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The Radicality of the Small Move

By Rebecca Mieliwocki

I've spent a lot of time lately thinking small.  That's a hard thing to do when you've spent the last few years traveling the globe looking at schools and education systems, talking about teachers and kids and learning, and trying as I might to grasp the big, big picture of our profession. 

When you tune in to what's going on you become aware of the frantic, gnashing engine that is Education with a capital E.  From the new national standards and assessment consortia, to the fight over big business co-opting public education, to international comparisons on our students' readiness for college and career, there's no dearth of issues to ponder.  Don't forget the teacher shortage, the successive waves of edtech advances, and the tense debates over teacher evaluation. 

The issues don't just seem daunting.  They are daunting.

One of the most striking things about spending time in the fray as I did was how few actual teachers are participating in the big conversations about education and conversely how few of the movers and shakers making change are spending time in American classrooms talking to actual teachers. 

That's got to change if we ever hope to see a meaningful evolution that improves both teacher efficacy and student achievement while building trust, faith and respect for the institution of public education. 

For that to happen, we need more teachers to make their way into these arenas where big conversations are taking place.  That takes leadership.  But here's the rub, teacher leadership is this new, amorphous thing that few of us are trained in. It's scary and intimidating because no one really seems to know what it is, or where it fits in the traditional teaching structure.  It's quite possible that the average teacher is wary of or uncomfortable even engaging in it, whatever "it" is. 

And that's why thinking small matters. 

Teacher leadership isn't this giant, undefined thing. It's not mysterious, ineffable, or reserved for a few Ivy League folks. Teacher leadership is a series of small, simple acts that teachers do every day that lead to great things and your journey to becoming a teacher leader begins the day you wake up wanting more.

That's how mine began. 

I wanted more than my school was offering my students and me.  I wanted stiffer academic challenges for kids, I wanted more field trips, I wanted art and music, and opportunities to grow and stretch myself.  I wanted time to collaborate closer with colleagues and I wanted my principal to ditch the administrivia that filled our faculty meetings in favor of richer conversations about what our school was doing right and what we needed to do better.  I wanted the folks outside the walls of my school to be afforded the chance to learn what was going on inside them so that we could work on improvements together. 

Wanting things is wonderful, but working to make them so takes stamina and the belief that all things are possible, qualities teachers have in abundance. 

Here's what I found out.

Changing the world of education for the better isn't happening because a dozen people are out there engaged in enormous, sweeping transformational acts.   Instead, it's the 3.2 million of us who set out each day to try one new lesson, one new strategy, attend a board meeting, or schedule a mystery Skype session with a classroom full of excited learners across the country that makes the sweeping change. 

It's asking a teacher to come watch you teach and give you honest feedback.

It's starting a professional book club with like-minded teachers.

It's writing an Op-Ed or editorial for your newspaper about an education issue.

It's seeking community partners for the projects in your class you need support for.

It's hosting family learning nights at your school.

It's voting on issues that make a difference in the lives of teachers.

It's creating a field trip where there once was none and figuring out a way to fund it.

It's starting mentoring programs for kids and colleagues.

It's facilitating focused and productive PLCs. 

It's finding an app or a program that can take your classroom experiences a new, neat level.

It's speaking up positively about our profession whenever asked.

It's making sure that your voice on education issues is heard by the folks who create policy at the local, state, and national level.

Chances are, you're already doing this. You are already a teacher leader who understands that at the heart of most things that are wonderful for kids is a passionate, committed professional educator.  Keep going. 

Leadership isn't for everyone, but it's just right for many and a natural next step for those who want to expand their professional domain beyond the classroom.  It's vital that teachers get the chance to take these small steps forward.  It's even more vital that other teachers and administrators make space for this to happen. 

Too often I hear about teacher ambition strangled at the start by colleague disapproval or administrators unaware of how to harness the power of a teacher who wants to lead.  Small steps are important here too.  Find a way to make space in your heart to accept that the best changes in our profession come when the people who do the work are at the table pushing for them. Make an accommodation in your busy administrator schedule to nurture and guide those who want to support you.  I imagine you'd quickly find that everyone benefits and things improve when teachers are part of the process by which our profession evolves.

If you're not sure yet how to step forward, and it all still seems so daunting, I want to encourage you to think small.  It only takes one small move on your part to improve education in large part. 

Choose one thing you, your school, or your community of educators can do better and do the work to make a change. 

You might not realize it yet, but it's from a million tiny acts just like this that the change we've been waiting for happens before our very eyes. 

Ready to move?

Rebecca Mieliwocki is the 2012 National and California State Teacher of the year. She is an English teacher at Luther Burbank Middle School in Burbank, CA.

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