State: New Jersey
Source: National Network of State Teachers of the Year
Sometimes being a teacher leader means being open to making big changes.
After years of working as a high school Spanish teacher, I left tenure for the second time, found work in a new district, and focused my efforts on 4th, 5th, and 6th grade gifted students. I left my former district because I couldn’t find a way to deploy my teacher leadership skills in ways that would be welcomed and supported there. Although the district appreciated me as an excellent classroom teacher and activity leader, the school’s organizational structures were traditional and hierarchical, allowing little room for the kind of teacher leadership I dreamed of. I wanted to teach, but I also yearned to use my research and presentation skills.
One day, I came across a job offer for a district gifted and talented teacher leader. After a whirlwind of interviews, I decided to leave friends, comfort, and security when the new superintendent offered me the job and said: “I like how you think!” That was it! I loved teaching, but I had so much more to offer and was thrilled to work in a hybrid role in a district that embraced all that I could bring to the table. I would be working with students and with teachers as a peer coach and co-teacher. My new district was less affluent than the one I was leaving and test scores needed to be raised, but everyone was focused on student success and on new ways to improve professional practice. There was innovation in the air and I could smell it!
Working with my new colleagues, the administration, and students, we developed something we called “Lesson Study Collaborative,” a program where ten teachers would gather to think about current research on topics like differentiation or project-based learning. After we framed some big ideas, brainstormed our level of awareness of the topic, and explored current research, I’d model a lesson demonstrating our focus area. Finally, we’d return to our group of colleagues to connect our learning and observations to current practice.
This year, in addition to my modeling the lessons, many teachers in the group have stepped up to co-teach and demonstrate a variety of exemplary strategies for their peers. Teacher leadership works better as trust is built and as all of us see professional learning as a place where we take risks to innovate, push back on stodgy and ineffective practices, and support each other.
It’s not easy to change jobs, leave one’s comfort zone, and work with a whole new group of colleagues, but I have found that sometimes change is needed to find a school open to new models of innovative teacher leadership. One thing that helps me to stay energized is to rely on my national teacher networks like the National Network of State Teachers of the Year, the NEA Global Fellows, the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, the America Achieves National Fellowship and the New Jersey Association for Gifted Children. These empowered networks of teacher leaders have always helped me to stay connected to research and to see myself as an important player in education today. Though teachers enter the profession to help our students script a successful future, I’ve learned that we need a little (or a lot) of help from our teaching colleagues to lead from the classroom.
Even though there are days when I think I may be slightly nuts to give up a lovely position in a beloved, high-performing, affluent school, I am thrilled with the chance to be part of a vibrant, supportive, and forward-moving district. We all appreciate comfort and security, but sometimes making the right decision about our professional lives requires risk-taking, audacity, and the same kind of belief in ourselves that we have in our students.