Portfolio Entry #7: Reflection on Teacher-Leadership / Outside of School

The goal of the portfolio is threefold: to document some of the work I did this past year, to take the time to reflect and learn, and to share with the larger community I am lucky to have through this blog.  I will be posting a portfolio entry a day until it’s done.  There are eight entries, one for each year of my career thus far.  Questions, comments, and thoughts are always greatly appreciated, but are even more so for this.  Previous entries are here.

At this time last year, I was really looking forward to being “just” a teacher within my school, and thanks to Young Writers being a well-run school with established leadership, I was able to do just that.  This enabled me to do more out of school.  I want to use this entry to reflect on some of that work.

Professional Development:  

I’ve had increasing opportunities this year to present and facilitate workshops for other teachers, largely about Common Core implementation in Social Studies classes (there’s an updated list of these on the About page).  I really enjoy this work, and hope I will be able to continue doing it.  It’s been wonderful to meet and work with teachers both from NYC and around the country.  And while virtual networks have their place, there is nothing quite like getting a group of teachers in a room to try to get better together.

One of the themes I’ve stressed in this work is that the Common Core gives good teachers a unique opportunity to define what “good Common Core” teaching looks like before the bureaucrats and textbook publishers do it for us.  I hope my work has, to some small extent, gone towards doing this.

I learned a lot about delivering PD from wonderful partners I planned with.  Here are the two golden rules of PD I think I figured out this year.  First, all PD needs to start and end with recognizing and listening to teachers’ own experiences. The impetus for PD should never be “Here’s this great new thing” or worse, “I know better, so listen to me,” but rather, “Let’s see what you’re already doing that is going well, and figure out how to amplify that.”  For example, most of my Common Core workshops begin by asking teachers to share a great lesson they’ve taught, and then looking at how those lessons align with Common Core standards (I borrowed the idea from the Center for Inspired Teaching).  The teachers’ experiences then serve as the foundation for the rest of the work we do.

The second golden rule is that it’s important to hand teachers ready-to-use tools, as well as clear guidelines for producing their own.  Especially mid year, teachers rarely have time to build units or assessments from scratch, so we appreciate getting new things.  At the same time, PD needs to build capacity in participants to create things in the future.  My workshop at the NYC Writers Project Teacher-to-Teacher conference attempted to build this capacity in developing Common Core assessments.


One of the things I’m most proud of this year was getting in a good writing rhythm.  This blog really helps me clarify my thinking on a lot of issues, and it’s well worth the time I spend writing to solidify my thinking so that I’m more clear with other teachers, students, the press, and others involved in education when they are listening.  A key realization for me was that this blog is for me, and my writing then comes more naturally.

At the same time, I’m lucky to have two different outlets to write for others as well.  I’m proud of the writing I have done for Education Week Teacher and the New York Times Schoolbook (full list of articles on the About page).  I only hope it’s useful to others.

Harvest Planning:

Last Fall, my then new school accepted an invitation to move to a place that would my add 45 minutes to my commute each way.  Having barely survived an hour commute each way last year, I knew my days at the school were, sadly, numbered.  I told my principal that I wouldn’t actively look, but if the right opportunity fell in my lap, I would accept it. On January 14, it did.

Ironically, the previous week I published a piece LINK talking about the need for modesty in developing new schools. I got a lot of positive feedback from the piece, including a call to meet with NYC Office of New Schools, which hoped I would be interested in starting a school.  I went there inspired by Dennis Littky’s TEDxNYED talk, where he revealed that his brilliant Met School (where I student taught) got started when he was in a similar situation, so he came up with the most radical idea he could that he was certain would be rejected.  I went into the meeting expecting rejection, which unlike Dennis, I found (the point where the conversation was clearly over: I proposed not having a principal, and having a teacher-run school like Math and Science Leadership Academy in Denver).

Luckily, I already had a meet set up by a mutual friend with Kate Burch, a teacher who had just seen her proposal for a new school approved.  I had a good feeling going into that meeting, and asked my wife before going if she wold be okay with the time commitment, both daily and in terms of the very long-term commitment I would be making, if I started a new school.

Ninety minutes after first sitting down with Kate, as well as the social worker who helped write the school proposal, I was on board to help create a new school.

I am very aware of the challenges that lie ahead.  As a friend who helped found the Beacon School nearly two decades ago told me recently, I know that the best we can do is to fail better each year.  I know things will be far from perfect, and that our school’s reality will be very different in five years from how we now envision it.  I tried to enter the process with great humility, but have found myself humbled again and again as more teachers, students, and their families join our community. When I finish this portfolio, it will be time to shift my focus towards Harvest, both in terms of documenting what’s happened and to look forward.

But as I look back on the planning work done over the past six months, I can write without hesitation that I’ve never felt happier, nor more self-actualized, at any point in my career.  Whatever the future may bring, I am thankful for the experience of taking a plan that existed on a piece of paper, and turning it into a real institution (where I’m currently writing), that will soon be filled with students learning.  It feels like every experience, lesson, and mistake brought me to this point in my career, and there’s nothing else I would rather be doing.


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