My experience with the NEA’s Teacher Leadership Initiative (TLI).
As I write this, I’m flying home from a transformative and very humbling experience in Washington, DC with some of the smartest and most passionate people I’ve ever met. I need to back up a bit and explain what the Teacher Leadership Initiative is and how I got involved, though.
In the spring of 2013, I got an e-mail message from my Poudre Education Association president, inviting me to participate in an online leadership program through the NEA (National Education Association). I had been teaching for six years and felt my career was at a crossroads. I enjoyed being in the classroom, but what other options were there for advancing my career? Did I want to go into curriculum development, mentoring, administration? What did I like to do and what kind of path would support me in pursuing a fulfilling career in public education? I had considered taking a leadership class through our district, and the NEA e-mail was timely and interesting. Their program was online, national, collaborative, and it offered a stipend for participating. It was an intriguing possibility, so I sent in an application.
The online leadership program turned out to be great for my learning, and it connected me with a lot of educators who were going through the same thing I was. I met colleagues in my local association as well as teachers in Massachusetts, Arizona, Michigan, Mississippi, and more. We attended online classes and webinars presented by the Center for Teaching Quality. We explored what we loved to do and were passionate about, and we started writing – learning how to turn our passions into a persuasive message for various audiences and then a call to action. I decided my passion was in computer science education, and my call to action was to give every child access to high quality learning in this important 21st century style of problem-solving. We began work on a capstone project, and mine took shape around writing computer science curriculum and being a strong advocate for coding in our school and district.
The leadership curriculum took more focus, and I took summer modules on leadership in the Common Core (the other content strands were School Redesign and Teacher Evaluation). I connected with other mathematics teachers working to bring high quality common core instruction into our classrooms. It pushed my thinking around instructional leadership a bit more.
Throughout the year, I was also able to do some really interesting work with my local and state associations. Since my local president knew I was getting involved in association work, he invited me to a lobbying day at our state capitol. We got to attend an Education Committee hearing and talk with legislators about school funding. I was so fascinated and energized by being part of the democratic process in this way – how fortunate we are that citizens like me can attend open lawmaking sessions and influence that powerful and noisy process. I was also invited to a Colorado Education Association (CEA) leadership conference, and it really started me down the road of getting involved with my union. I had many misconceptions about what the union is, and what it does, and I had always kept myself at arm’s length. I had bought into the narrative that the union “protects bad teachers” and I avoided entangling myself with it. When I plugged myself into my local and state associations, I realized how precious and fragile our public education system is and that quality teaching was far more complicated than the “bad teacher” narrative would lead you to believe. A free, equitable public schooling system is a key democratic institution I had been taking for granted, and it is certainly not guaranteed with many other interests competing in that space. No single educator has the money or the voice to speak up for the millions of kids that need us, but together we have a powerful influence. Our membership allows us to organize around common visions and goals, and figuring out how to do that well is a rich and interesting challenge.
In the fall, I began writing and assembling my capstone project for the TLI. By that time, I had taken on a new role as a computer science and electronics teacher at my middle school. I wrote or re-wrote curriculum for three classes, mapping them to high standards and making them rich, collaborative, and project-based. I leveraged my communications training to become a conference speaker, presenting at the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics conference and others about integrating coding into core classes. I got our teachers on board with doing a schoolwide celebration of the Hour of Code, and I continue to speak up for great computer science instruction at the district level and anywhere I can find an audience. The classes I teach are so much fun, for me and the kids. I’m incredibly proud of the work my kids do and I show it off on social media every chance I get. I’m continuing the work to modify the curriculum and increase the diversity, in terms of female and minority enrollment, in those classes.
This leads me to this weekend, when I attended the Teacher Leadership Initiative convening in Washington, DC with about fifty of my TLI colleagues, many representatives from the NEA leadership team, the Center for Teaching Quality, the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, and the funders involved – the Ford Foundation and the W. K. Kellogg Foundation. What a powerful experience to network with people I had met online but had only begun to understand the incredible work they did. I met teachers who have created leadership projects around English Language Development, concurrent enrollment, mentoring for at-risk students, music education, political action, blended learning, cultural awareness, and so much more. They shared a deep passion for the work they did, not just in the classroom but also in driving great educational practices in their districts and state and nation. I took so many notes in my sessions about capstone projects, communication, policy, and organizing – I need a new notebook now and my brain is very full.
At the end of the weekend, I had the privilege to be part of a teacher panel at the National Press Club to discuss what teacher leadership means and where we take it from here. The audience was very receptive to hearing stories from teachers, and we had a full and engaging discussion. So humbling and exciting for me to be there representing my state, my school, and my local association for this event.
Here are just a few of the key takeaways from the weekend.
- Teachers need an open, collaborative relationship with their leadership, all the way up the leadership chain. The myth of the “bad teacher”, I feel, is firmly rooted in leadership challenges. No one would ever blame a business failure on “bad employees” and yet the idea has stuck in public education. Administrators, department chairs, mentors, and district leaders should provide feedback and a solid support system for improving teachers, and an avenue for emerging leaders to explore their passions and drive them to innovative ends. It’s important to provide vision, empowerment, and critical questions – administrators need to trust their staff and minimize top-down mandates. They need to listen over and over and over again. I feel my own leadership project was a great success because I work in a well-led school and a well-led district. I was always trusted and supported, and encouraged to do ultimately what’s best for the kids.
- Teachers need time. It was interesting that many teacher-leaders I met had a structure in place for them to do leadership work at least part-time. Some taught half-time and did a half-time instructional coaching role, or a half-time association leadership role. Some were on a year-long TOSA assignment. The structures can be funded in a number of different ways, through the school or building district, through the local or state association, or through an outside funding source. Many teacher-leaders were quite creative with how they carved out and funded their leadership role. For me it presented a clear path to do what I love to do. I want to stay in the classroom. It keeps my work relevant, and let’s face it, working with the middle-schoolers is the highlight of my day. It keeps me young. But I am crushed by the sheer workload of five preps and over 200 students. I want to drive STEM education forward and I simply can’t when I am spending so much time planning lessons. I have 90 minutes every day to plan up to 4 lessons and give feedback to my 200 students, respond to e-mails and fill out necessary paperwork – needless to say this is impossible so I work many hours after school, and neither my leadership work nor my school work is getting proper attention. A hybrid role would be a dream and I feel this structure should be an option for teachers who want to apply for a leadership position for specific purposes.
- Teachers need to ask “what if?” This is a beautiful question and a beautiful alternative to simply identifying problems and complaining. Start asking, and ask different people until you find someone willing to go down that rabbit hole with you. What if? It will take you places you would not have imagined.
- Teachers need to collect data that’s meaningful to them. Standardized accountability systems have a limited place but do not result in actionable information. When you take on a personal project, and you decide what data will tell you if you’re successful – when you find critical friends to help you analyze the data and determine your next steps – you can see your own impact on the world more clearly. It’s better for you and the kids.
- Teachers need to find their passions. My school is an amazing place where we are exploring passion-based learning – encouraging our 6th, 7th, and 8th graders to discover what they love and use that passion to personalize their education and make it authentic. I realized through this process that I thrive when I do passion-based learning as well. It would do us good to do some soul-searching around this idea and carve out the space for kids and teachers to personalize our development through the public school system – to make the learning real and powerful.
I’m so grateful for the opportunity the TLI afforded me. I can’t wait to see what the next steps are. And if you get the opportunity to take on a personal leadership project in your own career, my advice is to absolutely go for it. Reach out to me if you want support, advice, or empathy. I would love to hear your story.
Here is mine: A video from one of my colleagues of my story at the National Press Club.