Education Opinion

Leaving the Classroom, But Still Part of the Team

By Andrea Shunk — November 09, 2016 6 min read
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When I was growing up, my family attended a church with a strong tradition of children’s choir musicals that often involved a character named Psalty and the Singing Songbook—a large, anthropomorphic, royal blue hymnal. One song, “The Body Song,” talks about the many different skills needed within the church.

Psalty’s family compares this collaboration to our human bodies, and they sing about being the brain, the heart, the ears, the eyes, and the arms. (“I’m swinging! I’m swinging!/Swinging on life’s merry way!/I’m the arm! I’m the arm!/I’m bringing grace to all!”) Each part is necessary to the functioning of the whole. (“We work together/We do it with cooperation!”)

I’ve always thought there should be a teacher version of this song. (“I am the librarian!/I check out the books.” Or “Counselors!/Listening all the time!”) To make a school run and to meet the needs of the students we serve, it takes all kinds.

We need fabulous reading teachers, dynamic math teachers, inspiring art teachers, and empathetic counselors. We also need teachers who can lead and coach their peers and advocate for the profession outside the classroom, and we need strong principals who honor and empower all educators in their schools.

As a teacher, I never felt the need to acknowledge the diverse nature of education as much as I did the year I experienced my mid-career crisis. When the crisis hit, I knew I didn’t want to leave the classroom and join the ranks of bloggers writing click-bait articles about “Why I Quit Teaching.” I also knew I didn’t want to become a principal or district administrator. But what were my other options?

Identity Crisis

My mid-career crisis hit two years ago while seated atop a bar stool, pint of cider in hand, staring into the glowing screen of my laptop. As the realization of my predicament sunk in, I wanted to simultaneously scream out in rage and sob uncontrollably from loss. Instead, I sank into an open-mouth, catatonic stare.

The precursor for this moment of stupor came from a list I had made detailing the trajectory of my career as an educator. That school year, I had taken on a hybrid role, teaching half-time in the school I had called home for six years and working the rest of the time as a teacher on special assignment in the district office promoting teacher leadership and professional learning.

The team I worked with during my special-assignment position was launching an ambitious educator leadership program and piloting the written application component, which included a professional growth chart that lists the most meaningful professional growth educators had engaged in over their careers.

As I wrote out my own list, a pattern emerged: I had been a union-building representative, a member of the district design team, an Oregon Writing Project coach, a PLT leader, and a site council chair, and now, I was in this hybrid role of teaching and leading. The pattern I saw was one taking me out of the classroom with activities and roles focused heavily on supporting and advocating for my colleagues.

I also worked to improve my instructional practice and improve learning conditions for my students as well. I advocated tirelessly for better curriculum, better diagnostic procedures for struggling readers, and getting students the wrap-around services they needed at the alternative high school I worked at. I earned my reading certificate, several post-graduate credits.

But as I looked ahead at the next few years of my career, the classroom didn’t seem to be my final destination. The road I paved for myself clearly led out of the classroom. And I didn’t know how I felt about this.

That’s not entirely true. I felt conflicted, for sure. I felt scared and excited. And I also felt ashamed and embarrassed. I didn’t want my colleagues to see this pattern because then what would they think of me? Would they think I was a power-hungry teacher, looking for more money and more affluence? What would some of my mentors think of me, those who spoke eloquently of the need for teachers to stay in the classroom and work with students? What would my teaching partners in my school think of me? Would they think I was a know-it-all, uncaring bureaucrat, more concerned about policy than practice?

The crux of the panic I felt had a lot to do with the limited choices all educators have. Down one road, I could stay in the classroom and ignore an entire side of my professional life—working with teachers and on system reform—that I found very fulfilling. Down another road, I saw the life of a principal, a job I knew I did not want. At. All.

Moving Forward

The next week, I ventured with trepidation and fear into a team meeting where those of us who piloted this educator leadership application converged to debrief the process

As soon as we began sharing, I realized I wasn’t the only one who had experienced that moment of panic and dread upon reflecting. My colleagues also found themselves struggling while they documented their educator paths. We cried. We shared. We laughed. And in the end, we saw that the listing and mapping of our careers helped us better understand our own stories and the larger story of education—a profession that takes many, not just one.

This revelation gave us all cause to celebrate as ultimately, that was the goal of the leadership program in the first place. We set out hoping to elevate the different talents, skills, and qualities that make each educator different, unique, and indispensable to a system. And it seemed we had achieved our goal.

Valuing Diversity

“The Body Song” taught me long ago that if you lose one part, the whole ceases to function. The brain can’t live on its own. The eyes don’t think for themselves. The ears provide necessary input for decision-making.

Education can and needs to make room for all of its parts, too. Excellent, effective, and dedicated classroom teachers are vital to the functioning of a school and the success of students. Teachers do not work in isolation, though. We need counselors, support personnel, paraprofessionals, instructional coaches, and amazing principals to make school quality and student success a reality.

So rather than set up a system where we pit one role against another, the classic us-versus-them mentality, we should seek to elevate all the roles and acknowledge openly that each one requires different skill sets. Doing so would go a long way toward putting an end to divisions within education.

Master teachers skillfully engage and inspire students. Great principals use different skill sets, like culturally responsive discipline and managing personnel. It takes another skill set to be a high-quality instructional coach. The position I now hold in my state’s National Education Association affiliate draws upon skills I developed as a teacher, a journalist, a teacher on special assignment, and a school board secretary.

Forging Ahead

Today as I write this, I’m sitting atop a different bar stool, cider in hand, looking into the glow of my computer screen with far more hope for both my personal journey and the profession. As education becomes ever more complex, I see more educators recognize the diversity of skill sets it takes to help students reach their fullest potential.

I discovered I didn’t have to choose the well-trod paths of my predecessors—leave completely or become an administrator. I could forge my own path and find a role that allows me to contribute to the education profession in a way that is professionally fulfilling, challenging, and incredibly rewarding.

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