Sitting at the Grown-up Table

Holiday celebrations are a time for loved ones and meals together, and sometimes that includes separate tables for adults and children. Taking those first steps toward teacher leadership can feel much like being the boy or girl invited to sit with the grown-ups at the holiday dinner table.

As a child, I loved traveling to Grandma’s house for annual Thanksgiving or Christmas celebrations. The big celebration always meant a full house and an overflowing table, and on a couple of occasions, we didn’t all fit around the table. My two cousins, sister, and I spent at least a few years sitting at the “kids’ table.” At first, that was cool: we could sit there and talk about kid things, being silly and goofy and using poor table manners without any adult interference. As we got older, we realized the conversations at the adult table were more interesting. Sometimes we’d try to listen in, and when the adults realized we were being quiet, they would hush their voices or suddenly change the topic. It was a big deal when my grandparents and parents decided we were old enough to sit at the grown-ups’ table.

That scene has struck me a few times over the past couple of years. Nearly two years ago I attended my first-ever Teaching & Learning Conference. I was so excited to be at this National Board of Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS) event, but I was a little bit overwhelmed at the same time. A wonderful group of State Teachers of the Year “adopted” me for the weekend, and their suggestions proved invaluable to me as I selected sessions to attend, recommending Tony Wagner’s plenary on the challenges we face in education and the innovations our students need. I returned from the trip to D.C. reinvigorated, ready to face the challenges of the final stretch of the school year and eager to stay in touch with the exceptional educators I’d had the privilege of meeting. Within the next week I met with my curriculum director to share what I had learned about student-led, student-directed projects (20% Time/Genius Hour) and more formalized teacher leadership roles, and explained how I wanted to pursue both of these ideas. I also spent more time on Twitter, following some of these leaders and joining the Collaboratory at the Center for Teaching Quality. The time spent at this adult table enabled me to continue learning, growing, and collaborating throughout the year.

When the next Teaching & Learning Conference came around, I was able to attend again. I found myself meeting face-to-face with some educators like Megan Allen and Jeff Charbonneau, whose blogs and professional work I had been following from my classroom in northeast Ohio. The conference sessions were as engaging and thought-provoking as they had been the year before; the conversations and learning continued into the evening. These leaders didn’t just share their ideas and experiences with me; they wanted to hear about my experiences teaching middle school gifted children and how today’s issues in education are impacting them.

 

I felt very much like my childhood self in that 1970s plaid jumper and tights, trying to play it cool as I was told to sit in a chair at the grown-ups table. I didn’t want to mess this up; I didn’t want one of these amazing educational leaders to look at me with gentle eyes and say, “I’m sorry, but you need to go sit at the kids’ table over there.”

Then the realization hit me: in some places in education, we don’t move anyone to the kids’ table. The grown-ups’ table is open to anyone who wants to join the conversation. It’s simply a matter of pulling up a chair, listening to others, and sharing our own experiences and ideas. This led me to a second realization: at Teaching & Learning, had someone told me just to join in, I never would have done it. After all, I thought, how could I possibly have anything interesting or relevant to add to the discussion? However, when I was invited to join, even metaphorically taken by the hand and led to the table, I found that not only could I learn so much at this table, but I had ideas to share, too. Now I am looking around me to see whom I can invite to join the table.

While these experiences at Teaching & Learning have given me that feeling of being viewed as a valuable member of the community, not all spaces within the field of education are as welcoming of teachers’ ideas. In some settings, teachers are reluctantly invited or not invited at all. Not all the “adults” in the education world are willing to make space at the grownups’ table.

Take, for example, this 2012 article by Ariel Sacks, in which she describes some of the difficult lessons she’s learned as a teacher leader. She cautions against becoming the “token” at the grownups’ table, something none of us wants to be. We want to be there because our voices and experiences offer important insights and are valuable to the others at the table. How can we take the initiative to step up to the table? What do we need to do to show the others at the adults’ table that our voices must be there?

The table in education should be different from that table at Grandma’s house. The grownup table in education should expand. There should be no limit to available seating for teachers and all stakeholders (students and parents included). How can we continue to support this kind of inclusivity at the tables already practicing this, like those at Teaching & Learning? Perhaps more importantly, how can we encourage this kind of openness at other educational tables? How should we continue to elevate our voices and even lead the discussion, so that we aren’t viewed as the noisy ones sitting at the kids’ table in the other room, but as people with important, valuable experiences and viewpoints that will improve education for everyone?

Photo of T. Ebner at around age 5, taken by P. Wolfgram

Related categories: ,