Over the past two years, I’ve earned considerable professional recognition. I was selected as district Teacher of the Year (in a system with 9,000 teachers serving over 120,000 students) and was a finalist for State Teacher of the Year.
I’ve served on the boards of several different education and community organizations, had my writing published in national journals, and worked on education policy projects designed to improve teacher working conditions and to restructure professional compensation for teachers. I’m widely recognized and respected as an influential teacher leader, and much of my work outside of the classroom defines me professionally.
But it is my work inside the classroom that drives me! Nothing can match the feeling I get when I realize that I am reaching my students in deep and meaningful ways. Knowing they are making sense of their world through my actions is almost humbling. Sometimes when we’re silent reading in class, I’ll look out over my classroom and get "wet in the eyes" (I won’t admit to crying). I am in awe of and thankful for the incredible responsibility with which I’ve been entrusted. There is no doubt that this is what I want to spend my life doing.
Despite this passion, my conversation with my friend and colleague Maria has left me shaken and doubting my decision to make teaching a lifelong career. You see, my salary is the primary source of income for my wife and me and despite living modestly we’re struggling to move forward financially. Like many young professionals, we want to have children and move into a bigger home. That’s not currently possible for us.
For me, the difficulty is that positions beyond the classroom seem to come my way all the time. I was encouraged to apply for a Masters of School Administration program offered by my county. I could also work as an instructional resource teacher, providing leadership at the school level, or apply for district level curriculum leader positions. I’ve been offered full-time work outside of our district supporting new teachers, designing professional development, and helping shape educational policy. Several different groups have approached me about teacher-on-loan positions that they would like me to consider.
While all of these positions would contribute to school and district success, I’m not sure that I see them as "opportunities" because each would require me to leave the classroom. I guess the idealist in me is committed to the idea that accomplished teachers should always work with children directly. While my thinking may be simplistic, I keep hoping that I’ll find a way to advance that will keep me in the classroom full-time.
I’ve imagined—and searched for—a hybrid leadership position that would allow me to continue teaching and also work year-round to supplement my income. But it seems like I’ve come up against a century of preconceived notions all at once: Teaching is part time work. Teaching is for women who are only providing second incomes for their families. All teachers look forward to summer breaks. Teachers are only responsible for what happens in their classroom. Leadership comes from those who have left the classroom. Teachers who want to advance go into administration. Finding decision makers who are willing to rethink what a teacher’s career path could look like has been a greater challenge than I ever expected.
The Hybrid Teacher
How often do we hear someone say, "It’s a shame when our best teachers leave the classroom"? How often do we express our regret when an teacher who has had tremendous success with kids steps across the career threshold and leaves his or her students behind?
Other nations with whom we compete economically often offer their teachers a wide variety of teacher leadership roles without fully taking them out of the classroom. Let me share with you what I think a hybrid Teaching+Leadership position might look like in America.
First, teachers selected for hybrid positions would develop and deliver professional development for the district during summer months or out-of-school sessions (for year-round schools). Imagine how powerful it would be if a district could tap its most accomplished educators and put them to work identifying, refining and revising instructional programs for the specific student populations served by their communities.
A hybrid position could also engage accomplished teachers in solving district level challenges. How can we strengthen the many strands of our curriculum? Which new teachers should we hire? What strategies could we develop to more deeply engage parents in their children’s school work? What kinds of professional development policies could help our best teachers spread their expertise? Working individually and in teams, hybrid teachers could apply their unique perspectives and experience to knotty problems like these.
Hybrid work for teachers wouldn’t need to be limited to the summer months or breaks in the year-round schedule. Many teachers would be motivated to participate in meaningful work after school hours. Long term study groups could be led by teacher leaders who were compensated for their knowledge and skill in particular subjects or instructional practices.
Teacher leaders trained as facilitators could support school based leadership teams or lend new perspectives to administrator development programs. Intensive teacher induction programs could be designed that provided meaningful support opportunities for new teachers and additional compensation for accomplished educators. Perhaps two teachers could "job-share," teaching half time and spending their remaining hours in school and district level leadership roles.
Hybrid positions could also be used to expand services to students. After-school programs, summer tutoring sessions, parent outreach efforts, and extracurricular activities are all areas that warrant additional professional compensation. By committing resources to these areas, school systems would ensure that remediation and extension opportunities for students were not only substantive but led by their best educators.
Finally, hybrid positions wouldn’t need to be offered only by schools and school districts. Community organizations and businesses could design "Teacher-in-Residence" positions for educators qualified in a content area. Local companies engaged in scientific research could employ biology teachers. Museums and historical societies could create positions for science and social studies teachers. Architectural firms, law offices, government agencies, and colleges could all benefit from the professional knowledge and skills of teachers.
Fighting for what I love most
I was offered another position out of the classroom recently. It is a role that I am more than qualified to fill, and something that I think has great potential to prepare me to further advance in education. My colleagues tell me I should "go for it."
But that step would mean walking away from my kids. There is no doubt that if a twelve-month position were created for teachers who were interested in providing leadership and supplementing their income, I’d remain in the classroom for my entire career. I’m fighting to hold on to the part of education that I love the most.
How do I get decision makers to take this "hybrid" concept more seriously? I’ll admit I’m not having much success on my own. Perhaps incentive funding from government or non-profit groups might spur more experimentation and ultimately lead to hybrid teaching models becoming part of comprehensive pay-for-performance plans.
As each month goes by, however, I become less and less convinced that a hybrid teaching option will ever be available to me-and it’s that realization that breaks my heart.