Promoting Teacher Leadership Through Year-Long Sabbaticals [CROSS-POST]

The following post was originally published on the SeizeTheLearningData.com blog that I also write for.  It summarizes much of what I’ve learned from the out-of-the-classroom job that I have had since October.   medium_2389416107As my 9-month stint as Program Manager for NCCAT‘s Data Literacy Program wraps up later this month, it’s a great time for me to reflect on the experience and the value that similar ones might have for other educators. Many in education have lamented recently the lack of career advancement opportunities for classroom teachers, myself included.  As they become master teachers, experienced educators have very few options outside of school administration.  This lack of a differentiated ladder of employment drives many teachers out of the classroom once they achieve a certain level of skill and experience. Research and new initiatives have begun to appear that show promise as oases in this “career desert”.  Barnett Berry has written about the idea of “Teacherpreneurs” who expand their influence while staying in the classroom.  Programs like Opportunity Culture create tiered roles for teachers that come with additional responsibilities and pay.  There is no doubt that keeping our most talented educators in the classroom needs to be a national goal, and hybrid teaching positions are one way to get there. However, I would like to make the case for an alternative: teacher sabbaticals.  Before I left the classroom in October 2013 to take on my current role, one of my biggest frustrations was that I couldn’t expand my reach and interact with educators outside my school without a significant investment of time and energy outside of my full-time teaching responsibilities.  The handful of professionals that I met through my Personal Learning Network (PLN) on Twitter and elsewhere were creating, curating, and sharing an amazing array of resources and information, but I lacked the time to take in the vast majority of it. I also must admit that I was eager to enjoy some autonomy in my work.  The hierarchy of education can often be stifling, especially for those who wish to be risk-takers and creative leaders.  Innovation comes only from this type of teaching, and yet our current systems discourage experimentation and customization in favor of standardized everything.  I saw this break from the classroom as a perfect way to explore the types of career paths that might be open to me if I ever decided to leave the classroom for good. There were four aspects of this job that made it a perfect sabbatical for me:

  1. It was time-limited from the beginning.  I knew that I would only have this job until the end of June.  This made it a controlled risk and left open the possibility of returning to a classroom setting in the near future.
  2. It involved working from home, mixed with travel.  I didn’t need to relocate myself or my family for this position, and I got to expand my horizons (quite literally) beyond the area of the state in which I normally work.
  3. Rather than filling an existing hole in an organization chart, I was put in charge of a single project with which I was already very familiar.  This ensured that I would have the freedom work at my own pace, setting intermediate goals that would ensure completion of “deliverables”.  It also meant that I could hit the ground running.
  4. My salary was slightly higher than what I was earning in the classroom.  This may seem counter-intuitive, but a salary too high would have pushed me away from the classroom, while one too low would have made the sabbatical financial unfeasible for me and my family.  The small boost enabled me to drop some of the part-time work that many of us take on, and put more focus into the new responsibilities.

I see tremendous potential for sabbatical experiences like mine to develop teacher leadership in our public schools.  Teachers need to hone their skills, but they also need to feel that the unique blend of psychology-technology-project management-marketing that we have developing during our careers has application in other arenas.  I think that similar opportunities can help give teachers a chance to build new skills, appreciate the greater world of education, and still maintain an impact in the classroom. And, in the end, that’s the biggest outcome of my nine-month sabbatical: I’ve realized that I truly miss being in the trenches.  I’ve seen a bit of how policy is made and, more importantly, how it makes its way to districts and schools.  I’ve watched federal, state, and district agencies push professional development initiatives down the pipe. All of these pieces can (ideally) work together to take us somewhere, like the parts in a finely tuned race car.  But, as any auto racing enthusiast knows, the most important part of any car is the tires.  That’s because they convert all of that intention and force into actual motion.  Teachers are the tires of the public education system, and they need to recognize how essential that role is.  I’m glad to be returning to my classroom because I appreciate more than ever how much the entire system needs us, almost as much as our students do. photo credit: prorallypix via photopin cc