what’s in a title?

Teacher. Leader. Writer.

I’ve been referred to as all of these things, yet only the first one feels comfortable. And I’ve been probing myself – why? Where is the discomfort coming from? And what are the implications of that discomfort?

I’m comfortable with the title of “Teacher” because if anyone asks what I do, I tell them I teach. And in a very real way, teaching is a part of who I am. Teaching is what I do daily. Teaching is always on in the back of my brain, even during “breaks” – I’m not sure that it ever truly turns off, and I’m not sure if that’s good or bad, to be honest. Also: it’s on my paystub: “Job Title: Regular Teacher”. So I have no problem with being referred to as a teacher.

“Leader”, though – that’s a loaded word. I don’t have any formal leadership roles. What does it mean to be a “teacher-leader”? Does “teacher-leader” mean that I’m involved in official initiatives, or presenting at conferences, or influencing educational policy in some way?

Becky Van Tassell, another Knowles Senior Fellow, probed her own ideas about teacher leadership in “Leadership as a Stance: Leading from Inside the Classroom”, and summarized it this way:

Teacher leadership has been defined differently in the literature, but many researchers agree that teacher leaders are distinguished from other teachers because they influence teaching and learning within and beyond their own classrooms (Wenner & Campbell, 2016).

So then, by this definition – Do I influence teaching and learning beyond my own classroom? Probably- I work on two different course teams (physics and chemistry), and I contribute ideas and strategies to both. Do I consider myself a leader because I do those things? Not really, because I also gain a lot from those collaborations (namely, the ideas and strategies of my colleagues). And honestly, the work I do with my colleagues just feels like a part of my job, so I shy away from using the term “leader” to describe myself or the work that I do.

And then there’s “Writer”. It’s strange, because I’ve written plenty as a teacher, but I’ve never considered myself a Writer-with-a-capital-W.  Does having my own teacher blog count as being a “real” writer? Do I avoid referring to myself as a writer because it’s just something I do on the side, for myself? This space has been mostly so that I can process the things on my mind, and there’s not really another, broader, goal for my writing. Am I a writer just because I write? (To me, taking on the title of Writer just because I write feels disingenuous to those who make their livelihood writing; as someone who loves reading, I would like to acknowledge and honor the work that goes into writing for a living.)

I’m left wondering – even in adulthood, how am I developing my identity? My identity as a teacher comes from a very clear job title – someone else decided that I would be acceptable as a teacher and gave me this job. No one has given me a formal title as leader or writer. So am I only allowing others to assign my identity, rather than developing it for myself?

Identity is a complex thing, and our identities influence how we teach, how we interact with our students, how we interact with our colleagues. And their identities influence how they interact with us. (I loved this blog post by Michelle Cheyne about how she came to realize how important teacher and student identity is in the classroom, and how we often don’t know all the facets of another’s identity.) So how does my reluctance to take on the identities of leader or writer impact how I interact with others? Am I neglecting to acknowledge the ways that I am contributing to my school, and perhaps the conversation about education at large? Is there a value in acknowledging those contributions? What does the discomfort that I feel when others classify me as leader or writer actually mean? And how do I acknowledge (or fail to acknowledge) the contributions of others who may also not have a formal title to go with the work that they do?

Maybe the title Teacher feels most comfortable because that is what overshadows all of the other work. If I lead, it’s so that I can be better at teaching, so I can make things better for my students. If I write, it’s also so I can be better at teaching, by processing my thoughts in this medium I can also make things better for my students. But I’m trying to be a better teacher, and that process seems to involve picking up some new facets to my own identity, and going through this discomfort. After all,

One can choose to go back toward safety or forward toward growth. Growth must be chosen again and again; fear must be overcome again and again.

— Abraham Maslow

 

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