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Teacher leadership to the power of two

My sister Kelley Cusmano and I are identical twins and teacher leaders who live and work in separate parts of Michigan and collaborate frequently. In this co-authored post, we reflect on the story of how we led divergent paths to become teacher leaders without having to leave the classroom.

It was a bitter January night; the kind that makes you want to snuggle up at home with a cozy flannel blanket or bury your head in the covers. But instead of being at home, we were together in a well-lit but sterile classroom, pursuing our master’s degrees in K-12 administration. At the beginning of class, our professor stood up at the front of the room and asked, “So, what will you be doing with this degree?”

From our classmates, we heard the usual replies:

  “I want to become an assistant principal.”

  “I want to move into central office”

  “I want to become the director of special education”

As we sat there listening with what we like to refer to as “twintuition”, we both knew what we would say, “We want to lead without leaving.”

That simple phrase “lead without leaving," found in the book Teacherpreneurs, has defined the way we have developed our teaching stories. Even though we have widely different teaching paths, this guiding philosophy has always been at the forefront of our decisions. We hope in sharing our journey you can see there are divergent paths to leading without leaving… even when your educational journey has identical beginnings!

Sarah: My eyes were first opened to teacher leadership through a fantastic urban education experience teaching in Chicago where I first learned the potential of my leadership capabilities. This small teacher-led school that allowed me to start my career as a teacher leader with social justice and equity messaging as my focus. However, when I moved back to my home state six years later to pursue a job in an alternative program for nontraditional, at-risk students, I wasn’t sure if I would ever find the teacher leadership model that I was looking for that would allow me to fully lead, develop, and implement programs around the needs of at-risk students without having to leave the classroom.

My school—Washtenaw Educational Options Consortium (WAVE)—seemed to hold little opportunity for teacher leadership and contracted curriculum out to a nonprofit provider. Thankfully, our staff, including the director, believed in the value of empowering teachers. After two years of collectively pushing on our school’s issues, a decision was made to end the contract with the nonprofit and put school and curriculum redesign in the hands of staff. My director asked me to coordinate our school’s curriculum and, even better, we decided as a staff to leave the provider and redesign our school to model best practices for at-risk alternative learners. We became a successful teacher-powered school. 

I wasn’t satisfied with just transforming our school. In fact, I knew that my sister’s experience, although very different from mine, was similarly unsatisfying. We talked for hours about how tired we were of the narrative that schools were resistant to change—that teachers were not informed—and realized we needed to enter larger spheres of influence. There were people trying to telling us that we needed to leave the classroom to enter these spheres, but that was a message we were both resistant to.

Kelley: Like my sister, I began my career in a high-needs school. This experience helped to shape my passion for students who have much to overcome. However, due to a change in circumstance, I now teach in a suburban environment. I noticed that no matter the setting, my students wanted the same things: to have someone show them attention, love, and most importantly, that their ability to learn mattered.

My metamorphosis into teacher leader began when I was asked to take over as the teacher adviser for our student leadership class. This role allowed me to teach students leadership skills as well as assist students in planning school- and community-based projects. I jumped wholeheartedly into this role, but I still felt like there was something lacking in my career.

Since the students in this school had more stable home lives and a good education was something they expected, even felt entitled to, I began to feel like I was not making as big of a difference as I could. I knew that there were students and schools out there who didn’t have the same opportunities that my students did, and I wanted to do something about it. If I was going to ask my students to share their passions, I needed to do the same. On the other hand, I knew that most people believed that leadership in education could only be done outside of the classroom, by administrators from central office. I was committed to remaining in my classroom, but also had a desire to elevate teacher voice as a leader in education decision making. To begin, I joined our state’s advisory council for teacher leadership and began serving as an English teacher leader with my district. Both roles allowed me to begin voicing my opinion about student learning.

Most importantly, though, we both understand that teacher voice at every policy level is desperately needed and teachers need to be seen as education leaders and catalysts for change.  

Together: Our paths to lead and elevate teacher voice without leaving the classroom led us to the Teach to Lead Summit in 2015. It was there that we realized our divergent experiences were crucial toward showing decision makers that teacher leadership and change could happen on a multitude of levels. Together, we tapped into our similar frustrations and started looking for opportunities to lead, influence, and elevate teacher voice and the needs of our students.

Separately, and together, we took on national fellowships—America Achieves, Hope Street Group, ASCD, Teacher Champions for the Collaborative for Student Success—and both discovered and created opportunities, such as working on our state’s ESSA plan, advocating for high standards, and helping to organize the first ECET2MI, and the Governor’s Education and Talent summit. 

Despite the fact that we teach in extremely different environments in schools with different philosophies, our paths have a lot in common. We are committed to leading without leaving our classrooms. We know that change in education is going to take a long time, require a lot of sacrifice and hard work, and utilize all of the skills we have gained from our advocacy training.

Most importantly, though, we both understand that teacher voice at every policy level is desperately needed and teachers need to be seen as education leaders and catalysts for change.

Our stories may now be in separate places, but they merge in the common understanding that all students have the right to quality teachers, schools, and futures—and that teachers need to be at the table for all those conversations. 


Sarah and Kelley's post is part of CTQ's July/August blogging roundtable on the power of story. Join the discussion by commenting on this blog and checking out the other blogs in this series. You can find an updated list of all posts on this page. Follow CTQ on Facebook and Twitter to see when each new blog is posted and use #CTQCollab to chime in on social media.


 

 

 

 

3 Comments

Jan Barber-Doyle commented on August 1, 2017 at 3:13pm:

Time

I am inspired by your work. I wonder if you can share a few details about how you managed to stay in your classroom while undertaking the important leadership work you are doing. 

 

John Holland commented on August 3, 2017 at 12:26pm:

Resistant to Change

Dear Sarah and Kelley,

I was struck by your comment about how "tired we were of the narrative that schools were resistant to change." The concept of the prevailing narrative is one that keenly interests me. I love the idea of changing narratives through on the ground work. My experience has pointed to resistance from the very group of people you describe that were in the leadership program. Future assistant principals, administrators, and specialists. These are the same people who want to change the system so they get advanced degrees and then hamper distributed leadership because they find out that there position requires them to maintain the status quo. What would you tell these teachers turned administrators as they ponder the decision to leave the classroom?

 

John Montavon commented on August 7, 2017 at 2:13pm:

Careful leadership

You both sound like very admirable professionals deeply commited to students and doing what is best for them.  I applaud and share your desire to continue to teach students directly while also knowing that policy and organization do so much to promote or derail our abilities to provide what students need.  Policy should be shaped by the professionals working in the field.

So, it is with great dissapointment that I read your energy is being coopted by front organizations such as Hope Street, Teacher Champions, and America Achieves.  These "nonprofits," set up by the rich and well connected (Bill Gates, The Waltons, etc.), hand out money, certificates and training to teachers in order to influence policy toward their own goals.  Whether that is data collection, technology sales, charter schools, and mass "evaluation" schemes, these policies/goals are in no way driven by the needs of the students we serve.  Google the 990's of these organizations.  Why woud a person who puts students first pay one person in the "nonprofit" 1/2 to 2 million dollars a year?

There is a reason scientists are required to disclose their corporate funding.  The same should be true in education.  As long as these fronts can coopt our leader voices, our students will suffer the consequences.

What is the alternative?  Join/ get involved in/ take over/ start a teacher association or union.  With all of their problems they are still democratic institutions controlled mostly by teachers where students can be put first and the policy is decided by members whose interests are communities, schools, and kids.

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