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Leading by Standing Still

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Having recently said no to three unsolicited central office job offers, I can no longer avoid asking myself why I keep turning down more money, power, and influence to stay in my troubled school. “I am safe here," I rationalize. But really, it’s about much more than safety.

Though I am a veteran educator, this is actually the first time in a long while I’ve worked in an actual school. In December 2006, my project management job in the assistant superintendent’s office came to an unanticipated screeching halt. Fortunately, I found a position as a technology specialist in a school near my home. I was apprehensive about the move, however. All that I dreaded about schools—PTA meetings, bus duty, large groups of unfamiliar children—awaited me.

As part of a partnership, is publishing this regular column by members of the Teacher Leaders Network, a professional community of accomplished educators dedicated to sharing ideas and expanding the influence of teachers.

My only previous stint in a school was during my first year of teaching, at age 21, in a small special education class in Indiana. I was so naïve I didn’t even realize I had to teach kids to walk in a line to lunch; we all walked down the hall in a loud group until my instructional assistant took over. After that eventful year, I moved to Northern Virginia and was based at the central special education office. For 17 years I taught preschool children and parents in their homes or day care centers. Then I spent two years at the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards as a teacher-in-residence, and two more years in the assistant superintendent’s office. In each of these positions, bus duty, PTA meetings, and large groups of children were non-issues. It was a weird journey for a person who considers herself both a teacher and a teacher leader.

Once anxious and uneasy about my move, I have since come to love this school and its enormous daily challenges. It is one of the most racially, ethnically, and economically diverse schools in the otherwise unbelievably rich county where I live and work—where the median income is more than twice that of the rest of the nation. In our economic outlier school, 40 percent of the kids have limited or no English language skills, and even more come from homes where English is not the primary household language. Forty-five percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. The neighborhoods my school draws from have no single-family homes.

Another big challenge this school faces is mobility—both in administration and in children. The wonderful principal we have now is the third since the school opened in September 2001. She is an interim principal who came out of retirement to take the job, and she will be replaced in the 2008-09 school year (by our fourth principal since 2001!). In addition, while the mobility rate for the whole district is 16 percent, my school’s rate is 44 percent, meaning that almost half the students who arrive in September will not be here the following June. How can students who don’t understand English and who continually move around ever meet the Virginia Standards of Learning?

Feeling Needed

Still, I love this school. I identify with the students here. As a child I too knew poverty. My mom raised five kids on less than $3,000 a year in the sixties, and we were the first children in her family ever to go to college—on scholarships with plenty of "financial need." I also knew what it is like to be different, as so many of these students must feel—they with their relative poverty and limited English, and me with my awful hand-me-down clothes, bad teeth, and fatherless home.

I love the kids in this school and claim many of them as my friends—which is no small accomplishment because running the computer lab and training the teachers results in reduced personal interactions. But all it took was for one 5th grader to ask if he could come in at lunchtime to finish a project. Now I have a regular crew of 5th and 6th grade "Lab Lunch" kids who come in from 12-2 daily, bringing their lunches, staying through recess, working on Web sites or Google Earth. With a scrounged lunch table, a trash can, and a sign-up sheet, Lab Lunch is filled every day.

And I love the staff. Every interaction—large or small—is a victory. I help people understand that they won’t break the computers if they try something new. Teachers use the computer lab as a break room and a watering hole. They dump the day’s problems or frustrations and leave a little calmer. I offer chocolate and coffee (shhh!) and the ear and shoulder of an older person.

I am needed here, a person with a lot of life experience who can let little things roll off her shoulders. The staff needs someone who has lived in other worlds and survived—the corporate world of the National Board and the highly-charged political world of the superintendent’s office. They need someone to listen, but also to lend some perspective to their concerns.

I need them, too. I need the teacher smiles every morning, the hugs from the 1st and 2nd graders, the rush of 5th and 6th graders to sign up for Lab Lunch, the very respectful 3rd and 4th graders. I need the daily conversation with parents I greet on bus duty, the shop talk with the tech repair people who are a true gift to our schools, and the teachers’ jokes and gag gifts about my crush on Rod Stewart. They like me here.

I can make a difference here. I can be a teacher leader, too, leading better than in a central office.

The term "leadership" can imply a hierarchy—being above others in either an administrative role or, as in the school system, in a central office role with more money and supervisory responsibilities. I certainly do not earn more money in this role as a school-based technology specialist—and the only supervisory role I have is over the machines in the school. But I can help make good things happen here. And that is all I ever wanted to do anyway.

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