By: Angela Coleman
Icebreakers play a traditional role in the back-to-school meetings or professional workshops for educators. You either love them or you don’t. You have the over-sharers, the response-repeaters, and the perpetually confused asking “what was the question again?”. As soon as a prompt is shared, I personally begin thinking about what I’m going to say instead of listening to everyone else. Am I the only one who does this? I always try to think of a creative response, but most responses end with people telling who they are, where they work, and what they teach.
This summer I began the Baylor University’s Master’s in School Leadership, and while the icebreaker was much more interesting than a generic prompt and respond, I got caught up in the titles and roles of others. “I’m just a classroom teacher,” I thought. In the Christian Faith and Leadership course taught by Dr. Matt Thomas, we quickly delved into our identity in Christ. “Your work and your role are not who you are. Your identity is secure in Christ.” I have been an educator at a Christian school for eleven years. We talk to our students about their identity in Christ all the time. But the Lord made sure that I knew this message was for ME this time. In the days that followed, I kept coming back to that statement and through the Holy Spirit, I felt a peace wash over me as I realized that I do not need a title to be a leader. I returned to my school campus in August empowered and energized to lead from my role as ‘just a teacher.’
What does leadership look like when you are ‘just a teacher’? It has given me a renewed sense of purpose at my school. I am not chasing a title. I am simply finding the joy in sharing my passion for teaching with both my students and my colleagues. Here is what I have learned as I lead from the classroom.
“How you see yourself is how you lead others.” First, I realized that I needed to ask the Holy Spirit to reveal my true identity in Christ. As you lead, know that your ability to lead others is not attached to a title or a specific role in your school. Ask the Lord through prayer and the study of Scriptures to make known your identity in Christ. As a teacher leader, I now see my role as one of fellow sojourner. I am just a teacher who can invite others to join me on a journey to better serve our students as we encourage and support one other. Colleagues who choose to join me have a choice because I am not asking them to participate from any official role. I’m not the boss. They can say no. I started an ‘optional’ professional learning community that required a weekly commitment. Five teachers volunteered to join me, and it has been one of the most life-giving experiences in my twenty-year career. Find what you are passionate about and invite others to join you. Don’t just reach out to the colleagues you think might be interested; invite everyone. You will be encouraged by the unexpected ones who join you.
Talk to your colleagues in other disciplines or grade levels. Each class in the Baylor MA program has an authentic task to complete based on the content of the course. As I have completed each task, I have had conversations with colleagues outside of my academic department. The PLC group that I mentioned before is comprised of teachers from five different disciplines. As we work to increase student engagement, the focus of our PLC, our diverse disciplines and teaching experiences provides unique perspectives that help us to think outside of the ‘box’. One of my favorite conversations occurred when the English teacher asked the Bible teacher to share his insights on rubric writing. Don’t discount the value of collaboration with colleagues outside of your content area.
Through these ‘course tasks’ I have also had conversations with the head of school, the academic dean, the admissions director, the middle school assistant principal, and the special education teachers about student learning. My conversations with them have helped me to better understand the big picture of our school and point me back to our collective why-the students. It’s easy to forget in the yearly grind of new initiatives, data-collection, and policies that we all want the same results: to see our students flourish.
Jon says… Leading your colleagues in an informal capacity can be challenging as you will need to build credibility. In our PLC time, I am often heard saying, “well, Jon says (referring to Dr. Jon Eckert)” because I know that my colleagues respect and value the incredible work that he has done in the field of education. While I am certain that they value what I have to say, the scholarly work done by experts helps to guide our work on student engagement and creating a culture of collaboration. Dr. Eckert’s book, The Novice Advantage, provides the backbone of our work on student engagement along with many of the articles from the coursework. Do your research. Find credible sources and share them with your colleagues. I always appreciate how Dr. Eckert puts the cover of the book in his presentations, so I do the same with my team.
Be honest. I am a good teacher, honestly, I am…but I want to be a better teacher, and that’s what motivates me to want to lead my colleagues. As our PLC read about best practices regarding student engagement, I was the first to admit that I needed to do better. I thought I was great at student engagement until I discovered what it really is and isn’t. Because I was vulnerable early on with my colleagues, they also felt comfortable to share where they needed to improve, and we developed a group ‘growth’ mindset. One of my colleagues, a very successful AP teacher, was hesitant to change her way of thinking. In one of our last meetings of the semester, she said, “I may not be doing everything that we’re talking about, but I’m thinking about it more.” I wanted to cry I was so excited to witness how she had changed her mindset.
Invite someone to observe you or ask if you can observe a colleague. Request honest, constructive feedback. I call this ‘actionable’ feedback. Then, repeat the observation. This creates accountability. Teachers love to share the ‘tricks of the trade’, but there is far too much talk and too little action. When you give honest feedback, it builds trust. Our PLC discussed the benefits of wait time for student engagement. I observed one of the PLC members for about 10 minutes. At the end of the class, I gave her honest feedback that she was answering the students’ questions too quickly. The very next class she made an adjustment, waited longer, and was beyond ecstatic to share with me that ‘waiting worked.’ Students were responding to each other’s answers. Lead others by being vulnerable, trustworthy, and honest.
I started the Baylor Master’s in School Leadership program for one reason, but God’s plans are infinitely better. It has been LIFE-GIVING to work with a group of colleagues that has chosen to come alongside me to become better teachers. The next time I do an icebreaker or must introduce myself I will proudly say, “I am just a teacher who is passionate about doing the work that I am called to do in the classroom.”