Cultivate a Calling

Despite what you may think, teacher leaders are prepared to take their rightful place in decisions that impact teaching and learning. All it will take is some cultivating and digging.

Recently, I heard someone say, “I am called to be a teacher.” And that got me thinking.

A calling can be defined as being passionately and irresistibly drawn to make a positive impact on a person, group, movement, or profession. People who feel called say things like:

  • “ I don’t know why, but I have to do this.”  Or
  • “No matter what happens or who goes with me, I have to see this through ‘til the goal is fully accomplished.”   Or
  • “Even though I know I’m not getting paid anywhere close to what I’m really worth, the possibilities compel me to finish the job well anyway.”

If you know anybody like that, then you know a person who is called.  I suspect educators would describe our commitment to teaching as a calling.

With the growing demands in education that include the new standards, new assessments, evaluation tools, and the nationwide teacher shortage that has increased classroom enrollment, how can we as teachers cultivate our calling so that it brings about the greatest amount of positive and sustainable impact for our students?

Essentially, it takes three things:

  1. A compelling need that you are irresistibly drawn to- something you just can’t stop thinking about;
  2. A desire to address that need through transformative ideas that make a meaningful and lasting changes to teaching and learning;
  3. A collaborative effort with like-minded stakeholders in order to implement and sustain the changes.

Thinking about these three things brings to mind a story about my granddaughter, Mikayla.

Four-year-old Mikayla runs most morning, along the lakefront of Chicago with her mother Angela, my daughter. And you can imagine the sight they make together—this statuesque woman and this little girl, running together in the early morning hours.

I can see Mikayla running in her stride, pumping her arms, extending her reach, moving along the pavement of the Chicago lakefront. She does not stop, even though her mother can see that she is visibly tired.  Angela decides to let her go as far as she can, thinking, “Surely Mikayla will stop at some point”. But it isn’t until they reach the two-mile mark that Mikayla stops, and does what she’s seen her mother do so often at the end of a run– she swings her arms, stretches out her legs, and rests her hands on her knees and lets out a deep breath.

When Angela asks Mikayla, “Baby, how did you run so long, and keep up with me? I know you were tired”.  Mikayla simply states, “I dig deep. I dig deep, Mama.”

Every time I recall that story tears come to my eyes, even now as I write.

We know that at four-year-old, Mikayla is repeating something that she’s heard, probably around the house; and that she may not really understand the import of her words. But in the context it is used, and what it represents, Mikayla does understand this: even when you’re tired—you run your stride, you pump your arms, you extend your reach.

You don’t give you up!  You dig deep!

Especially in an education landscape this is:

  • Fraught with polarity and political dissonance;
  • Where pundits think that because they have spent 12+ years in a classroom as students, they know and understand what it means to be a teacher;
  • Where teachers are not highly regarded, nor respected for the craftsmanship, skill, knowledge, and the innovative practice we invest in our students every day;

How can we as teachers cultivate our calling in this kind of a landscape? It means we dig deep.  We dig deep, using our three-pronged tool mentioned earlier:

  1. A compelling need.
  2. A desire to address that need through transformative ideas.
  3. A collaborative effort to get meaningful, lasting results.

What are some compelling needs?  Honestly, they will vary depending on our context of practice, and how the need impacts our school, district, association, or the profession in general. But, following are some areas of need, we might resonate with:

  • Evaluation tools with multiple measures;
  • Highly qualified teachers in every classroom;
  • Extensive, residency-like induction for new teachers;
  • Timely student intervention and enrichment;
  • Increased parent, family, and community engagement;
  • Improved school site morale;
  • Student mentoring;
  • Time to develop content-area curriculum aligned to the new standards;
  • Increased association membership that elevates teacher voice and instruction;
  • Mentoring and coaching for new principals.

Once the compelling need is identified, we tend to shelve our next steps because of the immediate limitations that face us. But the only way to jumpstart transformative ideas is to think in terms of possibilities. We must be bold, courageous, and remember that success is not all ours; we will move forward with a team of like-minded stakeholders to achieve our BHAG- Big Hairy Audacious Goal!

An example of a collaborative effort is how a recent ECET2 (Elevating and Celebrating Effective Teaching & Teachers) Arizona convening came about. I think you would agree that there is a compelling need to elevate and advance our profession. The transformative idea, born in the heart of a teacher leader was to foster leadership and advocacy through a two-day professional learning opportunity that equips teachers with tools and methods to take their advocacy to the next level. That’s a pretty hefty lift for one person—even a superhero like a teacher!

Set on possibilities the teacher gathered a variety of stakeholders—some other teacher leaders, Arizona Education Foundation, Arizona Education Association, the Rodel Foundation, and the Arizona K12 Center, which led to partnering also with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the National Board for Professional Teaching Practice. That’s some collaborative effort.

That’s how we cultivate our calling, by running our stride, pumping our arms, extending our reach, moving forward with like-mind people to address compelling needs with transformative ideas!

I can almost hear someone thinking, “I just want to be an exceptional teacher; this talk of advocacy is not me.”

A truth I was not told, and I wage none of us were is that to be a teacher in the 21st teacher is to be an advocate for the profession and the students we serve. In fact standards that guide our profession from National Board to InTASC  have distinct language as well as whole standards that focus on advocacy.

No one other profession is positioned nor prepared for such a time as this—to leverage the combination of our knowledge, expertise, and classroom experience to take our rightful place in decisions that impact teaching and learning.

Let’s take a good look across the landscape in which we practice and stake claim to those issues we each feel compelled to address for the benefit of teaching and learning in our schools, districts, and states.  Cultivate a calling…and dig deep!

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