Regarding My Time Out of the Classroom

I’ve spent the last two days out of my classroom.

Yesterday, I was looking at the ELA Common Core standards on a committee that’s looking to identify power standards and learning targets. We’ll see how that goes. For now, we’re still looking at the anchor standards themselves, and I’m glad our facilitator is relying pretty heavily on the excellent book Pathways to the Common Core. We’ll continue to meet through the spring.

Today, I served as a union representative on our district’s evaluation committee. As part of its application for Race to the Top money, Washington state passed legislation that rolled out a new teacher and principal evaluation system. The Race to the Top folks didn’t think our plan was rigorous enough so they didn’t give us the money BUT! We still get to implement the new evaluation system! So there’s that.

Now. You could argue that the purpose of having each of the aforementioned committees is wrong, either because standards are a bunch of malarkey or because union business is a mess no one wants to touch with a ten-foot pole or because district admins have no clue of what’s actually going on in schools so it’s a waste of time to talk with them.

And all that’s fine, but I’ve actually been thoroughly impressed with the folks facilitating and populating the committees I’m serving on. Federal Way is doing a lot of really great things that have KIDS in the forefront, and I’m glad to be a part of it.

Right, you say, but the bottom line is that I’m still out of my classroom. And that means I’m not providing my students with high-impact instruction. Oof. So that’s bad, several people have told me.

Now, I’ve thought about this a lot, and if our motto this year is “WE ARE WILDWOOD,” then I think it’s important to have a representative from our school on these committees, advocating for OUR children and OUR high-poverty population and OUR common concerns. I’ve actually had two teachers in the past week come up to me: “Thanks so much for going to these meetings — I really am glad you’re the one there for us; I’d have no clue what was going on.” “The way you say things makes so much sense, so you’re totally the right person to be on that committee.” I take those comments not only as kind compliments to me personally, but also as a reinforcement that sometimes, the critical work DOES happen outside of the classroom.

Believe me, I know the impact being out of the classroom can have on kids. During my third year of teaching, I took long-term disability to grapple with depression. So I wouldn’t have to explain to well-meaning (but gossipy) staff members that I was taking medical leave, I missed school a few days at a time spread out over the course of several months rather than being out for one chunk of time. My classroom was a mess. My students were a mess. And my weekly absences, combined with me not really “looking” sick, led to some stress with my colleagues as well. One particularly organized teacher put together a tally sheet where she kept track of the number of days I was out.

So with that as baggage in my past, why do I continue to serve on committees, even when they pull me out of instructional time with my kids? I’ve narrowed it down to four main reasons.

Teaching is hard. It takes a lot of brainpower. In the day-to-day maelstrom that I wind up getting caught in, yes I do reflective processing and TONS AND TONS of casual reading, but not the kind of deep academic thinking that makes me all tingly and excited and energized to continue to carry on with this huge undertaking called public education.

I mean the kind of REAL thinking and problem solving that happens when you’re trying to work through dense academic language or trying to make sense of a legal document. The kind of processing that happens when you synthesize a team’s ideas. My brain NEEDS the kind of thinking that happens on these committees.

I’m a white, middle class woman. I’m fully aware of my privilege (and my occasional all-consuming white guilt). But although Federal Way tries pretty hard to focus on equity, issues of social justice don’t always make it past the lip service stage. I’m part of an amazing group of educators at Wildwood who are committed to SHIFTING THE DISCOURSE and having the difficult conversations we need to have to close the achievement gap and ensure a rigorous educational experience for all our students.

The National Equity Project has been working closely with Wildwood, and they have absolutely shaped my thinking. Every committee I’m on, I make sure my comments and ideas are always given through an equity lens. I also try to make sure our gifted students get a voice, and lately I’ve been trying to speak up more about educational technology, although that’s really more Cheryl’s passion than mine.

With all my aforementioned baggage related to absences, I asked a few former students what they thought of me missing school for committee meetings.

Me: When I’m out of class, even for a few days in a row, did you think that I was avoiding you or that I didn’t want to be teaching?
Sam: Um, noooo. I mean, it’s not like you’re out there having a great time without us or anything.

So apparently meetings are universal for “dull, necessary evil” even to 11-year-olds. Despite what my kids think, I do get good information from these meetings.

We don’t GET professional development at our schools. I mean, we get PD time, but it’s inevitably filled up with required business and other garbage. News about the evaluation system probably won’t be rolled out to teachers until next fall. Depending on their building’s administration, it could be even later than that. I know about it NOW. I mentioned during our meeting today that in SIX YEARS of teaching, I have received ONE HALF-DAY of training on writing, ONE DAY of training on science, etc. That’s insane.

Plus, I get plenty of amazing information when I pick the brains of other passionate educators. I mentioned before that Federal Way has some incredibly talented people. A brief list of appreciation: Angie Neville, Shawn Smith, Cindy Black, Christine Corbley, David Brower, Jerry Warren. I get stir crazy when I’m in my four walls too long, even when my four walls contain brilliantly flexible children and hugely supportive fellow teachers. I need to get out. And…

I’m not looking toward a future as an administrator, which is the path many talented (and less talented but overconfident) teachers take when they want to have an impact on a larger number of students or educators. But I still want my work to have a more wide-reaching, global impact. So I’m creating assessments and rubrics and exemplars and contributing to district-wide recommendations. I’m at meetings telling the assistant superintendent that AmeriCorps is a service our district MUST continue to invest in. I’m THOROUGHLY not satisfied with the current state of public education, and I do see myself as a leader, but I see myself as leading from within, not as an “official” leader.

Teacher-leader is my personal favorite new buzzword, because it acknowledges that I’m taking impassioned steps to help staffs shift the discourse, but I am still, FIRST AND FOREMOST, a teacher.

Both inside and out of the classroom.

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