Kevin Cormier is a 7th and 8th grade math teacher at Nissitissit Middle School in Pepperell, MA. You can learn more about Kevin’s teacher leadership here.
Over the past couple of years, there have been more and more narratives about the importance of teacher leadership. It’s been tackled from different angles, like how it impacts school culture, affects student achievement, and helps teacher retention. And it’s true, teacher leadership has an effect on all of those areas of education, and many more. But, there’s still a fundamental question that every educator ultimately asks themselves, do I want to take on the responsibility of leadership?
I have asked myself that question a few times in my career. And, for my first eight years in the classroom, the answer was “no.” That was not because I didn’t want to take on leadership roles, but because I didn’t think I had earned the right to do so.
Yet I had unknowingly assumed some leadership responsibilities in my school, simply by offering expertise and assistance. For example, I had worked with my assistant principal to overhaul the school schedule to create a new team structure for our middle school. I had been a retail manager for years before becoming a teacher, and scheduling was something that I was able to do easily and well. I didn’t look at it as leadership; I looked at it as helping out where I could.
At the end of my ninth year, I opened an email from my assistant superintendent about an opportunity to be on the Teacher Advisory Cabinet, a group that was assembled by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE), The cabinet was designed to create a connection between the policy decisions being discussed at the state level and teachers on the ground who would be asked to implement it. It seemed like a great opportunity to see how the policymaking process really works, so I applied and was accepted.
The first day, all I did was listen, careful to not say or do the wrong thing. I knew from the instant we introduced ourselves that I was in a room of amazing educators. Now, I think very highly of the staff at my school, don’t get me wrong. But when you engage in conversations with educators outside of your school or district, you hear new voices, new ideas, and new solutions you can bring back to your own school, and incorporate it into those conversations that would otherwise be redundant. That’s one of the most powerful effects of teacher leadership.
Midway through the year, I applied for an opportunity to go to San Diego for the Gates Foundation’s Elevation and Celebration of Effective Teachers and Teaching (ECET2) national convening. I was accepted, with a second member of the Cabinet named Lisa. It was another amazing experience. Besides the opportunity to connect with other teacher leaders, I realized how lucky I was to have the support of my administration. The conference was a Friday through Sunday, so I needed to take the Friday off, and they offered to give me Monday to deal with the jet lag (I declined, but was touched by the concern). All administrators should be that supportive of teacher leadership.
Upon returning, Lisa and I got together with 2016 Massachusetts Teacher of the year Audrey Jackson and two other amazing Massachusetts teachers, Sean and Maureen, and applied for a grant to put on a regional ECET2 convening in Boston. In just a year I went from not wanting to leave the four walls of my classroom to helping organize and deliver a full-day conference for 150 teachers on a rainy Saturday in October. This journey felt unbelievable to me, but it’s one that any teacher could undertake.
It does take a certain mindset to do this work. In the last three years, I’ve probably spent over 250 hours working on different projects and initiatives for free. But I believe so strongly in the work, it doesn’t matter. I mean, if you’re a teacher, you’re well-acquainted with the fact that we are undervalued. But leaders refuse to let that get in the way of having the biggest impact we can possibly have on teachers and students alike.
So, who wants to be a leader? Most of us, if we’re honest with ourselves. Teachers know how policy affects their schools and their students and most teachers want to be part of the conversation that steers policy decisions rather than always reacting to it. The expectations for an effective teacher leader are no different than what we have for our students – be thoughtful, engage in collaborative conversations and be willing to be part of something greater than just yourself. An overwhelming majority of teachers have these characteristics in them. Including you.
So, what’s the first step on your leadership journey going to be?