Letting the Light Shine: How Teacher Leadership Made Me a Better Teacher
I will never forget my first day as a teacher. After all the years of college, all the observations, and all the educational articles, I finally had my own classroom, my own rosters, and my own desk. I had wanted to be a teacher since I was in the 7th grade, so when that dream finally came true, I was filled with emotions I never imagined. I was excited, nervous, proud, and scared. I remember I couldn’t stop smiling. And as soon as my first class on my first day started, I had a feeling that I never thought about before: I became intoxicated with POWER.
Students sat where I wanted them to sit; they went to the restroom when I deemed it an appropriate time; they responded to questions and asked questions when I said it was OK. I was aware that teachers held a certain amount of power within their classrooms, but on my first day, I got to have a taste of that power in my classroom, and I was forever transformed.
Now, in my ninth year of the profession, I have to admit I still love that feeling, but the reasons have changed. Now, I am not really intoxicated with power. Instead I have moved into a love of influence and a desire to share my “light.”
I am currently in my fourth year as a teacher leader at Manual High School in Denver. Principal Nick Dawkins has made one of our school mantras, “Manual is where the light is.” We are an urban Title I school where 90 percent of our students receive free or reduced lunch and 95 percent of our students are students of color. Although the hours can be long, the days can be stressful, and the work can be overwhelming, when we are able to see our students shine, it is all worth it. Since I have a hybrid role, I teach for the first part of the day, and then I spend the rest of the day in teachers’ classrooms doing observations, conducting evaluations, leading coaching sessions, or co-planning professional development.
Teacher leadership has allowed me to be able to spread my light not only in my classroom with my students, but among our staff and consequently, their students. The Denver Public School model for teacher leadership places teachers in positions to grow and influence others while allowing them to continue to do the job they love, which is to teach. Being able to lead while still being in the classroom has provided me an opportunity to spread my “light” in ways I never thought possible.
Giving teacher leaders time and space to teach beyond their own classroom walls helps to spread best practices rooted in building specific pedagogy. As teachers, we often find ourselves skeptical of professional development that comes from outside entities, or from professionals who have never taught or not taught recently. Teacher leadership builds experts who are in the forefront of change and stability, and are authentic and directly tied to the students the teachers are serving.
Evaluating teachers helps me better understand the ins and outs of what district evaluation looks like. This not only allows my own practice to flourish, but it ignites an additional passion in me that I did not know existed. I have been an observer in Ms. Garst’s math class, and watched her creatively incorporate literacy skills into her math lessons. I have witnessed Mr. Butler make Shakespeare matter to inner city students, pushing and expanding their ideas about culture. I have had the opportunity to be inspired by Ms. Britt and her amazing ability to facilitate classroom readings with her students who have special needs.
When I made the decision to apply to become a teacher leader, I was confident about my teaching practice. My students were learning; my evaluations were where they needed to be—I was truly living out my dream. Surprisingly, after being hired as a teacher leader, I returned to those same new-teacher feelings from years before. I was once again nervous, scared, excited, and still smiling. Teacher leadership gives teachers the ability to share their light by improving how their own light shines.
As a teacher leader, my instructional practice had to become better. I had to go back to the drawing board and make sure that each of my lessons possessed what I was looking for in other teachers’ lessons. I had to attend more professional development sessions, read more books, and constantly reflect on my own skills and abilities. I used every observation of others as opportunities for self-growth. I would see great things other teachers were doing in their classrooms and then figure out how I could implement them in my classroom, or share their practice with other teachers. I have no shame in admitting that I have modeled my reading circles after what I saw in Ms. Britt’s classroom. I do my best to bring the passion for my content that I saw shining from Mr. Butler. And I am still working on my ability to bring the cross-curricular skills in Ms. Garst brought to her math classroom to my own.
When I started my teaching career, my only desire was to help students fall in love with history. Now as a teacher leader, I still want my students to fall in love with history, but I also want the teachers around me to be the best teachers they can be. As a teacher leader, I have lost my lust for power, and have replaced it with a flame. I want to share my light with fellow teachers; I want to share their light with other teachers.
Leading from the classroom is an opportunity to elevate the teaching practice to a level where teachers begin to take control of the profession that we love by allowing us to be the experts on our students, our buildings, and our craft. Leading from the classroom shines the light on the work that teachers do, and gives us the green light to shine on.