The courage to leap

Many teachers find themselves faced with the decision to leap into the unknown and confront fear, hope, self-knowledge, and, ultimately, commitment to the profession that teachers make at crucial times in their careers. In this post, I share the stories of four teacher leaders — Jessica Cuthbertson, Jessica Keigan, Megan Allen, and Lori Nazareno — who chose to make that leap.

Teachers who choose not to pursue administrative roles do not have a clear path for growth. When teachers reach the effective, then accomplished, and finally inspired stages of their development, they are often faced with the decision to change paths to continue growing. Navigating these career choices calls for a certain amount of courage.

My own story has followed a nonlinear path. I had been teaching 3-4 year olds for almost 20 years. After leaving the classroom as a supervisor I returned as a hybrid teacher. Last year I switched from teaching early childhood to art. When I made this choice, based on my perceptions of myself as an artist and a teacher, it was a giant leap.

Teachers who reach a crossroads such as Jessica Keigan, Jessica Cuthbertson, Megan Allen, Lori Nazareno, have all found courage to lead beyond their classroom walls.

Many teachers find themselves faced with the decision to leap into the unknown and confront fear, hope, self-knowledge, and, ultimately, commitment to the profession these teachers have made at crucial moments in their career.

I asked these teachers to share a moment of courage that has influenced their development.

Jessica Cuthbertson is an 8th grade English teacher in Aurora, CO who has led beyond the classroom walls as a teacherpreneur. She returned to the classroom this year after serving as a teacher in residence at CTQ where she helped to craft Colorado’s teacher performance assessment system and most recently worked on communications for the organization:

A moment of courage began when I started videotaping and opening my classroom door to visitors–from preservice teachers to district personnel. Taking risks publicly made me a better teacher. And providing audiences for my students to learn from and engage with impacted their learning. The most rewarding part about being a teacher leader is the reciprocity that evolves and the impact of collective leadership. This year I’m working on a vertical team of literacy teachers who have all opened their doors, hosted labs, and videoed their practice. As a team we are learning, growing, refining and seeking continuous improvement. The collective impact we create for kids is so much more powerful than one teacher’s individual impact.

Jessica found courage through the act of sharing practice and in doing so discovered the power of collective leadership. Jessica Keigan has had a very similar career path to Jessica Cuthbertson as a teacherpreneur who worked to improve education, also leaving and returning to the classroom:

I don’t know if I can pinpoint one moment of courage, but perhaps speaking in front of my state board of education for the first time is one catalyst that helped to solidify my confidence in my voice. I realized, through heavy coaching and support from my CTQ peers, that I was uniquely qualified to speak about educational policy issues, specifically about the teacher evaluation system in Colorado. From that moment on, I began to share my perspective on instruction, policy, teacher leadership, etc. through writing, speaking, and teaching. If I hadn’t spoken up, I know I would not be as happy with my career as I am and would likely feel much more trapped by the things that seem out of my control. Speaking up made me feel like there are very few aspects of my job that aren’t in my control and pushed me to seek opportunities to create change when I saw need.

Jessica Keigan discovered the power of her teacher voice through writing, speaking, and collaborating on state policy. 2010 Florida State Teacher of the Year Megan Allen founded the Masters of Arts in Teacher Leadership program at Mount Holyoke College in an attempt prepare teacher leaders to lead policy change in their own contexts. The degree program was designed in collaboration with the National Network of State Teachers of the Year and  based on the Teacher Leader Model Standards. Megan discussed the process of seeking to flourish as a teacher through constantly looking, teaching, and leading in new ways.

I don’t know if it’s courage, but I was recently talking to a colleague about the idea of edge walkers—those people who are so afraid of mediocrity and complacency that they are constantly teetering on the cliff of change, of shifting, of growing. Their toes are always curled over a ledge and they are contemplating jumping into change because the status quo is not good enough. I think that’s where this thing that resembles courage comes from, as it relates to my passion: Education. I want to keep myself uncomfortable with new thoughts and new ideas, alternative ways to think about learning, teaching, leading. I want to constantly be striving to grow into a different way of thinking, as I want our education system to constantly grow into a different way of teaching, learning, leading. I want to support other edge walkers who believe in the same vision.

Lori Nazareno is just such an edge walker as one of the founders of the teacher-powered schools movement. Through collective leadership she helped establish the Mathematics and Science Leadership Academy (MSLA), in Denver, CO in 2009. She points out that change does not happen gently:

Several years ago, a group of NBCTs, myself included, were frustrated at our union and district’s lack of opportunities for us to lead in the district. Tired of waiting for the district to do something, we formed our own organization, the NBCTs of Miami-Dade. We naively thought that both the union and district would welcome an organized group of teacher leaders and went to our union and district reps to tell of our new organization. The district had NO interest in anything we had to say or wanted to do. Shortly after, I was summoned to the office of our local union president who crushed the organization we had started. I left that meeting pretty stunned, and we had to decide whether or not we should move forward. We decided to form and strengthen our own organization, set our agenda, and engage in the important work that we wanted to do. The lesson I learned was: stand in your own truth with confidence, even when others may not support it.

Listening to these stories of risk, courage, and professionalism, I was struck by how they described their leadership development. These teachers have developed their classroom expertise and shared that expertise with colleagues both in their schools and across districts. Upon finding their teacher voice, they moved to influence the systemic structures and policies that influence their practice. Finally, they internalized an engine for this pursuit as a result of finding the courage to challenge the status quo.

Here is what I learned from their stories of courage.

  • Open the doors to our classrooms;
  • Find our voice on the issues that affect student learning;
  • Work to improve education through collective leadership;
  • Search for new ways to learn and lead; and
  • Stand in your truth.

What is your story of courage as a teacher leader?