Some Innovative Teachers Who Leave Come Back: An Interview With Geneviève DeBose

Recently, I’ve been thinking about all of the great teachers who’ve already made the choice to leave the classroom and become administrators, work in district positions, or join organizations that work on education research and policies. Often, they mention to me how they miss teaching; some say they still identify as teachers at core. Why don’t we also advocate for some of these folks to return to the classroom, whether on a full or part time basis? I spoke with Geneviève on the phone about her experiences away from teaching and what led her back. She is definitely one of my edu-heroes right now; in my opinion, we need many more to follow her example.

Last year, seven of my colleagues and I were featured in the book, Teacherpreneurs: Innovative Teachers Who Lead But Don’t Leave, by Barnett Berry, Ann Byrd, and Alan Wieder. In ten years, I’ve never left the classroom. On my side of the fence, we often advocate for practicing teachers to become more involved in writing and influencing education policy at all levels. Our argument for teacherpreneurship is basically that we need diverse hybrid teaching roles for accomplished teachers or else policies will remain out of touch with the realities of students AND many excellent teachers will continue to leave the classroom…

Recently, I’ve been thinking about all of the great teachers who’ve already made the choice to leave the classroom and become administrators, work in district positions, or join organizations that work on education research and policies. Often, they mention to me how they miss teaching; some say they still identify as teachers at core. Why don’t we also advocate for some of these folks to return to the classroom, whether on a full or part time basis?  I saw a glimmer of hope when I met Alicia Hunter this spring through my Whole Novels work: I found out that not only does she fiercely teach 8th grade English, but she is also the principal of her school!  And then this summer, fellow NYC middle school educator, NBCT, and former U.S. Teaching Ambassador Fellow, Geneviève DeBose, announced that after 3 years working in education policy, she is returning to the classroom, full time!  I had to find out more… 

I spoke with Geneviève on the phone about her experiences away from teaching and what led her back. She is definitely one of my edu-heroes right now; in my opinion, we need many more to follow her example. Here is our interview, and we’ll be able to hear more from Geneviève throughout this year on her aptly named blog, Back To The Point. (The neighborhood in the South Bronx where she will return to teaching is called Hunt’s Point.)

 

Interview With Geneviève DeBose

Me: Tell us about your journey!

Geneviève: I see myself as a career teacher. Teaching is the work where I feel most personally fulfilled, feel like I’m making the most impact, and learn the most.  I knew that before, but I didn’t really realize this until I left the classroom.

I started in a one-year fellowship at the U.S. Department of Education. It was one year, and I fully expected to come back after that. I loved the fellowship; it was a wonderful year. Part of what made it phenomenal was the crew of fellows. There were five in Washington DC, where I was, and fifteen around the country. Having the cohort kept it from being isolating. We processed so much together.  “What did that guy mean? What are all those acronyms? How does this connect to the classroom?” were some of the kinds of questions we’d discuss together.

It just so happened that year was the 25th year of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. They wanted to do an event at White House to celebrate. My boss, Gillian Cohen-Boyer, who leads the fellowship, was like, “If we’re really talking about teachers leading, we should have a teacher facilitate.”  Of the five Washington fellows, I happened to be the one National Board Certified Teacher so I got to moderate the conversation around National Board Certification.  Ron Thorpe, who had recently become the president of the National Board, saw me facilitate the panel and later in the year asked if I was interested in joining the National Board staff.

I thought for sure I was going back to teaching, so I declined the offer. But Ron was very persistent and convinced me that the work was Board was doing to embed National Board standards across the career continuum was incredibly important.  It was really exciting.

I always knew my energy, and my personality were not about sitting at a computer all day but I decided to put that to the side and take advantage of this awesome opportunity.  Let me see what comes, I thought. I joined the National Board team. It’s based in DC, but I was able to work from home and come to DC once a month. The experience was awesome. I got to continue some of the work I did at the U.S. Department of Education, and continue the relationships I had built.

Working at the Board and the Department of Education were both  great opportunities  to learn what was happening across the country.  At the Department of Education I worked with Pittsburgh Public Schools and learned about a hybrid role called the “learning environment specialist.”  That person teaches and works with other teachers to create positive learning environments. I thought, that’s something I’m good at. That would be kind of a dream job for me.  And working at Board, I learned about a ton of ways that NBCTs and National Board standards were being or could be embedded across the career continuum. For example, using ATLAS – a repository of case studies of accomplished teaching – and a federal grant here in New York state, Niagara University and Niagara Falls City School District are embedding National Board standards and exemplars of accomplished teaching in pre-service and induction programs for teachers.  So I got this wonderful sense of what’s happening all around the country, and I got to tell others about it.

Me: What prompted you to return to the classroom?

Geneviève: Ultimately I hungered for the actual reality of what’s happening in schools. I was not really meant to sit at a desk. It was still valuable for my voice as a teacher to be sitting in those meetings—to let people at USED know what’s happening on the ground for my colleagues teaching in the Bronx for example.

But it’s also true that it can’t always just be me representing teachers at those meetings. I’m already three years out. Things have changed. Common Core and new evaluations—I can’t speak from that experience. I’m outdated! There needs to be a rotation of teachers in policy seats.  When I told my colleagues at the National Board I was leaving Ron said, “I’m so glad we had you for these two years. When you feel the need, come back for another year or two.”  It almost points toward a revolving door model for teachers involved in education policy.  In fact, the new group of fellows at USED have all been fellows before.  That was intentional—to only allow previous fellows to apply this past year to come back and share what’s happened since their time away.  That creates a cycle.

Ultimately for me, going back to the classroom was about wanting to be in the space where I feel the most important work is happening. I know the work of policy makers, principals, and superintendents is so important; but for me, it’s important to be a teacher and be a colleague to teachers. The time away reinforced that for me.

Me: How will it be to be back in the classroom after such a different experience these last few years?

Geneviève: I’m anticipating a really interesting transition. From what I can tell I have a very supportive principal and AP. When I did my demo, we walked around the school for 40 minutes and saw restorative justice work going on in classrooms and a lot of great stuff. This is where the most important work happens, where relationships are built, where lives are changed. This is where I want to be.

I’m starting a blog to share my experience. Here’s a teacher who was in classroom for 10 years, left to do policy work, and came back.

I was talking to a friend who asked, “Are you really ready to give up your flexible schedule?” And I’m remembering that it’s hard to get to the doctor and other basic things when you’re a teacher.  But I really want to enter this space free of guilt… we feel so guilty as teachers, leaving early to see a friend perform somewhere special, for example… In the rest of the world, nobody bats an eye about that. I’m not married, and I don’t have kids. I think some people understand more if you have to leave early because nobody can pick up your child, but what about if I have to do something for me? It’s not seen the same way. I’m curious how it will play out.  The workload will be different. In my roles at the Dept. of Ed and the National Board, I did hard work, but teaching is hard on another level. That schedule! I know that I have to be there at a certain time no matter what. In the Board, we’d work sometimes work 12 hour days for a while on a project, but when that project was finished, we’d have a break and a bit more flexibility.

Me writing a blog will be a way to document my experience.  One thing I’m looking forward to about blogging is not feeling tied to an organization. When I’ve blogged over the past few years, I’ve always been aware that I’m representing my organization. It wasn’t like anything was censored, but I had to be thoughtful about things that would be controversial.  Now I only represent myself as a teacher. I’m excited to be able to write what I want.  As a teacher, I’ve always been a leader, but usually not a formalized one.  I’m hoping that one way to keep leading is to blog and share what’s going on.

Me: What are you most excited about working with students again?

Geneviève: Excited to be back in what I see as the most important work, to be having an impact on and be impacted by my kids. It’s the relationships. I’ve always believed and known it to be true—in the classroom and in the policy world the last few years—that relationships matter. They are the number one lever in teaching, at the Department of Education and the National Board.  So I’m most excited about building relationships with my kids, their families and the larger community. I’m most excited about creating some positive social, emotional, and educational change from the classroom. That is so much more fulfilling for me than trying to do that from a federal position.

Me: We often hear about teachers wanting to make an impact on students, but you mentioned being impacted by the students as well. How have you been impacted by your students in the past?

Geneviève: My kids impact me every day. I’m a constant learner, learning everywhere I am. Some of us don’t recognize that as much as others. I mean, riding the subway, and observing what’s going on is learning.  Working with students has expanded my worldview, because of their diverse backgrounds and interests. I’ve travelled around the world to places where my students are from, because I wanted to understand them better.

I’m a happy person by nature, but my students have made me so much more compassionate. I shake kids’ hand every day to connect with them and to assess how they are doing. When a kid is having a rough day, those experiences and the resilience with which they approach those experiences has helped me develop my own resilience when I’ve gone through tough times. I’ve learned a ton from their families as well.

Lots of people think middle school kids aren’t fun to teach. My kids are so open to possibilities, and open to learning.  You have to create the space where they feel safe first, but when you get to that place with them, their pure openness to the world is inspiring to me. There’s a feeling that we’re connected, even across experiences I’ve had as a teacher. What Rafael is experiencing in the Bronx, and what Omar is going through in Oakland are connected even if they never meet.  Teaching is about creating that human connection.

Geneviève DeBose is an educator, artist, and activist. She is a National Board Certified middle school teacher who has taught for over a decade and spent the last three years in the education policy world. She returns to the classroom this year and is looking forward to the journey. You can follow her on Twitter at @GenevieveDeBose or through her blog “Back to the Point.”

 

What do you think–what would it take to get more of the innovative teachers who’ve left the classroom to return? How could we create more opportunities for teachers to leave and return and leave and return, all the while affecting positive change for teachers and students?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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