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

 

meetings, meetings everywhere

This school year feels different than previous years. Really, every year is different, because the students are different, I’m a little different, I’m trying different things in the classroom. But this is now my 5th year teaching, and I don’t feel like I’m reinventing the wheel anymore, which is kind of nice. This is also the first time since I started teaching that I haven’t had new colleagues join the teacher teams I work with (even though I’ve been at the same school the whole time). However, I find myself spending a lot of time in meetings.

A few weeks ago, I counted up the meetings that I had that week – it was particularly bad. In that one week, I was in 9 different meetings plus my normal teaching schedule. On Thursday, I had three meetings – before school, during lunch, and after school. In a more “typical” week, I have 3 meetings either before/after school, plus all the informal conversations that we have with colleagues during prep/lunch/before or after school.

I think a hatred of meetings is somewhat universal, no matter what profession you’re involved in. I’m sure everyone has been involved in an ineffectual meeting – whether it was people just complaining, the organizer(s) didn’t have a plan, it was a meeting that could have been an email, or just nothing was accomplished. (Incidentally, when I was watching this TED talk about givers vs. takers, I came across this article about how to get a sense of the culture of an organization when job searching, and at the very end the author suggests asking about meetings – if people enjoy the meetings they’re in, that’s a good sign. Something to keep in mind if I find myself on the job market again.)

Teachers in particular seem to dislike meetings. The culture of schools doesn’t seem to foster collegiality (different from congeniality, as outlined by Robert Evans in the article “Getting to No”). As Evans states,

Ask any classroom veterans why they teach. You’ll never hear, “I love to work with other adults and go to meetings.” Teachers have chosen a career that involves spending their days in the company of children or adolescents. They thrive and feel most confident and fulfilled when doing so. (Would we want our youth taught by people who felt otherwise?) They often see dealings with other adults — whether colleagues, administrators, or parents — as intrusions upon their primary source of work satisfaction.

And it’s true. Going to meetings is definitely not the best part of my day. I would love to have more time for my students. This year in particular, I feel like I am not available for students as I have been in the past. I used to give a blanket statement that students could see me in the mornings, but that’s no longer true because these days I often have morning meetings. And teaching two preps in two buildings, I can’t tell students that I will definitely been in room ____ before school. So now it’s “please email me if you’d like to see me outside of the school day” and I just feel less accessible to my students this year.

And yet I find myself voluntarily involved in more meetings with my colleagues this year than ever before. I’m on two subject teams that basically teach lock-step. I’m the “course team liaison” for the chemistry team. And I find myself stepping up and occasionally helping organize some school-wide PD. All of these things take time and require face-to-face interactions.  Most of these meetings take place outside the “normal” school day because I don’t have the same prep periods as the colleagues I need to meet with.

I engage in all these meetings because I feel like the work that’s being done is important. It’s important to me to work with colleagues to develop curriculum, because it makes it better than whatever I could come up with on my own. (It’s also important to me that students enrolled in the same class get a comparable experience regardless of teacher.) It’s important to me to be involved with my department as we are working through what it means for students to construct scientific arguments (we’re having a lot of good discussions about the “claim, evidence, reasoning” framework – what is evidence, exactly, and how is it different from reasoning?). And I feel like I have ideas and resources to help our school-wide meetings be more productive (particularly after the NSRF Critical Friends training I attended this past summer).

But some days, I feel conflicted. Am I doing my students a disservice by being so busy when I could be available to help them? Or am I doing worthwhile work by being involved in these groups in my school? I don’t think that I am yet doing work with colleagues at the expense of my students, but it’s a tension that I keep in the back of my mind. And then, just the sheer number of meetings is exhausting sometimes. Sometimes I find myself wishing for a Time Turner, although Hermione’s experience might suggest that a Time Turner would not actually help my sanity.

I do wish that the school day was structured differently, where there was more time built into the school day for collaboration with colleagues (although then that begs the question when would I get the grading done?). But we must make the best of what we have, and for right now I guess that means continual meetings. And I guess all I can do is continue to reflect and be honest about when I need to step back so that I can make sure I’m also able to meet the needs of my students (and keep my sanity).

I just want to teach

I’m finally on spring break, and I’m using the time to relax and unwind but also mentally unpack this thought that’s been going to my head the past few weeks:

I just want to teach.

A friend posted on Twitter a few weeks ago how she was “more interested in ‘just’ being a classroom tchr for a few days”, and I responded:

I kept thinking “I just want to teach” when we were doing the “work to rule” thing at my school. I just wanted to be able to come in when I wanted, leave when I wanted, and get my work done on the schedule that I’ve worked out for myself.

The week before spring break started, we had some crazy schedules going on because of PSAT/SAT testing and while I appreciated the time to get some prep stuff done, I kept thinking “I just want to teach”. I wanted to have uninterrupted, normal class time instead of a choppy schedule that confused everyone (one of my first period students showed up to my classroom at 8 am on Thursday, but we were starting with 3rd period on Thursday and she had just forgotten…)

And then I started wondering – what does it mean to “just teach”? I think to the non-teacher, “just teach” only brings to mind the time in front of students. But teaching is so much more than that. I’ve already written about some of the things that teachers do that don’t take place in front of students. A (by no means exhaustive) list:

  • Lesson plan, including (but again not limited to)
    • Revise/update activities and handouts that were used previously (contrary to popular belief, I don’t put a good lesson “in a can” and then take out year after year…)
    • Test activities/labs myself from both the teacher’s perspective and the student’s perspective (particularly anything new). (I do this all the time. And this takes up a significant amount of time.)
    • Write and modify assessments
    • Revise learning targets and their sequence for either this year or next
  • Meet with other teachers to coordinate lesson plans and materials
  • Make copies, prep labs and other classroom activities (and this is a significant chunk of time in chem classes, but also for physics)
  • Communicate with parents, counselors, and/or admin about particular students who may be struggling and/or have a documented learning or medical issue that must be kept track of.
  • Tutor students outside of class (note: not getting paid extra for this, nor expecting to- I feel like that would be borderline ethical at best.)
  • Grade, and grade assessments in a timely manner (the point of the assessment is feedback and feedback doesn’t help much if it comes too late).

There’s a lot that goes into teaching. I’m not actually complaining, I genuinely love it (well, not the grading… but few teachers love grading. And it’s really super important both for me as a teacher and for my students to know where their progress is). But even though I’ve spent some time unpacking what it means to be a “good teacher”, I still struggle with the feeling that “good teachers” are also supposed to be doing more, making a wider impact beyond just their individual classrooms. Some things that have crossed my mind include:

  • Officially leading a PLC (professional learning community)
  • Leading professional development at the school level or higher
  • Presenting at local and national meetings
  • Joining a committee (for… some sort of school-wide initiative)
  • Going into school administration

And I’m not going to lie, I struggle with this idea of making a wider impact. I would like to be a force for change at my school, in my district, in my state. I would like to help, motivate, inspire other teachers of my discipline. And I’d like to actually get to know some of those teachers that I’ve only admired from a distance via Twitter or other online resources. But, with all the demands of actually teaching, I sometimes don’t know when to find the time. I felt super guilty attending NSTA a few years ago because I was gone for two full days and therefore unavailable to my students; attending any mid-year professional meeting gives me this same feeling of guilt (I haven’t been to NSTA since then partly for this reason). A big struggle around the “work to rule” thing at the end of March was the feeling that I was letting down my students. And really, I love being in the classroom and I actually love most of the things that I do to prepare to be in my classroom. I get nerdily jazzed up about resequencing lesson plans from last year or finding a new way to teach a particular topic. All of this takes time and energy, though. And with all of the time and energy it takes to “just” be a good classroom teacher, I wonder – What “additional” responsibilities are reasonable and good for me to take on, and what’s biting off more than I can chew?  How can I balance the need/desire to give my students the best learning experience I can and be available to them with the need/desire to effect positive change beyond my own classroom?

Some of my struggle is that I’m not quite sure what I have to add to the conversation. Am I doing interesting things in my classroom? Maybe? But nothing I do is invented from scratch, so I feel wary about sharing my ideas and taking credit (and sometimes it’s hard to give credit where credit is due, because I don’t know quite where things came from in the first place), although I’m happy to share resources if people ask. I don’t necessarily feel like an “expert” in anything in particular, because I recognize that all I know is my own experience, and my own classroom experience (almost certainly) does not match anyone else’s, even that of other teachers in my school who may be teaching the exact same lesson as I am (different people, different students, different time of day…)

I don’t have any easy answers. And like most things related to education (or really anything that involves large numbers of other real, living, breathing people), I suspect that there is not one right answer for everyone. I’m still feeling out what my “teacher voice” is for a broader audience. But I think it’s important for teachers to ask ourselves these questions, because if teachers don’t speak up, we get left out of the conversation. So I’m trying to figure it out – where is my zone of risk and my zone of danger? As I think about wrapping up this school year (ok, I have a full quarter of school left and we don’t get out until June 20th, which still seems ages away – assuming that CPS finds a way to avoid ending school on June 1) and I think about next year, I’m just musing on what my own next steps might be and how I might venture out a little bit more without feeling like I’ve gotten in over my head.