I was losing my mojo in the classroom a few years ago. As a physical educator coming off my fourth knee surgery in six years with low back issues that were becoming detrimental to my performance as a dynamic, active teacher who sought to be a healthy role model for students, I was no longer able to teach at the level I thought my students deserved. My health problems were as mentally defeating as they were physically debilitating. I still miss being Coach Ratliff more than I ever thought possible — always being around adults in serious mode just isn’t as much fun!
Utilizing the engagement tools my unique journey as a teacher leader has afforded me, I transitioned to the district level in 2016 to focus on connecting district educators to one another and to professional resources. Think of me as a Jill-of-all-trades or insert my name instead of Kevin Bacon’s Six Degrees of MeMe Ratliff. As part of my day-to-day role, I provide unique opportunities to help classroom practitioners engage with district leaders and establish stronger systems for strengthening student learning outcomes by leading monthly Twitter chats, organizing meet-ups for educators, helping plan teacher-led professional developments (like ECET2s and EdCamps), and creating a social media lounge at the district’s multi-day Deeper Learning Symposium. I work to increase teacher collaboration through resource sharing.
I’ve presented at national conferences such as Learning Forward and SXSWEDU. And in a district that is often chided for keeping people in one lane, I have worked with every district department quite freely. I’m convinced I have the most innovative and cool job in public education. It’s given me the ability to look back reflectively on my 20 years in the classroom.
Lesson #1: While it’s awesome to always be in the spotlight as ME, the ability to lead from behind and step out of the spotlight and cultivate leadership in others as part of a WE is even more rewarding. I can admit it freely. Building up those around me has given me more professional joy than any personal honor or accolade ever could. It’s taken time to wrap my head around shifting to this we-instead-of-me mindset, but it’s made a difference in my work. In an average week, I now attempt to be @JCPSForward at least 80 percent of the time and @meme3rat only 20 percent. I robbed my former colleagues of leadership opportunities by not understanding this concept while in the classroom.
Lesson #2: All teachers are leaders. I now spend my days as JCPSForward, an organic teacher leadership initiative I co-founded in 2015. We have achieved our goal of connecting the nearly 7,000 educators in JCPS more quickly than we could have ever imagined. Back in 2015, we were convinced that because a select few educators in our district were doing state and national level work beyond the confines of the 502 area code, they were automatically worthy of more praise and face time with district leaders than their peers. We were wrong.
In late 2015, the Kentucky Department of Education adopted the Kentucky Teacher Leadership Framework. The Framework divides the profession into six equal spheres of leadership. It is a thorough look at how teachers are leading the profession from inside their classrooms to the global community.
Lesson #3: Becoming connected to educators beyond your building can occur in a variety of ways. For me, it was Twitter. A few years ago in the classroom, I assumed that ALL educators should. Now I see that there is no right or wrong way to get connected and stay connected. You find what works and go with it — and don’t be afraid to try something new to see if it’s a fit for you. You can always use the unsubscribe button.
Lesson #4: Your family needs you more than teacher leadership does, no matter how you try and frame it. Those violin recitals and family gatherings are something that — once missed — you can’t get back. Take time to unplug. The Twitterverse will still be there. Go to the soccer game. The planning team will understand. Don’t lose focus on what’s real: your family and your faith, in whichever order you place them. This is the lesson that should have been the easiest for me to learn, but it was the most difficult to grasp.
Here are a few other pearls of wisdom I will share to help leave your me and shift toward we in your work:
- Take mental health breaks. They are real. You need them. The work you are a part of will benefit from it.
- Let the work go on without you. Heck — it might be better with some tweaking. You might not think it can, and you might not like it — but stuff will get done.
- Try to compliment young teacher leaders and encourage them, whether in person or on social media, every single day. And: don’t always laud the same select few. People notice.
- Never dismiss a good thought partner or critical friend. Think Top Gun’s wingman here. Find two to three people who will give you honest professional advice — those who will keep you from hitting the Send button on that terse email to your principal and tell you when you’re being too brash. Keep them around, tell them you love them, and always return the favor.
After reading this, I feel like an apology is due from the person I was five years ago. I thought I knew everything, could do anything, and should do everything that came along. This article has been more cathartic for me than I could have imagined. I also feel honored that I can stand behind the opening sentence of this narrative: We, not me.