I remember the afternoon that it hit me. After school, a group of students had gathered in our classroom to have an impromptu conversation about fixing our education systems. They debated root causes and brainstormed possible solutions. They were fired up and ready to do something.

I, on the other hand, left work feeling pretty despondent. The conversation hit me pretty hard that day. I was watching teachers being blamed and public education being attacked, yet I wasn’t doing anything about it. What I didn’t realize at the time was that I myself was struggling. I too had internalized the antiteacher discourse. I was telling myself a story with two conflicting themes: I was never good enough, and I could make a difference for my profession. 

Which story are you telling yourself?

In Rising Strong, Brene Brown lays out a three-part process of facing challenging circumstances: the reckoning, the rumble, and the revolution. That day, as I watched my students display hope and courage, I sat with my own conflicting feelings of inefficacy paired with a desire to make things better, so I took the first step on that journey. I had a reckoning, in Brown’s terms, when I became curious about the attacks on public education and teachers.

Nine months later, I started the second step identified by Brown: the rumble. To learn more and challenge my assumptions, I joined a team of Teaching Ambassador Fellows at the U.S. Department of Education (DOE), where I continued to wrestle with my conflicting themes. I had the privilege to work with great teachers who were also passionate about transforming teaching.

Our team facilitated conversations with teachers around the country and shared their perspectives with staff at the DOE. We learned more about the rationale behind reform efforts such as teacher evaluation policies that held individual teachers accountable for student outcomes. Using what we’d learned from teachers and policymakers, we presented a strong case that started the process of decoupling teacher evaluation from student test scores (a ball that is still rolling).

That experience and rumble helped me shape a more nuanced story of the challenges facing our profession: more nuanced stories than politicians, the press, and I were telling. I’d like to share some of the themes in that story. I’m curious if they resonate with you.

Theme 1: We learn best from each other.

After a trip to Boston, one of the fellows I worked with shared some pearls of wisdom from a seventh-grade English teacher: “We don’t have to go far for best practices. WE are our own best teachers.” This theme surfaced over and over in our conversations with teachers. Teachers want more time to collaborate with and learn from their peers.

Theme 2: Shaming teachers to do better doesn’t work.

Policies that focus on reprimanding or rewarding teachers lead to shame, not improvement. Many of the teachers I’ve met wrestle with shame; like me, they never feel as if they are enough.

Brene Brown lists some red flags that suggest a problem with shame at work: perfectionism, favoritism, gossiping, back-channeling, comparison, self-worth tied to productivity, harassment, discrimination, power over, bullying, blaming, teasing, and cover-ups. Do any of these resonate with you?

For me, my shame manifested as perfectionism that led me to push myself to the point of illness. At other times, it surfaced as comparison when I weighed my worth against that of my colleagues. Perfectionism and comparison left me feeling as if I was never enough. That shame weighed heavy on my teacher heart and closed me off from my amazing colleagues.

Theme 3: It is hard to be at our best if we don’t feel safe.

Many teachers work in systems where evaluations feel like reprimands rather than guides for improvement. Opening the door for feedback or coaching can be difficult if you are worried about the consequences.

The third and final step in this process is the revolution. This is where we get to write a new ending for our profession and determine how we want to engage with the world. These days I’m working at the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards on a project called the Network to Transform Teaching (NT3). The school and district teams in this community are committed to creating safe spaces for teachers to strengthen their practice. Teachers in these schools are making their practice public, collaborating with each other, and sharing responsibility for their students.

If you are interested in doing the same, here are a couple of ideas to explore to start your own revolution where you are:

  • Create a strengths inventory for your team, department, or school. Imagine having a list of colleagues you can turn to when you see an area for growth in your practice.
  • Identify your genius or strengths as a teacher. Share that with your colleagues. Invite them to do the same.
  • Identify areas where you need help or would like to grow. Be vulnerable and ask for that help. Vulnerability and courage are contagious.
  • Make your teaching practice public. There are so many ways to do this. You can invite your colleagues to observe you teach, organize instructional rounds, engage in lesson studies, or bring student work to examine to PLC or team meetings. I know that time for this type of collaboration is an obstacle, but I’ve seen some creative work arounds, such as a rotating system of peers teaching each other’s classes to allow for observations of live lessons. Another teacher videotaped herself and shared the video with her colleagues for feedback.

This kind of vulnerability is hard. But it is, in fact, revolutionary. Vulnerability changes how we approach the work, how we see our colleagues, and how we see ourselves. Vulnerability and courage are contagious. We can see the ripple effects of the wave of teacher courage in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona, Kentucky, Colorado, North Carolina, and Washington.

My work and heart are always strengthened when I connect and learn with others. If you are looking for connection, I invite you to join me for some virtual discussions of Brene Brown’s  book Dare to Lead: Brave Discussions, Tough Conversations, Whole Hearts. Just take this quick survey , and I will be in touch soon.  

“We don’t have to do all of it alone. We were never meant to.” – Brene Brown

Lisa’s post is part of CTQ’s September and October blogging roundtable. To join the conversation, comment on this blog and read the other blogs in this series. You can find an updated list of all posts on the Teachers leading/leading teachers landing page. Follow CTQ on Facebook and Twitter to see when each new blog is posted, and use #CTQCollab to join the conversation on social media.

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