I have an assignment for you: Look in the mirror and say, slowly and convincingly, “I am a teacher leader.”
It did to me for a LONG time. I didn’t see myself as a leader; I was “just the music teacher.” I fulfilled my campus duties, hiked to the back 40 to my classroom, taught my lessons, and kept myself off of everyone’s radar. During that time, I wasn’t a leader. I was trying to get through each day/week/year and put together enough time to draw my retirement. I was a leader of “get through it so you can do something you love.”
I was reading Jaime Festa-Daigle’s recent blog, where she wrote a letter to her first-year teacher self and reflecting on what I would say in a similar message. Would I want to know that I would hit burn out? That I would struggle with the calling on my life? That I would spend immeasurable amounts of time sifting through job postings trying to find something else that seemed “easier” and still paid the bills? I don’t know. I’m not sure what I would write to my first-year-teacher self.
So what happened? I wish I could tell you that I found THE silver bullet that solved everything. I can’t. There’s not one.
Strangely enough, an insurance representative is the one that sparked a flame to get me moving out of that miserable place. The conversation went something like this:
Rep: How’s your year going?
Me: Oh, you know, just another year. I am trying to get through it.
Rep: How long have you been teaching?
Me: 14 years
Rep: [nods head] Well, you’re right on target.
Me: [looks confused] Really?
Rep: The happiest teachers are at year 24 or higher: they know that if this year is too challenging, they can walk away. Years 10-23, almost everyone is where you are: feeling trapped.
Me: hmmm, that’s interesting.
I hadn’t thought about it that way before, but trapped was precisely what I felt. Too far in to walk away, yet not able to see any light at the end of the tunnel. That short conversation while my profile was loading sparked something in me. I didn’t want to stay in that place for the next ten years. I wanted to love what I was doing every day. So I embarked on a journey to figure out how to make that a reality.
I started the process of becoming a National Board Certified teacher. That was messy, rewarding, had lots of growing pains, and in the end, I came out with a better focus of who I am as a teacher. I dug deep into my practice, put it up for independent review, failed, retook, and certified.
Between my last retake and receiving certification results, life got messy again. I took the risk of applying for a position I thought I had NO CHANCE of being considered for. After four interviews, was offered the job. It was a bold move. It was exhilarating and validating as a professional. Then I hit a fortified defensive wall in my personal life that kept me from taking that position. I was devastated and terrified. I was a single parent with two kids and now no job. After I cried for a while (wailed, tore my tunic, threw ashes on my face and head), I started applying for ANY job.
I landed in northwest rural Arizona in a school that I love going to every day. I’m in a community that suits me well, and I am surrounded by beauty beyond description. I also learned how to be a teacher leader. I received my National Board scores in December after making the 1500 mile move in July. I received an invitation to the Celebration of Accomplished Teaching. I had no idea what it was, but I was going. I had worked three years non-stop, and whatever Arizona was doing to celebrate that, I was going to be part of it.
At the celebration, I met new people and decided to attend the Arizona NBCT Network convening. I began to get information about opportunities through the Arizona K12 Center and applied to be a Hope Street Teacher Fellow. I learned the fundamental processes of intentional networking and advocacy. I wrote a blog that was published in The Standard, and a few editorials that were published in my local newspaper. When I was introduced to people, I started to realize they already knew me by reputation.
You don’t have to do big things to become a leader. If something matters to you and you take responsibility for that, you’re leading. It might be how you structure your classes, suggesting a book study with your grade level or department, reaching out to a teacher new to your campus, going to your principal and asking to try something new to you. You don’t have to set out to change the world to be a teacher leader; you have to care about something and take responsibility for making it happen (Stephen Chang, National Equity Project).
In her book Daring Leader, Brene’ Brown defines a leader as “anyone who takes responsibility for finding the potential in people and processes and who has the courage to develop that potential.” (Random House 2018 p. 4) Isn’t that what we do every day as teachers?
Go ahead, look in the mirror, and say, “I’m a teacher leader.”
Feel awkward, giggle, and blush. Then do something with that knowledge.