Why I Loved Prison (and other stories)

Lori Nazareno got me thinking. In her blog, “The Call of Something More,” she reminds me that many teachers want to be “more than assembly line workers in the industrial-age education machine we know as school … they feel a call to do more: to teach and lead their school, their district, and their profession.”

Amen, sister. I’ve felt this way from the first day.

My first job was at a private prison in Nashville. I was hired because one of the young executives spent quite a bit of time at the bar where I worked. He arranged an interview, and the company hired me to – wait for it – set up the whole school. I worked with the education director, who had never worked in education, to design the structure, curriculum, policies, and practices to serve 100 inmates. We hired staff, we designed classrooms, and we took pride in what we created.

For two years I took part in every decision we made about what was best for our students – a random assortment of medium security inmates hoping to make something of their extended stay with us.

When I left to teach in a public middle school, I never got used to the fact that no one expected me to have an opinion. I got in trouble a lot. My coworkers regularly advised me to keep my mouth shut. I sponsored the school newspaper. We published an issue that was critical of aspects of the school. After we distributed it, all full of excitement and pride, we raced to our classroom only to find our Journalism lab dismantled. No files. No computers. No table. And, no discussion.

Ironically, I had more freedom at the prison than I ever did at the middle school.

When I found my way to Western Hills High School in Frankfort, I joined committees, assisted with hiring, served on our SBDM, fixed computers – anything I could to have my voice included in all parts of my work. My administrators and colleagues seemed appreciative, and I loved it.

I am also fortunate to work in a district that has welcomed my work and ideas. I’ve served on our leadership team since its inception. But, this puts a cap on my official participation. After seventeen years in this district, I can expect no more.

When the CCSS brought me to the Center for Teaching Quality, I jumped at the chance to broaden my engagement with state and national initiatives.

And, let’s be clear. It isn’t necessarily more work I desire, but an opportunity to use what I’ve learned to make our whole school system better, more of a chance to do new and different work, to leverage my experience and expertise to find innovative solutions that might make all of us able to serve our students better.

Until working with CTQ on the Implementing the Common Core Standards team, it never occurred to me that this drive toward leadership could and should be a natural part of a teachers’ professional trajectory. Teachers are not encouraged to advocate for themselves and their work. When we try, others see us as upstart children rather than professionals, and we settle for precociousness. Also, I think we fear that any aggressive attempt at self-advocacy will suggest that we love ourselves more than we love our kids.

So, what do I want? I want to work with my amazing kids. And, I want to have a substantial measure of control about how to do that. I want my profession to reward me for my expertise and passion with concrete societal rewards like a higher salary and more responsibility.

It is hard to imagine that after twenty-four years of successful, thoughtful, and arduous work that the only way to raise my compensation and my status is to leave my students. This is unacceptable; I want more.

Prison photo by Tagger4Justice on Photobucket
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  • KristofferKohl

    What else is(n’t) on your list?

    Lauren: thank you for yet another thoughtful, honest piece. You ended by letting readers know that you want more. I’m curious, what’s on your list of more? What duties, responsibilities, opportunities, platforms appeal to you? Is there anything that is decidely off your list? An alternative way of asking: are there things on your must-do list now that could/should come off in order to make more room for the work you want to do?

  • LaurenHill

    Well, since you asked…

    Major premise: We become better teachers when we challenge our assumptions, explore new parts of ourselves and our profession, and put ourselves in new and uncomfortable situations.  I’d be a better teacher and a more fulfilled person if I could teach half as many kids and spend the rest of my time doing the following (in order of preference):

    • Mentor teachers to improve our practice.
    • Work to re-equip teacher prep programs to address contemporary teaching needs and contexts.
    • Encourage on-going learning for all teachers, both virtually and in person, by creating communities that break geographical barriers.
    • Create a teacher writing group where we share ideas, clarify our thinking, and write about how to meet the challenges of this most crucial profession.
    • Work with a team to redesign the school day to allow for extended class periods and cross-curricular projects.
    • Analyze how we use homework and find a healthy, effective approach that works for students and teachers.
    • Design an AP English Language/AP US History collaborative class and then make a model any 11th grade class could use.
    • Write poetry.

    Minor premise#1: Human beings who explore all parts of their personality are happier.

    Minor premise #2: Happier people have more patience and enjoy their work.

    See major premise…


    What do you want to do?

  • Teri Foltz

    the further away from students…
    It always seemed to me that the further away an educational professional were from students, the more policy power was afforded them. And it pains me to say that it was often the weakest teachers who sought to leave the classroom and become administrators who, in turn, would create those policies.
    Lauren Hill has once again touched upon a truth that classroom teachers rarely get a chance to express. I am more and more impressed with this forum!

  • Renee Boss

    Captives in public education?


    I really appreciate this post’s topic especially your quote about having more freedom when you worked in a prison than you do as a teacher.  I agree that this is unacceptable.  How can we change these career pathways for teachers?  Can we create a teacher-led school in Kentucky? That’s a dream I have, actually.  I’m ready to take action, too.  How can we move away from all the test prep focused teaching approaches required in many of our schools? How can we ensure our students in public schools are not held captive in uninspiring systems?  After all–they are not in prison but they often feel like they are.  I have so many questions and look forward to continuing the conversation.

    Thanks for writing and for getting this important conversation started.


    • bradclark

      Districts of Innovation

      Okay, so we have legislation in our state that allows us to break the norms.  Why aren’t we using the Districts of Innovation to propel this story line?  We have pockets all around the state that can experiement with career pathways that nurture a Teacher Leadership culture.  Dists of Inns can provide scalable models for the rest of the state to use.


    • LoriNazareno

      Teacher Powered schools

      Hey Renee and Lauren,

      I happen to know someone who can help you with that teacherpowered school idea. BTW – we are shifting our language from “teacher led” to “teacher-powered” for reasons that will become evident in a few weeks. At any rate, there will be some pretty terrific resources available for folks like yourselves who really do want  to get started with designing their own school.

      Design the future my friends! Onward!

  • DawnKoberstein

    Wasteland or Pioneer?

    Lauren and Renee,

    I appreciated your thoughts as I share this frustration.  I WANT SOMETHING MORE!!!  I know I made a difference in my classroom (when I was a classroom teacher) but have transitioned to a Math Coach role and now am split as a Dean of Students and Math Coach this year at two different schools in my district.  I am searching for a role to make a difference in a whole school community.  A role where I can inspire other educators to lead and teach with passion.  I am just puzzled how some get in to these roles and waste it!!!

    • bradclark


      Do you feel that your adminstrative tasks take away from your impact on instructional practices?

      Do you feel that being out of the classroom lessens your credibility among teachers?

      I am curious because I think that these questions are ones that we have to answers to if we are going to address the various roles and responsibilities of Teacher Leadership.

    • LaurenHill

      Hey, Dawn

      Thanks for your thoughts, and I share your frustration.  I bet you spend more time driving than you do helping teachers, too.  Brad’s questions are good ones – I’d love to know more about what you want to do that you feel you cannot.  What barriers are in your way?  Do tell!

  • KipHottman

    Continuing the Conversation

    These are great questions and thoughts about Teacher Leadership Roles!  Renee, I believe in your dream of a teacher-led school and I am with you on taking action. It sounds like we are all having these same type of conversations virtually, in our schools, and with our PLNs.  How can we bring these conversations together and hold these discussions on a larger scale?  Would ECET2 work?  How do we continue the conversation?  After threads on CTQ, ECET2 convenings, etc…, how do we continue collaborating on a large scale to ensure that our voices are heard?

  • ShannonCadden

    Professional Trajectory?

    “…it never occurred to me that this drive toward leadership could and should be a natural part of a teachers’ professional trajectory. Teachers are not encouraged to advocate for themselves and their work. When we try, others see us as upstart children rather than professionals, and we settle for precociousness.”

    This quote deeply resonated with me.  For ten years I have given everything I have to my amazing students and while I wouldn’t change a moment of those years, it would be amazing to have a professional trajectory and a mentor to guide me along the way. 

    It’s great to know that I’m not the only one having these thoughts!

  • LoriNazareno

    Vision to Reality

    Hello all!

    What a terrific post and conversation! And, clearly, everyone’s thoughts and frustrations resonate with me. Of particular interest to me is this:

    It isn’t necessarily more work I desire, but an opportunity to use what I’ve learned to make our whole school system better, more of a chance to do new and different work, to leverage my experience and expertise to find innovative solutions that might make all of us able to serve our students better.

    So may of us have spend years, and in some cases decades, doing our teacher leadership work ON TOP OF our daily full-time work. It is time for teachers to have time, space and compensation to engage in leadership as part of our work. And, for those who say it is too hard, or that we don’t know how to do it, I say phooey (an official education term).

    If you think about a college professor who is admired for having mulitple appointments at different intitutions AND for doing research, AND for practicing AND other duties that all add up to 1 full time job, we DO know how to do it. It’s is just a metter of will.

    So, my questions to Lauren and everyone else are:

    • If you could design your ideal position, what would it be?
    • What are current opportunities exist that are soemwhat close to what you want?
    • How might you go about seeking that opportunity and THEN negotiating yourself into what you really want?

    Over the years I have found a good amount of success in securing postions and then negotiating myself into what I wanted. For instance, I took a ful time facilitating/coaching job and then “bargained” may way into setting up a science lab so that I could teach on a regular basis. The postion carried the status and compensation of the facilitator job and I still got to do what I loved most…teach.

    So, if you’re feeling that call of something more, take a look around and see what opportunities DO exist and then go for it!

    And, thanks Lauren for extending the ideas from my blog and deepening the conversation!

  • Reneeboss

    from teacher-led to teacher-powered

    Hi, everyone!  I seriously waited too long to sign back in here.  Thanks to Lauren for encouraging me to take a look again at our thread.  (I’ll manage my subscriptions too).


    Lori–thank you for the support and for telling us about new resources coming soon.  I like the language of teacher-powered and look forward to hearing more and making it happen here in Kentucky. 

    Brad–I agree districts of innovation might be a way into the conversation…

    Kipp–great idea for us to have a session on this topic at a state or regional ECET2 convening.  Maybe we could invite Lori or some of the others who know abou this topic to join us?  Which regional group are you working with for ECET2?

    Dawn–I know how you feel about the search for a role that can impact an entire community.  I do feel like I made a difference in the schools where I taught and when I searched for leadership roles in those schools–they became exactly what we’ve been discussing here–more administrative.  Not my favorite part, for sure. 

    As far as advocating for myself?  I think I’m learning how to do that.  At the moment I might just have the best non-teaching job I’ve ever had.  My hope is that I can use my position at The Fund for Transforming Education in Kentucky to make a difference in our schools and to work with teachers on elevating the teaching profession and eventually on designing a school that is powered by teachers.  I’d also really like to teach a class again to secondary students.  I taught this year at the university–literacy methods courses and loved it, but it’s not the same as teaching teenagers.

    Thanks again, everyone, for the conversation.  I look forward to more conversaitons and action to follow our conversations.