By Ceri Dean, CO ASCD Board Member
This month, we continue our dialog with Colorado teacher leaders about their views on teacher leadership.
For this blog, I talked with Jimmy Day, 2023 Colorado Teacher of the Year. Jimmy is a music educator at East Middle School in Aurora Public Schools where he’s been teaching since 2017. His enthusiasm for the teaching profession and dedication to his students are clear and inspiring. Just for fun, I asked him to compare teacher leadership to a specific piece of music. He didn’t have a specific piece in mind, but he did say it wouldn’t be anything too complex. “It would be something straight to the point, simple, and effective.” My other questions were more straightforward. Those questions and Jimmy’s comments have been edited for clarity and length.
What does teacher leadership mean to you and why is it important?
Teacher leadership means being an example for somebody to look up to and to get advice from and provide a good example of what a strong educator is. Teacher leadership is important because everybody needs a good example of what a good educator looks like, the things that they're doing that are effective, and how they connect with students. They also model for other teachers how to sharpen their craft in education.
As someone who's found a way to lead from the classroom, what advice might you give to a new teacher? And thinking back to when you were a new teacher, what do you wish you had known then, that you know now?
There’s a lot I wish I'd known then. I would say the main thing is to try to be around people who are positive. Be around people with a growth mindset, because being an educator, even as a veteran, you have those moments of doubt that creep into your spirit. You have those moments when you’ve just had enough, and you just want to give up. You can just imagine what it feels like as a new teacher. My advice is to stay around a strong educator that's positive, that can give you a positive outlook on the field of education and still be realistic with you and let you know what's coming and help you navigate those troubled waters when you get there. But at the same time, they are somebody who can energize you, teach you a little bit of what they know, and give you the skills to move forward in the profession.
What do you think the country needs to know about the world of teaching right now?
Plain and simple, especially right now dealing with the pandemic, teaching is difficult. We are doing what we can, and people just need to know that educators are human as well. Learning these different policies or getting used to these different norms now is challenging for us, but we are good people. We wouldn't do this if we weren't passionate about what we are doing. But teaching is very difficult right now.
What do you think is the most difficult thing about teaching right now?
There are different norms now. After that year of being virtual, the learning is not as automatic as it used to be. I think we might have lost some steps moving forward when it comes to learning. It seems that now I'm working harder than I'm normally used to, to try to move learning forward. We move forward, but it takes a little bit longer. In that virtual space, we weren’t having the contact with the students and the normal teaching that we're used to.
Can you give me an example of what you mean by different norms?
One of the norms is related to social interaction. It feels like we have to teach each other how to be social again, how to interact with each other. We have to teach the students how to interact, because they've been away from the classroom. Students are not as social as they used to be. You try to get them to interact in some activities and they barely want to talk. You have to pull them out of their shell a little bit. In addition, we have to seriously take into consideration students’ mental state. Some students were negatively affected by the pandemic because of a death of a loved one, their parent couldn’t work or any other setback that was detrimental. That can mess someone up mentally. So, with that in mind, we have to make sure we really take into thought what burdens our students are carrying. Don’t get me wrong, we have always taken students’ situations into consideration pre pandemic, but it is very imperative that we do this now. Students have experienced trauma, and we have to make sure we have strong and impactful strategies in place to be as much help to the student as possible.
Thinking about the difficulties you mentioned, what's the most important thing that leaders can do to support teaching?
Be a model and a sounding board because sometimes people just want you to listen to them. Being a leader, one of the things you do, is just listen and give your advice if teachers ask for it and just try to be there for them as much as you can. And give them tips on how to make it through difficult times without being stressed. Most importantly, leaders can take opportunities to do professional development for teachers to share their tactics, thoughts, and ideas on how they’re able to achieve student growth. Some teachers need to see good examples to understand how certain strategies work and how to implement them correctly.
What kind of support do you think communities could give to teaching right now?
Just understand what we're doing and back us up on it. Understand that we have a difficult job in education, with or without the pandemic. It's a challenge to teach students how to be something and go out into the world.
How do you think you're able to promote teacher leadership as teacher of the year?
I think the best way I can promote teacher leadership as teacher of the year is by being a good example of what a teacher leader is. Building positive relationships with other teachers, mentoring new teachers and teachers new to the district, and taking opportunities to do professional development for the district. Sharing my thoughts with the district/school about effective teaching, if needed, is a good way to show leadership. As the teacher of the year, I represent the entire state of Colorado, so it is important that I take these opportunities to lead as much as possible.
CO ASCD has been promoting teacher leadership. I’m wondering what role professional organizations played in your becoming a teacher leader or becoming teacher of the year.
The reason why I am a teacher leader is because teachers I've had invested in me - my band directors in middle school, high school, and college. They invested all this time in me. And at that time, I didn't know I was going to be a teacher, but they were just putting all these qualities of leadership into me – being a section leader in middle school and high school, being a drum major. They gave me all these opportunities for leadership. I would say those individuals more than any organization had something to do with me becoming a teacher leader.
Do you think there is a role for professional organizations to play in promoting teacher leadership?
Yes. You have those teachers who would be good in a leadership role, but sometimes you might need an outside organization to shed light on that. Public Education Business Coalition was able to shed that light on me. They were looking for people to be mentors and they heard that I was an effective music teacher. They shed light on who I am as a teacher leader. So yes, I think organizations that work with districts can play a role in promoting teacher leadership.
In my experience working with districts and schools, teachers were often a little reluctant to take a leadership role. Do you have any thoughts or advice for teachers who are thinking about a teacher leadership role?
I was one of those teachers who was kind of reluctant. I was comfortable in my own little cocoon, teaching my students, and didn't have to worry about anything else. But my advice is, it's something to try. It might spark something that you didn't know you had in you, and if you don't like it, then you don't have to go forward with it. At least give it a try. It takes you out of your comfort zone, but it sharpens other skills moving forward. And it's okay, because when we get out of our comfort zone, that's when we start to grow, and we start to learn a little bit more.