Unfamiliar Territory

February Blog

Unfamiliar Territory– A Journey in Teacher Leadership

Patrick J. Kearney

I taught instrumental music for 25 years.   At various times I thought I was a pretty good school band director.   There were times when I was teaching well that I didn’t recognize it and there were times when I was teaching poorly and thought I really knew my stuff.  One of the things that experience taught me was to have a better sense of when I was providing students with what they needed and when I wasn’t.  Time and experience made me comfortable in my environment and I developed confidence in the learning that I was supporting every day in my classroom.  My classroom was my safe place.

This year I have moved into a new role where I don’t have a classroom.  I am technically a “Teacher on Special Assignment,” whose full time job is to support teacher leadership in my district.  I find myself in unfamiliar territory.  I no longer have a group of students to call my own.  I am often the only teacher in many meetings and settings.  Where I once had confidence that I knew how to impact change in my school, I now often doubt myself.

I think that many of us who are taking on teacher leadership roles in our schools might feel this way.  We got into teaching to work with young people.   We enjoy the immediate gratification of seeing students master tasks and grow.  That doesn’t change when we enter into teacher leadership roles.  We still enjoy observing learning.   But, it is often different.  We aren’t always the ones directly providing the instruction.  We aren’t always teaching the lesson in the classroom.  Serving in a supporting role is unfamiliar territory.  Sitting in meetings with school leaders discussing budgets, initiatives, and systemic professional growth is unfamiliar territory.

It is often said that growth happens when we find ourselves in uncomfortable situations.  I hope that is true.  I am uncomfortable these days.   I think I am uncomfortable because I don’t have a simple answer to the question, “how will we know if our teacher leadership program is impacting student achievement?”  The answer to that question right now is, “I believe it will.” Realistically we won’t know for a while.

Until we have more concrete evidence of how teacher leadership will impact student achievement we have to rely on some belief statements.  We believe that more teachers in decision-making roles will be good for our schools.  We believe that teachers know their own professional learning needs.   We believe that teachers can teach each other outstanding instructional practices.   We believe that more peer conversations will make us better.   We believe that opening the doors to our classrooms to our peers will improve our profession.  We believe that students will learn better when we collaborate and keep them at the center of our work.

There have always been teacher leaders.   No teacher needs a title to make him or her a leader.  Formalized teacher leadership is a pretty new concept and it has placed some of us in unfamiliar territory, but if we believe that teachers have the power to change schools and improve learning for our students then we must step up and lead.

I have taken some time to be vulnerable and insecure in my new surroundings, but I am ready to use my classroom experience to be a strong voice at the decision making table.  I am eager to build my confidence to share what I know to be true.   Great teachers are the single most important factor in making our schools better.  If our work supports teachers doing great things, we can confidently make our voices heard even more loudly.

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