Squished like a grape: Does teacher leadership hurt your teaching?

Of all humanity’s wisdom, most has been spoken in some form by Mr. Miyagi of The Karate Kid. Take the following:

“Walk on left side of road, safe. Walk on right side, safe. Walk middle, sooner or later, get squished just like grape.”

Teacher leaders know the perils of the hybrid path better than anyone. One stumble and you just might manage to alienate colleagues with the left foot, anger administrators with the right. You also might find yourself progressing as a teacher leader while stagnating as a classroom teacher.

Teacher leaders, how do you keep improving as a teacher while developing as a leader? How do you make the time it takes to do both?

Of all humanity’s wisdom, most has been spoken in some form by Mr. Miyagi of The Karate Kid. Take the following:

“Walk on left side of road, safe. Walk on right side, safe. Walk middle, sooner or later, get squished just like grape.”

Teacher leaders know the perils of the hybrid path better than anyone. One step toward that middle road and you can end up with high stress but low pay, great responsibility but minimal power. Take a stumble and you just might manage a miserable feat: alienate colleagues with the left foot, anger administrators with the right.

That awkward dance is worth the risks for all kinds of reasons. The chance to make school better for students down the hall, across town, or on another continent. The intellectual excitement of taking teacher-conceived innovations to scale. The network of kindred spirits you meet, scattered across the country and the globe.

Still, it’s hard to walk both sides of the road. I’m not sure I could do it well or happily without the exceptional level of support I receive.

I have truly wonderful colleagues and two gifted principals. I also have a job share that lets me teach in the mornings, while leaving afternoons free for projects outside the typical responsibilities of a first grade teacher.

Right now those projects include shaping the strategic vision of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year, bringing a teacher’s perspective to a state committee recommending policies for PreK through college, and leading a home library initiative that involves $100,000 to buy 50,000 new books for 2,500 kids and families who need them.

These are meaningful projects and remarkable opportunities. I care deeply about the work, and I have seen it bring about good things for kids in other classrooms, schools, districts, and states.

The problem is that time is a finite resource, and teaching is a craft that can take a lifetime to hone. “The profession that makes all others possible” demands a tremendous investment of time and thought—not just to carry out the complex work of teaching 25 children all they need to learn, but to keep getting better at it every year.

Teacher leadership can fragment that focus. Policy, curriculum, research, and professional development all have an impact on our students. Given that reality, the work is too important to be left entirely to non-teachers. But when we engage in that work while continuing to teach, the dual demands can be brutal.

Teacher leaders, how do you keep improving as a teacher while developing as a leader? How do you find the time it takes to do both?

Sometimes I long for the days before I had all these opportunities to shape the larger system. All my time and thought went to the 25 children in my class, often with remarkable results.

These days, I often feel overrated as a teacher. Legislators or business leaders will clap me on the shoulder and say, “We need more teachers like you.”

I appreciate the sentiment, but I want to ask them, “How do you know? You’ve never seen me teach. You don’t know that all three of my Marshallese students are still reading far below grade-level. You didn’t see me get so frustrated with Jonathan’s struggles in math last week that the poor kid was blinking back tears.”

True, moments of failure are inevitable with a craft as complex as teaching, especially when you surround yourself with remarkable colleagues who are really, really good at it. The gap between how well I teach and how well I think I should be teaching gets wider every year, even if I get better every year, and that’s a good thing.

But I wonder sometimes what would happen if I took all the time I devote to blogging, advising policymakers, and leading professional development, and spent that time just working to become a better first grade teacher.

I might be doing a better job of reaching my struggling readers. I might have nailed the balance between teaching phonics and getting real books into the kids’ hands. I wouldn’t have impacted as many students, but the 23 children in my own class might be better off.

Maybe.

Or maybe without the perspective, ideas, and inspiration I get from other teachers who walk the middle of the road, I’d be a less effective classroom teacher. Maybe my own students would miss out, too.

Maybe getting squished like a grape isn’t such a bad thing, especially if you become wine instead of juice.

I wish I could put this question to the venerable Mr. Miyagi, but he’s not around anymore. So dear reader, if you have the time, I’d love your thoughts.

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