It was my 16th year in education and I reluctantly left the classroom to take a Teacher on Special Assignment (TOSA) role at the district office. I had been actively involved in developing a Response to Intervention system at the high school I taught English and reading at and the district leadership took notice. A position was created to support RtI across the district. I vividly remember sitting in my cubicle on the first day of school unsure of how exactly to spend my time. There were no bells. No students. No announcements. No buses. No homeroom. No icebreaker community building activities. I was lost. As I sat in regret of my decision desperately missing my previous work family and the community of learners I left, our district superintendent walked by my cubicle. She stopped and asked how I was doing. I didn’t answer. I thought I might cry.
As if she could read my mind she said, “It is a bit of a culture shock coming into the central office, huh?”
“Yes,” I said, almost inaudibly. “I miss my school. I miss the kids. I actually miss the first day jitters.”
She responded with “That is why we hired you, Jen. We need teacher leaders who long to be in the classroom. Do you think it would be good to have leaders who were looking to escape the classroom? Hang in there. We will find ways for you to stay connected to kids and learning.”
While I sought refuge in the bathroom to cry after that conversation, I did return to my cubicle with a renewed energy and sense of purpose. I felt like my regret was not only validated, but embraced. I could honor those feelings and move forward with confidence that it was the right decision for me, at least for now.
Little did I know how those words would continue to bring me comfort each year as a TOSA, as I moved into an administrative role of Teaching and Learning Coordinator and today as I venture into a role in the private sector supporting curriculum leaders with resources and professional services so they can keep their focus on learners and learning. I also appreciated when structures and support were extended to me to stave off the tremendous pull I felt each spring to apply for a teaching position. While I know I will likely continue to look each spring and one spring I may feel the time has come for me to head back into the classroom, for now I will lean on and promote these supports so contentment can be found.
Find Learner Leaders Reluctant to Leave the Classroom
When I took on the role of Teaching and Learning Coordinator of the 4th largest district in Minnesota I was asked to lead the English Learner program, oversee curriculum, instruction, and assessment for 6-12 English/Language Arts, Secondary Literacy, and K-12 Social Studies. I knew that to effectively lead that work in a way that would have true and transformative effects for learners and educators, I needed a team of teacher leaders helping me. I kept my superintendent’s words in mind. I wanted a team of teachers who perhaps hadn’t even considered leaving the classroom. When I hired a Lead Teacher for Social Studies, I recruited applicants who hadn’t even realized the posting had gone up on our employment website. They weren’t looking. Yet, I had seen the qualities of a learner leader in these potential applicants’ classrooms and professional learning sessions. I watched how their peers responded to them. I could see their strengths and how I might help them grow. Fortunately, we hired a tremendous teacher leader who is making a difference. This extremely confident teacher at times would come to me with that confidence shook due to the demands and stresses of the TOSA role. This was true for the ELA Lead Teachers, English Learner Lead Teachers, and Literacy Coach we hired as well. Taking from my own experiences when I was in their shoes and knowing what helped me, we put the following structures in place.
One Foot in the Classroom
While not easy to schedule, we ensured each TOSA had ownership and connection to a classroom. Our Lead Teacher for Social Studies taught one section of Advanced Placement European History at his previous high school. This was both a bucket filler and a lab for his learning. Our English Learner teachers each took one student or small group of students to provide daily language instruction. The ELA Leads we hired took on their TOSA role as an additional stipend. We took on the idea that some teacher leaders might enjoy leading their peers in a subject matter they are passionate about versus coaching a sport or leading a co-curricular activity. We were right. We paid our ELA Leads a stipend similar to what an athletic coach or play director in our district might make and they served as lead learners for transformative classroom practice and helped to facilitate professional learning for their peers. Finally, our literacy coach taught two class periods each day and we kept her focus on 6th grade literacy initially. We had challenges. The classroom and students came first, so we had to schedule professional learning and meetings around these teachers’ schedules. This was a bit of a shift, but we worked together to put students, learning, and TOSA schedules above those of district office staff.
Check and Connect
I found it extremely helpful and necessary to schedule one-on-one check-in meetings with each TOSA every two weeks (or so). These meetings would last 30 minutes to an hour. We kept it somewhat informal and conversational. I served the role of coach. We would reflect on goals, problems that needed solutions, areas for learning and growth, successes to be noted, and more. This helped me know the big picture of the work and allowed me to aim for alignment. It also gave me an opportunity to check on balance. It is HARD for teachers called to this profession to not be with students all day. The rewards don’t come as frequently. The check and connect sessions gave me valuable information so I could authentically validate their work. It was also helpful for the TOSAs to know they had regular access to me and I could provide a more global perspective when needed.
As a team, we took the Strengths-Finders 2.0 (Rath, 2007) assessment. This gave me valuable insight into the strengths each team member brought to the work. I also knew that strengths to an extreme can become a weakness. For example, one of our team members had responsibility as a strength. This meant she took her role and duties extremely seriously. The psychological ownership of all things she committed to at times took an emotional toll. She was spending far too much time working outside of her contract and was struggling to live with balance. She could sometimes over commit and then would beat herself up if she couldn’t deliver with perfection. My role was to notice and name this amazing quality and then help her reflect upon and choose her commitments more selectively. I could also help her see that her definition of excellence might exceed others so she could confidently take a few more short cuts.
Another team member often would mention how much it meant to him that the work he was doing “mattered.” Knowing this about him, I looked for the impact of his work and shared what I had heard or observed. I didn’t need to add any evaluative statements like “nice job” or “good work.” Simply pointing out how the results of a study he conducted were having a direct impact on the types of materials being ordered was the type of validation he needed.
Honor Autonomy (a.k.a. don’t micromanage)
I have a Top 5 list of books that have transformed me. Drive by Daniel Pink (2009) is on that list. One of the greatest lessons taken from that read (and multiple re-reads) is summed up in this quote, “Human beings have an innate inner drive to be autonomous, self-determined, and connected to one another. And when that drive is liberated, people achieve more and live richer lives.” Knowing this, I was intentional about giving each TOSA autonomy for goal setting, delivery of professional learning, data collection, etc. At the same time, the team needed to be connected. We connected over a common vision for teaching and learning. This common vision was connected across more than the team I led to include all district departments. We learned together. We wrestled with counter-intuitive, yet research-backed ideas. Knowing we had this common vision…this place we were headed toward together…gave each the freedom to chart his/her own course. My role became one where I would honor and celebrate the various routes taken while also steering any TOSA who may unintentionally take a detour preventing potential setbacks.
Realize the Pull will Someday Succeed
Ultimately, these TOSAs will give in to the pull back to the classroom. When that happens, we need to honor and celebrate that decision. It means they want to give back. It means they truly are called to this profession. It means students, other teachers on their team, parents, and community will be further impacted by all they have learned and are now implementing across the school day and year. It might create an inconvenience for administrators who now need to find a replacement, but it also provides another opportunity to grow a reluctant teacher leader. If we have people in these roles who have no desire to be with kids in classrooms, we have hired the wrong teacher leaders.
Rath, T. (2007). Strengthfinder 2.0. New York, NY: Gallup Press.
Pink, D. H. (2009). Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us. New York, NY: Riverhead Books.