May 31st marked the end of my 15th year teaching in the state of Florida. What I have seen change in that time, mainly by legislators in Florida who have zero experience in the classroom, has largely been to the detriment of our most precious resources–our children and their future.
Sure we could be like them and point to ginned up statistics, smile, clap and cheer, but for any person with a remotely discerning intelligence and an eye on the big picture, it is easy to tell this is all smoke and mirrors to delude potential/future Floridians to move here. At the end of the day, the highest ranking for our K-12 public education system was the recent one in U.S. News and World Report, which indicated Florida ranked 27th.
Considering we’re the 3rd most populous state in the U.S. with a one trillion dollar economy, this ranking is downright shameful.
But what’s more shameful–and far more insulting–is that teachers, the very people who work with our children on a daily basis, are never part of these conversations. At least not in any meaningful way. Sure politicians and district administrators may point to data for a lone annual survey that asked for our feedback, but it is no substitute for putting people in a room together and letting them generate ideas.
Over the last several years, there have been numerous people who suggested that I go into the administrative track, often telling me that I would be an excellent principal. Heck, I’ve even had people with highly informed opinions tell me that I have the potential to even be a great superintendent.
While I appreciate the words of confidence–and do agree with these people who share these suggestions–I cannot leave the classroom for a few reasons:
1) at nearly 44 years old, I fully realize that time is the most valuable asset I have. Being a classroom teacher means I work 9 months out of the year. Sure if we add up all the extra we do outside of school it probably is like a yearlong job, but the huge blocks of time off are restorative and rejuvenating. I wouldn’t be nearly as effective if I didn’t have so much time to work on myself personally and professionally.
2) when I was a new teacher mentor, as much as I loved the experience of helping newer teachers find their grooves, it only made me long for being with my own kids again;
3) as a lifelong learner and massive nerd, I don’t think I could ever top my current job as an International Baccalaureate Theory of Knowledge teacher. It’s difficult for me to put into words how much I enjoy being around these incredibly bright, talented, and motivated young people. Though they often tell me I’m the most impactful teacher they’ve ever had, my common refrain to them is that I’m the one who is getting the better end of the bargain. There’s only one of me, but there are over a hundred of them, each one adding so much meaning and value to my life and career;
4) perhaps most importantly, we simply need teachers who are innate leaders to help shape and craft policy at all levels, and if we are not invited to the table it’s about time we just pull up a chair, plunk ourselves down, and start sharing important ideas or perspectives that are often overlooked.
Here in Hillsborough County Public Schools, I’m just a number. Literally. But I am also one of 15,000 teachers, which means the odds would dictate there are many more “teacher-leaders” like me who love the close contact with kids and do not want to move into administration. Why are we not tapping into these resources? Why are we not leveraging our human capital in ways that allow us to maximize the positive changes we could bring to this district? Meeting with legislators who routinely nod at our concerns and then vote the opposite way will get us nowhere, but at least at the local level, regardless of what county or district, we can effect change if we are simply asked.
So let this be an invitation to any teacher who wants to help impact his or her local community. Show up at local school board meetings, ask how you can get involved, or provide suggestions. If enough of us do this, perhaps it will move the needle and get your local school board members to come back to the well of our experience and expertise. Here in Hillsborough, we should be organizing town halls for solutions-driven people who want to band together and help our students regardless of where they live or go to school. Two issues that immediately come to mind yet are undoubtedly intertwined are the lack of literacy in our youngest, most disadvantaged students coupled with the bad behavior that is reinforced through a lack of discipline.
So how do we move forward?
I believe two of the most crucial characteristics of the best, most effective leaders are when they admit these two things: “I don’t know” and “I was wrong”. Let’s face it, most people don’t like to say these things, but I am quite fond of saying both because they demonstrate a humble-yet-confident mindset seeking opportunities for learning and growth. By admitting we don’t have all the answers or that something we tried didn’t work out should give us pause for reflection. And all great leaders are great thinkers. They see the big picture and are always willing to take their egos out of the equation. These are the types of teacher-leaders we need at all levels helping everyone else pull together and get behind a vision for positive change.
Does this sound like you? Perhaps it is time for you to emerge as a local teacher-leader!