I’ve decided to diverge from the suggested prompt today. What I’d like to talk about instead is my commitment to being a teacher leader. To me, that means that I advocate for good practices with my colleagues, both in my own department or wherever I meet teachers. I try to share ideas that have worked for me and that address problems/challenges that other teachers face. And, of course, I also try to be open about suggestions that help me improve my classroom practice.
More specifically, I want to talk about the importance of leading by example. Four and a half years ago, I realized that I couldn’t just wait until my department was ready to explore 21st century literacies–I had to start using technology in the classroom on my own and hope that my students would adjust. My decision to do that was scary. I wasn’t sure how competent I was or how my students would respond or if my use of technology would even promote learning. I worried that my colleagues and students would think that how I used technology was idiosyncratic rather than meaningful. But I did it anyway–expecting no support, no affirmation and possibly bad student evaluations.
What I found was that my students were my partners in this enterprise. They knew I was going out on a ledge; all they had seen in English classes up to that point was the use of video/audio clips and the occasional PowerPoint. I also created ways for the students to give me anonymous feedback so I could refine and revise how I was using technology. I learned a lot that semester about how to use technology as a tool for learning–and I think my students did, too. I saw that my students respected that I was willing to completely rethink my approach to teaching because 21st century literacies were becoming so important in secondary pedagogy. I have also seen how the students in that particular class (and the classes I’ve taught since) have embraced technology in their careers as secondary English teachers.
That’s the positive example, but I also have a negative example (that is ultimately a positive experience). A couple of years ago, I decided to teach a Writing in a Digital Age class. I made plans based on the expectation of having a class full of students who were at the very least interested in technology. That wasn’t what I got, though. I had many students who were uncomfortable with so many different aspects of what I was attempting in class. And I found that a workshop setting seemed to work best as they were trying to produce new kinds of texts using websites and applications that they were trying for the first time. The semester ended with me not feeling so great about how the class went.
But here’s the surprising thing: I’ve received more requests from students in that class to write letters of recommendation than I have for any other single class I’ve taught. I’m still processing why that’s so. I think it might have something to do with how I asked them to create projects that they really cared about (a podcast about an upstander, a “This I Believe” segment, a blog about a topic they were passionate about). I gave a lot of feedback to them on their work and I think they felt “heard” (though I didn’t really see that at the time). Since their work was public (presented online), I think they also had a much deeper need to assure that their work was of the highest quality. My feedback mattered to them much more than I thought it did . . . so I’ve had to revise, in part, my dissatisfaction with my teaching in that class. With all the ways that class didn’t work, I did a few things that had a positive impact.
Ultimately, then, I’ve learned that when we believe something is important about education, we need to advocate for it. Our advocacy can take so many different forms, and leading by example can be so powerful. I tried to make my experiments with technology visible both to colleagues and to students. I blogged about what I was doing, I shared ideas, I was willing to take risks, I asked for student feedback–and all of these things ended up influencing others in positive ways . . . at least I think they did.
My understanding of what it means to be a “teacher-leader” has evolved and is a part of who I am now. The first step was deciding to be fearless, to take risks, to do what I knew was best for students. That’s the takeaway, I think. We need to make informed choices about what our students need and we need to constantly update our pedagogy and content.