Teacher leadership – not a number

I struggled as a beginning teacher. I loved the curriculum and wanted to share literature with my students, but I had not mastered the art of engaging high school seniors. The professional learning communities that would eventually provide support and resources for me wouldn’t become a part of the culture of my school for almost three decades.

So I focused on survival, counted the days until summer, and somehow made it through my first three years. It was during my fourth year of teaching that I first thought of the opportunity to be a teacher leader. I remember I was sitting in a faculty meeting when a colleague of mine stood in front of us and shared a teaching strategy, complete with handouts and an overhead projector presentation.

As I walked out of the meeting I wondered how that teacher was given the opportunity to speak. I decided it was her years of experience, perhaps her age, and that it would be a long time before I would be ready. But the seed had been planted, and I knew that I, too, wanted to be a leader in a school someday.

The opportunities trickled in over the years, usually because there were jobs others didn’t want to do: I volunteered to be a middle school team leader, a department chair, the Hospitality Committee chairperson…the list varied as I moved from novice teacher to veteran.

But truly I was only really comfortable within the four walls of the classroom. I didn’t have any desire to reach beyond the school to lead at the district or state levels. And I never dreamed of learning from teachers across the country or even the world!

But then a chance meeting with the Center for Teaching Quality changed the trajectory of my career. My principal asked me to attend a meeting about technology tools with a committee from my school. The CTQ offices were literally right down the street, but I had no idea that the Teacher Leaders Network (TLN), a virtual community of teacher practice facilitated by CTQ, had a reach across the country. I soon found myself interacting with teachers from New York City to Los Angeles and numerous points in between. I broke out of the walls of my classroom and began learning from the experiences of others.

For the first time in my career, I had actual opinions about something apart from the best practices inside my own room. I read the Teacher Solutions report on Performance Pay, for example, and thought “outside the pay scale” for the first time when I read that teachers in our country are basically paid for attendance. How had I never considered that? How had I not been enraged to watch a more experienced (and higher paid) colleague sit at her desk reading a newspaper all day while I worked from dawn until dusk trying to plan innovative lessons?

I had my newly formed opinions, but now I needed a way to express them. Taking the lead from my TLN colleagues, I started a blog, I opened social media accounts, and I told my teacher stories. I was “out there,” sharing my experiences. And reading what my virtual colleagues were doing across the country broadened my perspective. For the first time, I heard stories of unions fighting for teachers’ rights. Since I worked in a Right-to-Work state, I had no idea if we had any “rights.” I started to think more about education policy and how I could make a difference.

Later I joined a group of accomplished teachers who contributed to Barnett Berry’s book Teaching 2030: What We Must Do for Our Students and Our Public Schools — Now and in the Future. It was during the brainstorming sessions for this book that I really started looking at schools differently. I started asking questions for the first time in my career. Do grade levels really work? Shouldn’t we teach students where they are and not where their age indicates they should be? Why are we still, for the most part, running schools on an agrarian schedule? Why are we open from 7 AM to 4 PM? What if school buildings could be community hubs providing resources for families 24 hours a day?  

I lay awake at night trying to figure out how to change schools to fit our changing times and 21st century students. I spent time writing, trying to answer my own questions. An article I published caught the attention of a publisher, and before I knew it, I was a published author. CTQ pushed me to think, colleagues in the Teacher Leaders Network shaped my perspective, and just like that I wasn’t a struggling teacher, too insecure to dream of leading in a school.

Also, because of relationships that grew out of my work with TLN, I eventually became a Virtual Community Organizer, a role I couldn’t have imagined back when I was using the purple ditto machine to copy my typewritten worksheets.

I’ve just spent seven years working with novice teachers in the first three years of their careers. I’ve told them teacher leadership is not a number; they can lead from their first day in the classroom, in the school, and beyond. I tell them:

  • Focus on a strength. What can you share that will help others? Is it a technology tool? A teaching strategy?
  • Start small. Share on your grade level or in your PLC meeting. Work up to a faculty meeting and move on to the district level. Next stop – a national conference!
  • Learn from others. Follow educators on social media and read edublogs. Form your own opinions by listening to what the experts are saying.
  • Tell your stories. You’re an expert, too. You have the teacher voice. Be sure others are aware of the “real” struggles (and successes) in the classroom. Email, call, and even meet with policymakers. Invite them to your classroom – they work for you!

It took over twenty years and a push from a network of educators, but I was finally able to embrace the idea of being a teacher leader. I was 45 years old. If I could talk to that novice teacher back in 1979 now, I would ask: what took you so long?

Cindi’s post is part of CTQ’s latest blogging roundtable: It’s a network, not a clique – A CTQ retrospective. 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 roundtable 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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