it open for us?  In my state one can earn a curriculum specialist license which does require the Praxis in Administration and Supervision. In fact, there is an entire university degree program that is required…no add on licensure.  Most school systems want curriculum specialists, coaches, coordinator’s with this licensure or principal licensure to be in these roles, particularly at the district level.  But for those like us who do not desire to be a principal, we are faced with the decision of acquiring a license for a positon we do not wish to hold (principal).  Does a teacher leader require the same preparation?  Can teacher leaders be formed this way? ( I am creating more questions than answers, here).

    I am curious about the Master’s degree in Teacher Leadership that Emily is taking and if that leads to a licensure area?  

    There is a career ladder for those who wish to go into administration.  In teaching, there doesn’t seem to be a career pathway for those who wish to lead from within and/or beyond the classroom.  I respect the role of the principal, but have never desired to be one.  But as Emily alludes to in her response, being a principal has always been deemed as a step up from being a teacher.  This needs to change.  Our work and roles should run parallel, with opportunities for growth both professionally and financially.  

    Great conversation!