Let me lay a truth on you. No one cares about your resume. Boom. Mic drop. That is a hard reality in the teaching profession. After all, when we study the giants of our profession, their resumes are immense. The heroes of education are venerated for a reason, but so often they speak in theories and ideas that the public finds hard to understand. And, as public servants, do we not have a responsibility to make our work approachable?
In the United States, teachers are faced with a status quo that is totally and absolutely backwards. We are told, whether implicitly or explicitly, that our greatness comes in the form of data, notes, interventions, and and and and and….You get the point. Proving you are respectable in the teaching profession requires quantitative data. Let me be clear, those things are important, but what they are not are student centered. They masquerade as student centered, but they are not student centered. Here is what is important– by virtue of being a teacher, you ARE a teacher-leader, a respectable professional. What many of us are not are teacher-leaders who understand who we are. We often think we know our identity, but when we have critical, metacognitive moments, we find a cognitive dissonance between what we think we are and what society sees us as.
I would like to tell you a story. After all, context is important. Imagine if you will, a young teacher, straight out of school, comes in guns ablazing to his first job. Theories are memorized, philosophies are studied, and he is going to change the world. He enters a world where the mark of being good at his job means he gets a title. Every day he strives for a title. He works for recognition. He wants to be known as the best. Things. Are. Good.
Six years into his career, he gets a call from his principal. This is it! This young teacher is going to get that title! And in only six years. He is told a very different story. He is being stripped of his Instructional Leadership Team position. He is told to stop trying to be important. He is told, in truth, to get back in line. He is not that good. He does not get a title.
That young teacher was me.
I was crushed. Thankfully, my coworker Tracey picked me back up. To this day, she is a model of whom I want to be. She told me to find myself. This, she said, was an opportunity to move forward. You are good, she said. It is time to become great. But how was I going to do that?
For two years, I refocused. I looked for how I could always do right by my kids. I always strived for training, not titles. Then I found the missing piece. Identity. I didn’t have one. As writer Parker J. Palmer says, “Good teaching comes from the identity and integrity of the teacher…But by ‘identity’ and ‘integrity’ I do not mean only our noble features, or the good deeds we do, or the brave faces we wear to conceal our confusions and complexities. Identity and integrity have as much to do with our shadows and limits, our wounds and fears, as with our strengths and potentials.”
At the beginning, my identity revolved around being someone I wasn’t. Gregarious. Extroverted. Ambitious to a fault. However, I am naturally quite introverted, a hard worker, and intuitive if I let myself be. Once I found myself, I decided I needed to stop saying I needed a title. I needed to own that guiding my students to excel would be enough. That, I decided, would be my identity and legacy as a teacher.
Through this discovery, my students were the benefactors. Every day, I spent spare moments jotting ideas, talking to master teachers, and researching ways that I could do better by students. And in doing so, I discovered something profound. Kids cared! Students were engaged! Achievement improved! I have the data to support it, and in some future draft of this, I may include it. The community of room 229 was inspiring. I was inspired. And here is the twist– while I was finding “identity” and “integrity,” so too were my students. Students stopped asking, “Why are we doing this,” and instead stated, “Tell me more.” My students started applying what we were doing to their lives.
When I focused on myself, attempting to be someone I wasn’t, I was failing my kids. When I decided to play to my strengths and to embrace my basic skills, my days ceased to be about gaining notoriety. They became about embracing my new identity so that my kids could truly thrive. And just like that, I became a teacher-leader. And while that is not an official title, it is the only title I need. We, the teachers and the students, have to understand that our personal voice can be the loudest voice in shifting the professional voice of teaching and true learning in America.
This is a start. Teachers have powerful stories of utilizing who they are to help students, as paraphrased by William Anderson, become things that they cannot even imagine. I want to share my stories of self-actualization that parallel the stories of my students. But more importantly, in the spirit of not being extroverted, gregarious, and self-celebratory, I want to find the people who embody what Tracey Bennett was for me. Inspiration. Direction. A butt-kicking. I want to share their stories so they can, in turn, become the next teacher-leaders. If I can share my nuggets, and shine a supernova-strength light on those who are truly amazing, we can collectively come out of the dark and show the world what true professionals we really are. No one cares about your resumes. They care about your stories. It is not about who you say you are, but rather what you show yourself to be.
I realize now an essential truth; be about the students and the rest doesn’t matter.
You are an agent for change, and that begins within your four walls. Your identity is real, your story is valid, and the two can move mountains.