Caught Between Worlds: Balancing Classroom Teaching With Teacher Leadership

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Almost every publication writes about it. Conferences devote sessions to it. Twitter is filled with memes, quotes, and thoughts about it. Teacher leadership is decidedly a hot topic within the education world.

Teachers are, by definition, leaders. Teaching requires leading students. There has been a growing interest in tapping into classroom teachers’ leadership wisdom and experience, and teachers are eager to share this with others. The challenge for teachers is finding the way to continue meeting the classroom needs of students while leading beyond the classroom.

Classroom teaching is certainly filled with plenty of leadership demands. Teachers work constantly to design lessons and activities that address standards and align with expectations of assessments. They also spend a great deal of time assessing students’ progress and making adjustments to better meet students’ needs. They conduct department- and grade-level meetings and attend building-level meetings. Collaborating with other teachers and specialists is critical, and it is also important to maintain communication with parents and guardians. In addition to all these tasks, teachers also strive to grow and learn through professional development.

Teacher leadership has its own set of demands. For some of us, it involves planning the agendas and keeping our departments or teams focused on the work of the moment. Leadership may also mean designing professional development experiences for our colleagues, whether that’s through leading a book-study group focused on one of the latest texts available to help teachers improve their practice or preparing a workshop for presentation at a regional, statewide, or national conference. There is also important work to be done within local teachers’ unions. Other leadership roles involve working with state education departments on various initiatives or collaborating with organizations working to support teachers in their work. These opportunities are exciting and rewarding, and they require time and energy as well.

Educators engaging in these two worlds have a passion for elements of both. Classroom teaching offers the excitement of creating opportunities for students to discover something new, or to grow their confidence in a new skill. Forging relationships with students is what spurred most teachers into education in the first place. However, there are equally meaningful aspects of leadership beyond classroom and school walls—collaborating with educators to solve problems, growing one’s own professional practice, and building new contacts within professional learning networks is also rewarding. Teachers bridging leadership within the classroom and beyond value all of these aspects so much that they are willing to devote an enormous amount of time and effort to managing their work in both.

Based on our own experiences, here are three ideas to remember when balancing the roles of classroom teacher and teacher leader.

1. Keep learning at the forefront. We are educators because we want to help children learn and grow, and we continue to cherish opportunities for us to learn even more. Balancing the worlds of classroom leadership and leadership beyond our classroom walls gives us even greater opportunities to continue learning. So often, what we do within our classrooms helps inform what we do as teacher leaders, and what we learn through our work as teacher leaders informs our work in our classrooms. In the last couple of weeks, for example, Tricia has been considering how to best challenge the 8th graders in her language arts class. A teacher she met over the summer responded to a post she made on social media, adding some suggestions and offering support. This interaction was focused on supporting student learning, and it also helped Tricia continue her professional development.

At those times when it’s easy to feel overwhelmed, consider these questions: What classroom experiences have you had that might be a starting point for collaboration with peers? What experiences have you had that influenced the way you support student learners in your classrooms? How can student learning and our own learning be shared beyond our classrooms and schools, whether in virtual communities or face-to-face meetings?

2. Remember what your passion is. Keeping passion as a grounding force can help us make decisions about where energy and focus need to be spent at any point in time, being mindful of the work at hand. When teaching students, we must be in the moment with them and not mentally running down a “to-do” list for our next presentation or professional collaboration. We have had many colleagues tell us that we are effective as leaders because our passion for the work clearly shines through in our collaborative conversations or in our presentations. We have experienced those moments in local meetings as well as presentations at conferences, where an hour or two goes by far too quickly because everyone is in synergy enthusiastically sharing their experiences and learning.

In those moments where passion seems to be buried under a stack of papers and a task list three pages long, take a moment to reflect: What are you passionate about? Where is your sphere of influence? What action can you take that will connect you to others who share your passion?

3. You’re not alone. There are many teachers leading in their classrooms and beyond around the country. Even though there are moments when balancing these roles can feel isolating, the truth is someone else probably has faced similar challenges and feels equally isolated. This is a great time to remember the power of professional learning networks. Touch base with colleagues about that difficult situation in your classroom. Connect with the teacher leader you met a couple of months ago. Twitter chats are one way we have connected with other leaders. Virtual communities like the CTQ Collaboratory, the Teaching Channel, and Edutopia are also excellent connection points. Tricia has participated in virtual discussions about social justice issues, for example, while Char routinely collaborates with teachers in other states, discussing ways to support educators’ work in implementing standards.

When you begin to feel isolated in your work, ask yourself: What learning networks are you already connected to? Sharing the joys and challenges of roles in both worlds fosters relationship and helps keep learning moving forward.

There are moments when we wonder how we manage to get it all accomplished, moments where our to-do lists seem overwhelming. Keeping passion and priorities in focus makes a critical difference by helping us reframe our thinking. The reward of leading within the classroom and within the profession is well worth the investment.

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