In this work, it often seems like we are given reasons why something cannot or will not happen when change is pursued. Whether it’s teachers wanting to add a specific book title to a classroom library or book club, or an ELAR coordinator wanting to dismantle leveled libraries on a campus/in their district…the roadblocks feel so similar. We hear things like “change is slow here” or “our community isn’t ready”…or even a downright “No.” When I hear these things, only one word comes to mind…why?
Let me be more specific. I’m not asking for the specific rationale behind the response. I know why many teachers still level their libraries, or why certain titles make parents or administrators uncomfortable. I guess I’m asking for the “why behind the why”….why does it have to be that way? Who makes the rules?
Last summer at the Teachers College in NYC, Lucy Calkins discussed at length the origin of American education systems. She talked about the origin of the U.S. education system, a system that was not meant to educate all, but a select few. Challenging us to reflect, we questioned how much has truly changed about classroom instruction from this original model? Not a whole lot, from my perspective. But everything else has changed. The WORLD has changed…people has changed…what is considered “literacy” has changed. Text is everywhere, thanks to the digital age. The amount of information available online doubles every twelve hours. No longer are we teachers the gatekeepers of the knowledge, dispensing it upon those we deem worthy. Rather, we are tasked with helping students pilfer through the information, finding information that is interesting and useful, teaching them how to examine information through a critical lens, and how to use it in meaningful ways.
When I walk into campuses and still see archaic beliefs and practices, I don’t lay blame on teachers who are working hard to do the best they can with what they know and understand. I don’t necessarily “blame” anyone. The higher up the chain I go, I observe so many stresses and pressures that I can empathize with and see motive behind certain choices. However, in my gut, I cannot let go of the fact that, if we are ever going to truly be a part of transformative educational practices that truly empower all students, we have to start questioning our practices, and the people in power have to set the example.
Superintendents, Directors, Coordinators, Administrators—I beg you to examine the systems in place in your prospective districts/campuses, and simply ask “Why?” Why does the dress code include/not include certain things? Why did we choose this specific discipline policy? Why is there an imbalance in who gets office referrals in our schools? Why do students seem apathetic toward learning? Why are teachers seemingly exhausted/unhappy? We must also do this with the understanding that, when we uncover uncomfortable issues, a 6 hour professional development will not fix them. Neither will one more new initiative, or a book study. We must be vulnerable, and we must be brave. Change takes time, and teachers are waiting/begging for brave leaders who are willing to invest the time to lock arms with them long-term to make systemic changes for the benefit of kids, leaders who will get in the uncomfortable dirt of change without panicking and searching for the nearest cleaning station.
What happens next? Teachers will join you in this work. (Consider this your own personal “If you build it, they will come” situation) You will start to see teachers more willing to ask themselves why DO they have those libraries leveled, or those seating charts in rows. They will be brave, because you have given them permission to do so…but they can’t do it alone. They need an example. Consider yourself a living, breathing mentor text.
A little over a week ago, I was settling into a hotel room in Frisco, TX prepping for a weekend of being “on.” The Texas Council of Teachers of English Language Arts hosted their annual conference at the Frisco Convention Center, and I have the privilege of being a part of leadership this year (I am the Teacher Development Section Chair). This was my third TCTELA conference to attend, but my first to attend as a “leader” of sorts. I joined the board in September, so I wasn’t really sure what to expect.
Before I start reflecting on this year’s experiences, I’d like to take a second and talk about what TCTELA has done for me as a whole, in both my career and my person. About 4 years ago, I began to gain a sense of restlessness in my work. I was a high school teacher who LOVED students but wanted an opportunity to stretch my legs and grow. I’d seen TCTELA mentioned in a tweet or two, and saw a link for proposals. I took a shot in the dark and submitted a proposal for a session on digital writing tools, and was approved for a roundtable. My principal paid for my registration to attend the conference that year (Galveston 2018) as long as I paid for my travel, food and hotel. My family came with me and we got an Air BNB to make a weekend of it. I knew approximately ZERO people there. However, the overall electric buzz that filled the halls, rooms, and sessions gave me the sense that I was not just Caty Dearing, English teacher, one of many within my district. It was my first sense of the larger community of ELAR professionals across the state and even the nation, and that my school district was but a small cog in the larger wheel of this work. I started following the organizational leadership on Twitter and came back to my classroom inspired and re-energized to teach and teach well.
That summer I left teaching to serve at one of the 20 regional service centers in Texas as a secondary literacy content coach/consultant. Talk about a huge leap—and feeling like a fish out of water! I shifted my Twitter account to be mostly educational (goodbye, Bachelor recap posts!) and started gaining the confidence to dialogue with the literacy leaders I so admired. By the time TCTELA 2019 arrived, I’d been accepted to another roundtable and had developed Twitter relationships with several of the attendees and board members. I had the courage to introduce myself to several of these people, and ask to get plugged in. Again, each session felt like chugging a Gatorade in the desert; I returned to my cubicle with a sense of purpose and a few new connections in the work.
In September, I had the opportunity to dive into the behind-the-scenes work of TCTELA. As a section chair, I have the privilege to facilitate discussions across the state with coordinators, coaches, principals, professors, all seeking ways to support other teacher developers. I knew it would be a great opportunity to develop more leadership skills, but after reflecting on TCTELA 2020, it has become so much more than that…which leads me to my top five takeaways from this weekend.
5. Getting my professional cup filled by incredible, dynamic speakers.
If you follow me on Twitter, you may have noticed that I’ve taken a bit of a break from the edu-conversations. I’m extremely passionate about a lot of things, things that are hard, things that hurt, things that feel big and heavy and immovable. Sometimes (and this speaks to my privilege) it just feels like too much, and I have to step back. Laurie Halse Anderson spoke about rape culture and consent with such boldness, and Clint Smith talked about the single story narrative of history we often experience, and how to challenge and question this. By the end of the weekend, I really felt more energized and focused to dive back into those difficult conversations as an active participant, not a bystander.
4. An invigorated sense of purpose and interest in the Teacher Development section
Coming on in September, the few active members of the section and I decided to start from scratch. We consistently had about 5-6 people that would show up on our monthly Zooms, contribute ideas, and share their expertise. I remember the feeling of pride we felt when we released that first newsletter in December!
At the conference, we each had tables for our sections. Every time I passed our table, I saw a section member talking to others and handing out buttons. We had a full table at our Sunday “Coffee and Conversations,” everyone excitedly talking about all of the ways we can address leader burnout and other heavy issues. I’m pumped to take that enthusiasm into the new year, and I think that by TCTELA 2021 our section will have created/shared a wealth of new resources! It was truly so much fun and warmed my heart to share space with so many COOL people.
3. Rebekah O’Dell’s session on teachers as writers
This session gets its own bullet point, because it tapped into a part of myself that’s been dormant for a really long time. In my last post, I talked a lot about the crippling fear I’ve been experiencing every time I try to write. Rebekah approached this idea of teacher-writers from a different angle, providing ideas and options to just start the process. I found myself excited about several ideas, where before I’d found myself drowning in a sea of “I have nothing new to offer here.” I’ve been able to set aside time to write/journal in small chunks. Hey, this blog post is proof of that! I’m excited to see what I’ve written by 2021, even if it’s all writing that’s just for me.
2. Friendships, friendships, friendships
As I said at the beginning of this post, my entrance into the TCTELA world was one of a stranger in a sea of strangers that had developed into professional connections, mostly via Twitter. This weekend I was able to spend actual face-to-face time with the teachers, coaches, coordinators, and professors that I’ve only ever Zoomed and tweeted with. We spend each night down in the lobby, laughing and brainstorming over wine and hummus. It’s amazing how this conference brings people together, and I’m entering the 2020 year with a cadre of people who care very deeply about this work, and about me, and that feels pretty cool.
A newfound sense of confidence in myself as a literacy leader (bye bye imposter syndrome)
Something unlocked in me this weekend. I’ve lived most of my adult life fearing the concept of leadership, and considered myself more of a follower. Every time I encountered a promotion or an opportunity to lead, I chalked it up to “right place right time” or a really great interview. Over the past few months, I’ve been feeling a sense of pride in the work that I’m doing at the service center and a desire for MORE. I’m fairly certain that the other four takeaways listed contributed to this, but I truly had a “come-to-Jesus” moment with myself. I am a literacy leader, and that has nothing to do with a board position or a job.
I have contributions to make to this work.
I can confidently introduce myself to people in the field that I look up to without worrying if I’m good enough, smart enough, etc.
I can write things that might help other people.
I can confidently volunteer my thoughts, ideas, and concerns without apologizing first.
What I hope other conference attendees gained from this past weekend is a similar understanding. Cornelius Minor said in a presentation I attended last year (and this is paraphrased based on my memory), “If you’re waiting for someone to give you permission to lead this work, you will always be waiting.”
Your voice matters. You have something to contribute to this community. You are valuable to the ELAR collective, not because of position or job, but because you dedicate your time and heart to students, and that is important, and people need to hear what you have to say. I’m dedicating myself to this mantra, and would love to support you as well!