The Surprising Grief of Teacher Leadership
By Rebecca Mieliwocki
The grief comes suddenly and unexpectedly. It reaches across to tap you on the shoulder, reminding you that you haven't seen a real live kid in over a month. It whispers snidely in your ear that "real" teachers work in classrooms. It wraps its heavy cloak around you and asks, "Are you really even making a difference?" It keeps you awake at night contemplating your decision to leave the classroom.
The days when grief visits are hard days indeed.
Why? Because this particular visitor doesn't come empty-handed. This grief always carries with it a basket of our own greatest fears. That the only way up is out, away from the classroom, the people and the work that fulfills us. That when you do make the leap, dozens will say, "She left—moved on." That the work itself will be somehow more lonely, isolating and unappreciated than ever. That you'll be forgotten.
We who leave the classroom wrestle with these demons constantly, but never more than during the last week of school. In a week filled with exams, award ceremonies, celebrations, and graduations, teachers have more than earned a blessed break from PD. While there remain a smattering of tasks for teacher leaders to complete, for the most part we are done for the year. The end comes quickly and without fanfare making the contrast between campus life and office life striking and melancholic. It makes you yearn for the life you once led.
I chose to combat those feelings by assigning myself to school sites all week, not just to be a support to teachers, but to surround myself with the year-end festivities that characterize late May. In three different moments this week, I had powerful encounters that reminded me of the profound importance of a teacher's work.
A wordless connection. I watched a wordless exchange between a beautiful red-headed second grader and my work partner Jill. As we passed by a line of students waiting to leave for lunch, the small girl placed her hand atop her head, looked directly at Jill and smiled widely. Jill, a red-head just like her, understood completely. She placed her own hand atop her head and smiled right back. In seconds, we were past her, but that moment of affirmation and beauty resonated with me. So much of teaching is reminding students that we see them, that they are special, and they are loved.
An honest reflection. I was an interviewer for my middle school's 8th grade Career Day. In my last interview of the day, I had three spiffily dressed boys, Brad, Manny, and Christopher. I went off script for my last question and asked this: "They say we learn more from our mistakes than our successes. Tell me about the last big mistake you made and what you've learned from it that you'll carry forward to high school." A lengthy pause allowed me to watch a dozen emotions cross Manny's face like gray clouds drifting across a blue sky. He didn't tear up, but he did struggle to answer me.
"I screwed up this year. I did. I thought I could take all the short cuts, even cheat a little. And every time, I failed. I know now that all my teachers wanted for me was to try, to honestly try. They were always there for me, nagging, helping, pleading, working. And I didn't do it. My parents too. Everyone wanted the best for me, but I was always more interested in getting out of school work instead of getting into it. If I'd even done a little bit of work, I'd be in a better place leaving middle school. I don't want to do that again. I want to start fresh in high school."
How many times do we get the see the real emotion, and regret, behind a child's destructive choices? How many times do we see that regret evolve into wisdom? Manny reminded me that kids do indeed feel the pain of the holes they dig for themselves.
A happy ending. My week ended with a photograph. A teacher at a high school I was visiting showed me a photo of the six top scholarship winners from among this year's graduating class. Her focus was on the tall, handsome boy in the middle: basketball team captain, 4.6 GPA-earning, National Honor Society member. My eyes locked instead onto the girl standing next to him, my former student Juliana. This brilliant girl, who advocates tirelessly for women's rights, comes from a family with almost no means whatsoever. While it was always clear Juliana was the light of their lives and the pride of their family, there would be no college for her unless she could earn the scholarships she'd need to pay for it. Five years later, I'm staring at photographic proof she'd done it. I have discovered how far a heart can swell with pride.
As my second year out of the classroom comes to a close, I want to admit to myself and others that the grief of being away is real, it's powerful, and it's painful. There are many good days, great days even. There are victories with teachers and administrators that are true and real. I know I am making a difference in a classroom that has a different scope and reach. But it's different, and that takes some getting used to. Here are some things teacher leaders can do to help themselves:
- Talk about it with people who do the work you do. Find someone in your office, in another district, or on Twitter who can relate to your feelings, and share. Help each other talk through the tough parts of the gig and cheerlead for each other's success.
- Bring your work back to campuses as often as you can. Schedule demo-lessons, PDs, workshops in classrooms, even during the school day when teachers can pop in and out. The closer you stay to campus, the less isolated you feel as a teacher leader.
- Ask the teachers you work with if you can guest teach now and again. I haven't met one teacher who turned down my request. Just one period or day of teaching kids is often just what the doctor ordered and absolutely refills your tank, and refuels you in your own work.
- Save your thank you notes. After each PD or coaching session, at least one teacher will email or write you a wonderful note of thanks for something you've taught them, said, or done. Save them. Put them all in one folder in your desk so that when you're feeling unremarkable or isolated, you can pull one out for a pick-me-up. You do have fans, I promise.
- Be kind to yourself. This job is tough. It's sometimes solitary, the results aren't often immediately visible, and the feedback isn't always timely or helpful. There are a lot of naysayers and negativity that can make it even harder than teaching (if that's possible). Practice positive self-talk. Remind yourself no one is working harder and cares more than you do. No one is trying harder to make teaching and learning more powerful and effective for your colleagues than you. That deserves a lot of credit. Give it to yourself.
Rebecca Mieliwocki is the 2012 National Teacher of the Year and a member of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year (NNSTOY). A 21-year veteran English teacher, Mieliwocki is currently on special assignment for her Burbank, California, district.
Photo credit: Linett Clark. Used with permission.