Standing at the Edge of My Classroom…

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.

5 thoughts on “Standing at the Edge of My Classroom…

  1. Carly Albee

    I sometimes feel as though I have the hybrid teacher position. I teach full time…BUT, in NC New Schools Project “Redefining Professionalism” is one of our design principles. Each teacher has a “plan day” once a week to work on all of the administrative/creative duties that go into a new school. During that plan day, we have scheduled time for common planning with colleagues…love it! We have applied to be a “Learning Lab” for NC and if we are selected, there is money for Summer Salary for teachers.
    One of our teachers is the “dropout prevention specialist” for the county AND she teaches English with us 1-2 periods. Perfect hybrid position. I’m tellin’ you man, you gotta come to Asheville.

  2. Rod T

    I spent 10 yrs completing my doctorate in developmental psychology while balancing classroom and district resource teaching duties. The administrative path was open to me but my love of directly teaching and learning with students kept me tied more closely to classrooms. But I needed to redefine “classroom.”
    Parents, community college and 4-yr university students are all easily reached and inspired to rethink how they see children. Something I read in the early 1990s helped me redefine “the classroom.” It was a chapter that talked about legitimate vs. questionable reasons to finsh my dissertation. The one that hit it on the head was this: Do you foresee continuing to pursue work in areas related to your dissertation?
    That was an easy ‘yes’ because I was studying brain wave development in 3-to-5-year-olds. I was working with parents, interacting with their children in a hospital setting and teaching human development at the community college level. I was also given the chance to teach a 2-semester gifted education class at our state university. This was all sandwiched into working at least half-time in the public schools… love the job-sharing option!
    So, I am not trying to make an argument for getting a Ph.D. Very early in my teaching career (high school Spanish and English as a Second Language) I became fascinated by the acquisition of languages…first or second. So I completed an M.A. in Spanish. By the early 1980s brain research had me hooked, but I never lost the fascination with how the mind of young children flourishes or flounders. So I kept my foot in some kind of classroom: teaching gifted education classes, teaching K-1 Spanish to 200+ students while coordinating the Hawaiian and foreign language program in K-6 schools for my district, etc.
    My redefinition was simple. So many adults in so many walks of life carry around a bundle of relatively unexamined and inaccurate assumptions about children and teens. So rather than turning my back to the wider world that affects kids daily, I simply widen my audience. I included support groups for parents, gifted/talented workshops and advisory grps. And, I also looped back to full time elementary school work in a rural setting for 8 yrs. Then I retired with 33 yrs of public education under my belt.
    Three months prior to retiring from public education, the College of Education offered my the chance to deliver a post-bac. course to college grads who either wanted to get teacher certification or who had already been placed in the classroom as “emergency hires.”
    So am I retired? Of course not… not entirely. I teach 6-8 courses a year in the area of teacher education with 2 per year or so being online in a modified hybrid format. I knew within a few years of beginning my teaching career that I did NOT want my year-to-year fate decided by educational administrators. Although I never fully have left the classroom, I have figured out a variety of ways to tether the classroom to my passion to teach and reach as many as I can who want to work with and better understand young minds. In short, follow your passions and you can depend less and less on K-12 administrative decisions.

  3. Mike

    Dear Bill:
    There is little doubt that the only money available in education is in administration or coaching. You sound like a man who knows what he wants to do but can’t yet bring himself to admit and accept it.
    Know, though, that administration is very different than teaching and you’ll merely be starting on the ground floor of another world, and one unfamiliar to you. Do you think you’ll be lauded as a visionary innovator whose ideas will be appreciated and implemented? Do you think you’ll be a valued resource for change and improvement? Think again. Hell, my superintendent calls me a “Renaissance man,” and he honestly believes it, even tells others. Does that translate into administrators seeking my advice? Listening to and implementing my ideas? Hardly.
    What do the overwhelming majority of new principals do? Discipline, attendance, security. If you want to teach, teach. I believe that’s where we make a difference, with individuals, a hundred or so kids a year. If not, order your affairs and pursue what you wish to pursue. But consider this: If those in administration were truly motivated by innovation and excellence, why do we see so little of it?

  4. M Capen

    Bill,
    I’ve sent this to my superintendent to see if he will consider adding a few “hybrid” teaching positions to our system. I’ll let you know what he says!

  5. M Capen

    Bill,
    I’ve sent this to my superintendent to see if he will consider adding a few “hybrid” teaching positions to our system. I’ll let you know what he says!

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