Nick Lawrence tells his story of expanding teacher leadership—a story that began when he was an idealistic neophyte reaching out just to survive his first year but developed over time as he reached out to broaden his skills and assume greater responsibilities.
My teaching career began with a move to New York City from Kansas, where I studied to be a teacher. Like many educators before me, I entered the classroom with hubris and idealism and was met with a year of teaching marked by chaos. That first year seriously lacked structure—for me, for my students, and for the other new teachers who taught with me. Some teachers left mid-year as the full scope of the challenges present in public schools became clear. I did not become less idealistic, but those of us who stayed did become more realistic about what this job requires. And we began to organize.
I teamed up with an 8th grade science teacher, and together we worked to create systems that would help us be more effective at school, both inside and outside of the classroom. Initially this was reactive, such as establishing a clear protocol for addressing behavior issues in the classroom (i.e. detention) and then moved to common practices in note-taking and the beginning of cross-curricular practice.
Eventually, as I took over as the official team leader of the 8th grade, I began looking beyond my grade level team to see how I could work with others to improve the school as a whole. I attended School Leadership Team meetings and became a union-recognized lead teacher, a role that has allowed me to support students and staff in achieving goals they set for themselves and our school community. While supporting teachers, I’ve likely learned more than those whom I’ve mentored, as the role has caused me to be very self-reflective in terms of my own practice as a teacher. I’ve also learned to some degree how to balance the strengths and weaknesses of a teacher team and helped to leverage those unique personalities to better the community as a whole.
Having gone through a traditional route to become an educator, I’ve always been interested in education policy reforms that lead to better teacher preparation. A natural next step for me after effecting positive change in my school community was to look beyond the walls of our school. I wanted to see what work I could do in New York City to promote conversations between educators that would strengthen our individual work as well as the profession as a whole. I wasn’t trying to solve any problem in particular so much as I was looking to learn as much as possible about what professional educators do and how they succeed. In conducting that search, I’ve found a few outlets for voicing my own concerns and ideas about education, but also numerous forums for engaging in conversations with other educators about what works and what doesn’t in our schools.
Educators for Excellence stood apart from other efforts because the teacher leaders were so focused on getting teacher voices heard by a larger audience. In all of the activities, lectures, summits, and conferences I attended, I was looking for a way to bring more prestige to a profession that has lost it in recent decades in this country. This was the central goal of E4E, the one that interested me most. They were doing everything possible to support the voices of individuals like me. Time and again their staff gave support for the actions I wanted to take and the words I wanted to get out there, and they also provided me with many opportunities for activism.
In the vein of policy, this year I was asked to sit on Governor Cuomo’s panel on the Common Core State Standards which, while a bit political for my taste, provided an opportunity to express the concerns of educators from the city and across the state. I participated on a Teacher Policy Team on the Teachers’ Contract, sharing a collective opinion about what could be and what is now the contract for New York’s largest union. I was also given space to toss around ideas with like-minded educators from across the city before talking to reporters and before submitting op-eds to various news outlets.
Beyond all of that, the thing that keeps me sane—and grounded—is the body of students that arrive at my classroom door each day, those who give me a smile and say, “Good morning.” Few might understand how a hundred young teenagers can energize a person to do even more work than it already takes to teach a class of middle-schoolers, but when I think of leading anything or anyone in education, my thoughts come back to my students, the examples I want to set for them, and the better education I want them to have. In spite of the difficulty of the work, the long hours, and at times a lack of respect for what I do, seeing them each day allows me to lead by example as best I can- for them, for myself, and for all of my colleagues in the field.