A few days ago, I traveled home to Memphis and ended up in a restaurant having dinner at a table right next to Ms. J. Hubbard, the English department chair who interviewed and recommended me for hire in 1998 as a 7th grade language arts teacher. Although she was with a friend and I was with my husband, we essentially joined our tables and caught up. We reflected on our team and all of the things we did for students, all the molds we broke to ensure they were taken care of, and all of the growing we had to do to continually meet the challenges our students brought us.
I have always been grateful that Chickasaw Jr. High is where I was planted to begin my career. I sometimes reflect on the fact that it gave me my “teacher toughness” as well as my teacher softness, and the gift to skillfully balance them both. What I rarely think about is what else I received from my formative years as an educator. I was told to try it, to make it work, and I was asked for my ideas. Because of that, I grew roots of leadership and creativity.
I’m so encouraged by all of the educators I know who are expanding their roots by engaging in policy like Jonathan Crossley, starting new initiatives like Ashley Lamb Sinclair, and running for Congress like Jahana Hayes. Teachers’ talents and expertise need to be ever-present in those arenas. However, when I talk to both veteran educator friends and beginning teachers, one thing that’s clear is that not every teacher is hired by administrators who see beyond the current slot they need to fill. Too often, teachers are hired to just do the job, read the curriculum like this and not like that, keep the kids under control, come back the next day, and repeat. The best teachers are the ones who are students of the game, who are creative and have ideas and a desire to engage students beyond the bare minimum. They ask questions: How? Why? and most importantly, What if?
There are two things that administrators can do to empower talented teachers: keep the soil healthy and expand the pot.
1. Keep the soil healthy. Administrators send the message as to whether their school is a healthy place to grow. A teacher friend once showed me an email she received from her principal after she suggested an idea. I remember his words: “Stay in your lane.” When teachers have new ideas, administrators who know how to cultivate the soil encourage them to put those ideas on paper so that they can be evaluated for implementation. Healthy soil has allowed me to do some creative things with my students, but when I have been in positions in which the soil felt toxic, I worked beneath my potential, and my growth and my students’ growth were stagnant.
2. Expand the pot. When teachers are allowed to be a part of the decision-making process outside their classrooms, they are
usually more motivated to do the work inside their classrooms. When all decisions that affect students are announced to teachers after they are already in motion, the pot feels even smaller. The message is that teachers should do the work in the classroom without providing the valuable insight they gain from being with students each day. That is quite backwards. I’d say that it IS our lane to think outside our classroom walls. Roots without space to expand eventually crack the pot, and those are the great educators we lose.
When teachers walk in to interview for a teaching position, they should be seen as more than a slot filler. They are not just teachers. They are educators who are capable of seeing how the actions outside their classroom walls affect the work inside. They need to be given license to try and fail and try and succeed. The best shift we can make in schools is to not seek warm bodies that sit like safe, uninspired plants on a shelf, but to find the ones that, with nurturing and illumination, will thrive and run and run.
Monica Washington is an instructional coach for BetterLesson. Previously, she taught English III and AP English III teacher at Texas High School in Texarkana where she served as department chair. She has been in education for 20 years and has taught grades 7-12. She has served as adjunct professor at LeMoyne-Owen College and Texarkana College.
Monica became Texas State Teacher of the Year in 2014, and she continues to travel the country speaking to teachers and advocating for the profession. She serves in the Texas State Teachers Association and the National Network of State Teachers of the Year. In addition, Monica is a 2015 Lowell Milken Center Fellow, and she will work with her students and the center to discover and honor unsung heroes. She is also a 2015 NEA Foundation Global Fellow. Monica is currently pursuing a doctorate of education in teacher leadership.
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The opinions expressed in Teacher-Leader Voices are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.