It's Damn Near Impossible to Be a Teacher-Leader and Still Teach

Mar 19, 2018 12:00:00 AM


A few weeks ago, I was out of the classroom. When I came back, the substitute teacher’s notes were not good. “I wish I could tell you it was an easy three days,” the sub notes said. I had done everything I could to make it easy. I planned for weeks to get the classes exactly to the point where they could watch a movie and have it be engaging and meaningful to them. Partly, the preceding sentence is there to make me feel and look better than I would if I just said, “[pullquote position="left"]I let them watch a movie with the sub.[/pullquote]” It was, at least, a little more than just that. But the kids were rude, wouldn’t listen, wouldn’t work. On day one, the sub told a class that she was worried what the next few days would be like if they were already acting like that. “So, don’t sub,” came the response from the class. “I wish I could tell you it was an easy three days, but it wasn’t.” A full page followed, of students sent to the dean, of students talking through and over attendance-taking and refusing to work. It was disappointing. I really hate feeling disappointed. Also, I felt awful for a number of reasons. Personally, I wish it was easier to be a teacher and also do other stuff. I do a lot of things—writing, speaking, presenting, participating, planning, organizing about and around education—all outside of my actual full-time job of teaching.

Let’s Make Teacher Leadership More Sustainable

I came back from presenting and facilitating for the newest group of State Teachers of the Year at Google Headquarters in California, buzzing with possibilities for what that work could grow into, about the growth I was starting to have as a facilitator and a teacher of teachers, and a writer and all that. I feel like I’m growing into this teacher-leader thing in a way that fits me, that is exciting and inspiring, that taps into some talents I think I have. So, yeah. The sub note was disappointing because I hate that my students weren’t wonderful and that my planning had failed and that, for a few kids, the days in my class were wasted. But, also, I just wish it was easier to teach and be engaged in the broader teaching world. When I talked to my kids during the day, I had this presentation behind me of all these shiny awesome Google-headquarters sorts of things: inspiring people I met and worked with, cool jobs I learned about and got to share with them, ideas about what kinds of skills are needed to get jobs at cool places. In front of me were these faces, 152 of them during the day, who looked regretful and defiant and asked good questions and acted super bored, and whom I felt, largely, like I had failed in some way by leaving. I told them a bit about what the opportunity meant for me, how much I’d like to keep doing things like it. I thought about, but didn’t share, plans for a second book that are coming together, what it means for me to get to write, and what I give up now to find time to do so. If I’m honest, [pullquote position="right"]the pace I’m going at now is not sustainable.[/pullquote] Some weeks the demands of teaching alone don’t feel sustainable, but I’ve been adding all this other stuff, and the stuff keeps turning into more stuff in a way that isn’t healthy. I’ve been doing both for four years, and it’s not sustainable. If we trained and supported and rewarded quality substitute teachers, it would be something different. If we encouraged the work that some teachers do outside of teaching, gave it space during the day and recognized the value it could have, it would be something different.

Adding to My Lanyard Collection Is Nice, But I’m a Teacher First

In two weeks, there is an event honoring finalists for the Minnesota Book Awards. My book was lucky enough to be among those nominated. Two days after, my daughter has her first public concert for the choir she rehearses with every Monday while I sit in the hall outside of the practice room so I can hear them while I grade or plan or answer emails. I’ll miss both big things because two weeks from now is also conferences, and my students and their families and their community deserves a teacher who is committed to them. It’s the right choice, but the kind of choice that always hurts to make. There are some answers for some teachers in some places, but [pullquote]what we don’t have (not even close) is a recognized pathway for teachers to be teacher-leaders and get to stay teachers.[/pullquote] We lose a lot by making teachers choose. My choice is both easy and impossible. I’ve had some offers to leave the classroom and do all the other things full time. My best guess is that if I went for it, I could make it work, likely for more money and with less stress. But I would be missing something, 152 somethings, actually, who I am not willing to give up. I’m not sure how to fix what needs fixing. Speaking and writing and training and adding to my lanyard collection are all nice. They feel important. They are important. Having teachers involved in the big conversations happening around schools is important. Recognizing teachers as the experts they are is important. Going to California for a few days and seeing the real, actual sun and getting fancy food and free drinks and peeing when I want to and having time for adult conversations and not having to debate with a 13-year-old about flat earth when they’re supposed to be reading is all nice. It’s nice. I appreciate it. But I’m a teacher. Before all of that, I’m a teacher. I let my students know, as disappointed as I was that they were rude, as disappointed as I was to come back from such an amazing experience to such sad sub notes, that I was happy to be back. I had missed them. They were more important than any other stuff, and I know when it gets too difficult to do both, I will always pick them.

Tom Rademacher

Tom Rademacher (Mr. Rad to his students) is an English teacher in Minneapolis, Minnesota. In 2014 he was named Minnesota Teacher of the Year. He teaches writing and writes about teaching on his blog. His book, published by University of Minnesota Press, is called "IT WON’T BE EASY: An Exceedingly Honest (and Slightly Unprofessional) Love Letter to Teaching."

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