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?

  • caylahdargan

    My reason to lead!

    Currently, I am working toward a Masters of Science in Teacher Leadership from Walden University.  I believe my story of courage is that I leaped leadership is due to my compassion of special education and the students and families that I serve.  I recently joined the Tacoma  WA school district, and I am looking forward to bringing my knowledge to the school and the Lincoln International District.  My passion is to bring more awareness to childhood trauma and the ability to educate all stakeholders in the area of resiliency.  Which not a light subject but one must stand their truth, and I want to make more awareness in this area.  It was reported by that one in four U.S. students will witness or experience a traumatic event before the age of four and more than two-thirds by the age of 16 (Flannery, 2017, p.42).

    Because of my brush of experiencing childhood trauma fifty years ago as a child.  During the late 60’s and saw the effects on my learning I am ready to stand up and lead and show others who might have similar experiences that there is hope.  While also, collaborating with my colleagues in via professional development and my endless research of how to educate to our classrooms of students, knowing that based on the statistics that two – thirds have had a similar experience of trauma across all social, economic groups. 

    Respectfully – Caylah Dargan Special Education Teacher – Tacoma, WA Public Schools.


    Flannery, M (2017) This your student’s brain on trauma: neaToday2017 Winter, 42-45.

  • TriciaEbner

    Such great examples . . .

    of how teachers have developed that courage and taken that leap. I loved hearing how these four amazing teachers, whom I've respected for so long, have grown into these places. Their stories are such powerful examples of what educators are willing and able to do. I'm grateful for the examples and role modeling shared by each one, and I'm eager to see what other examples might be out there, too, joining their voices in the chorus of collective teacher leadership. 

  • CheriMcManus

    Taking the Leap as a change agent

    Almost 20 years ago I engaged in specific training that afforded me greater expertise in working with students who have dyslexia.  I soon began to re-examine the middle school students I worked with and other students in the school that were struggling with literacy.  The practice in my district, like many others at the time, was to provide direct instruction in reading to students through grade four. Once in fifth grade, rather than instruction, support was provided via Paraprofessionals and Recordings for the Blind and Dyslexic, if for whatever reason the skill of independent reading had not yet been acquired.  Learning to read in early years then reading to learn in fifth grade and beyond was the practice.  Because of my new awareness I began to see my students through a new lens, echoes of them telling me how many days until they turned 16 and could quit school rang in my head. They were giving up and in fact the system had given up on them.

    Armed with this new knowledge and fueled by the voices and stories of these students I mustered the courage, I took the leap; I became a change agent. I scheduled a meeting with the school superintendent and presented a proposal.  I asked if I could take 20-25 fifth and eighth grade students that were scoring at least 2 years behind their peers in reading and whose intellectual testing indicated at least an average ability; I would provide them specialized reading instruction. I was granted the opportunity, and thus created a unique position and in doing so changed the paradigm.  There was no longer a deadline for receiving reading instruction, instead a shift toward believing “it’s never too late” ensued and struggling readers were given the gift of time along with intensive instruction that eventually grew and extended on to the high school.

    This success fueled my capacity to continue to act as a change agent.  My family moved and again I was able to initiate and nurture yet another shift for the delivery of instruction to students in middle school and beyond. For these past 20 years I have maintained a part time public school literacy intervention position that feeds my passion for providing direct instruction to struggling readers. I am also a district-wide teacher trainer working to sustain the initiative.  I also operate a private practice, in its 12th year, where I train and support teachers though out New England. Most recently I had the pleasure of being a member of the stakeholders group who worked to develop A Resource Guide for Dyslexia and Other Resources in support of the recent New Hampshire Dyslexia Legislation. This hybrid role allows me to practice what I preach and preach what I practice.

  • WendiPillars

    Perceptions of self

    John, your admission that    

    "I made this choice, based on my perceptions of myself as an artist and a teacher"

    struck a chord with me and I feel it's important to emphasize it. When we make changes, it's so important to base courageous decisions on our own perceptions, or at least rely more heavily on our own perceptions, of ourselves and what speaks to US. Courage fuels our giant leaps! If big change is done to us or forced upon us, the narratives are far different than what you've written about here and courage takes on separate nuances.

    I am so happy for you, and for all mentioned here in this article! It just highlights how other teachers' stories serve to inspire, plant seeds of ideas, and encourage others to consider what moves us most so that we can make a move when we're ready. 


  • ladeana korthauer

    What a great reminder to all of what possibilities there are for teachers to grow and continue to teach, verses the old paradigm of becoming an administrator. As part of my education of using electronic and digital tools in the classroom we are reading ‘The Connected Educator: Learning and Leading in a digital age’, are required to make a post with this information and #clc-teacherleader to get credit. Thanks again for your insights into directions to grow as an educator.