What Side Am I On?

With a summer off for the first time in my career, and a transition to a new school on the horizon, I’ve been thinking a lot recently about what I want my teaching career to look like. I have always seen myself as a teacher first, but over the past years, I have had increasing opportunities to do more beyond the classroom. As I get the opportunity for a fresh start as a teacher at a new school teaching a new class, I’m attempting to envision how I want to act as a teacher within my school, and also as a professional within the larger realm of education.

I wrote the following in an email to one of our most talented graduating seniors recently. We had a strong relationship when she was in tenth grade, and she had been very disappointed to not end up in one of my eleventh grade US History sections the following year (she ended up with another great teacher, but who would be teaching history for the first time):

I didn’t take you into my US history class last year because it was for the good of the school; it made sense for me to have the more challenging students since I had a history of success, and I was concerned that if I moved you into my section I would’ve been accused of stacking my deck.  This was not fair to you, as you would have been better off in my section.  I’m sorry for this.  Over my five years at Bronx Lab, I became much more concerned with the good of the whole rather than of each individual student.  This is not the teacher I sought out to be, and part of the reason I am leaving is to try and become this teacher again.  Bronx Lab, the institution, became too important to me, at the expense of the individual students who make up Bronx Lab.

Jose Vilson wrote recently about how being a school leader changes your perspective, comparing the classroom teacher to a hummingbird and the school leader to an eagle. He captures one of the key challenges when one starts dealing with larger and larger issues. Being in increasing leadership roles at Bronx Lab over the past four years didn’t make me a less effective teacher of social studies in the classroom. It did however make me a less effective advocate for students, and also greatly decreased the quality and number of strong personal relationships I was able to develop with individual students. At my new school, I am looking to become a hummingbird once again. I want to be approaching my classes and whatever limited say I’ll have in how things run at the school through the eyes of my students, rather than through the eyes of a grade team leader or department chair trying to build a certain type of institution, as I have for the past years at Bronx Lab. (And I swear I wrote that paragraph before reading Paul Blogush making the exact same point in response to a comment I left on his blog).

All that is not to say, though, that I am ready to put my eagle eyes aside. In the past couple of years, I’ve had increasing opportunities to act outside of my school in three different realms of teacher leadership: activism/advocacy, curricular and assessment development, and mentoring/professional development. There are strong parts of me drawn to all three realms, but I am beginning to feel like a house and writer divided. While to some extent all three realms of leadership are interconnected, I am wondering if it might be time to focus on one realm over the other two.

Over the next week, I will have two experiences that I hope will help me gain some clarity about who I want to be in the next phase of my professional life. Saturday, I will be joining with thousands of my fellow teachers and our allies for the SOS March in Washington, and will attend a congress to organize next steps on the following day. Immediately following the congress, I will be taking the train up to Philly to spend the week at Swarthmore for a week-long seminar that is the beginning of a 13 month long fellowship program on teacher leadership with the Coalition for Excellence in Teacher Education supported by the Ford Foundation. I hope that I will have time to write and reflect throughout the process, so for the next week or so my blogging will be in response to these two experiences.

After, I will be focusing on my classroom, and am looking forward to creating a new course and physical classroom environment, while blogging about it in the process. When I started blogging again last year, this is the type of writing I wanted to force myself to do. I have spent most of my time in the past year, though, writing with my eagle eyes. I look forward to going back into hummingbird mode as a writer as well.

*The title of this post is a very intentional homage to Thomas Geoghegan’s wonderfully perceptive book, Which Side Are You On?

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