Congratulations, or belated congratulations, on starting your new (still relatively new) career! While teaching could certainly be a more lucrative profession, it offers a variety of rewarding experiences you can’t find in any other work. The relationships we build with students, families, and communities can be powerful, even transformative. Knowing the work our fellow teachers are doing, we also have the opportunity to make contributions to our profession, and indirectly affect the learning and the lives of even more students.
If your teaching preparation was like mine, and like that of most teachers I know, you may have focused so much on students, classroom, and curriculum, that you have not yet given much thought to other ways to grow in your profession. So, here are seven recommendations for experiences you can seek out in order to enhance and extend your career.
1. Visit other classrooms and schools
I had assignments in graduate school that involved observing a fellow student teacher, and had supportive mentors during that year who encouraged me to observe more than necessary in the school where I was student teaching. During my first year as a teacher, I taught grades 6-8 at a private school and went to see one of the high schools my students often matriculated to. When I started at a public high school, the principal gave me two days to observe classes at other high schools in the district.
Eventually, I grew so invested in seeing other teachers and schools that I took a year off from my own teaching to write a book based on my visits to about 70 schools in 50 cities and towns. That’s obviously taking a good idea to an extreme level, and it’s impractical for most people, but hopefully every teacher can find a way to observe other teachers and schools. The benefit is not only in learning from the similarities and differences and generating new ideas, but also in the reflective conversations that follow.
2. Pursue National Board Certification
The value of reflection is difficult to overstate when it comes to learning- our students’ learning, and our own. Reflection is one of the hallmarks of the National Board Certification process, and I definitely recommend pursuing certification to every teacher eligible to do so. It’s a demanding process designed by teachers for teachers, and it helps teachers who are a few years or more into their careers to refine their understanding of the architecture of accomplished teaching. It’s also a rewarding process that benefits both teachers and students.
In addition to improving your own career, you’ll be helping advance the teaching profession. Other professions expect practitioners to demonstrate advanced skills and knowledge; if you need legal, financial, or medical advice, you’re most likely to seek it from a board-certified professional, and we need board-certified teachers to become the norm rather than the exception if we are going to take control of our profession. Physicians did the same thing once upon a time. We should do the same.
3. Serve on a site council
In California, our schools have a Schoolsite Council, and I think in many states schools have some type of school-based leadership and governance body. Ask around if you’re not sure. (Hint: if you don’t already know, school secretaries, and principals’ secretaries especially, always have the answers!)
I’ll be honest. This wasn’t my favorite outside-the-classroom leadership experience. I didn’t feel like I made much of a difference. However, it was a relatively low intensity and low stakes way to learn more about my school, to engage in substantive discussions about our values, our goals, and our work, with students, parents, teachers, classified staff, and administrators all at the table. I’m glad I did it and depending on the unique circumstances at your school, consider trying out this role.
4. Participate in your union
For many years, I had a limited understanding of my union’s structure and function in the district and state. When teachers are new, they are often advised to “lay low” and stay away from union activity until they’re “tenured” (the common but somewhat mistaken term for teachers with “permanent status” and full due process job protections). I wonder if that sets many of us on a trajectory where inertia might just keep us from ever really engaging with our unions.
I’ve found in the past eight years or so that there are many different ways to engage with my union, some as simple as just participating in activities and giving feedback to my representatives. The next step for me was serving as a site representative, then a member-at-large for the executive board, a delegate to the NEA Representative Assembly, and a member of the negotiations team. There are almost always jobs or committees for willing volunteers, not always requiring a willingness to deal with the details of contracts and benefits. I sincerely believe stronger unions mean stronger schools, especially if we have more people involved who approach the work mindful of the full potential of unions to advance the interests of labor, professionalism, and social justice.
5. Write about teaching
Writing about teaching is a fantastic way to develop your own knowledge and contribute to your local or professional community. This idea takes us back to the notion of reflection mentioned above. If you write about your teaching in almost any way, you’ll also reflect on your students, your content area, your pedagogy, the community and other contextual details of your work. Whoever the audience might be, they’re likely to benefit from the product of your efforts.
It might be as simple as contributing to a school or district newsletter. Consider a letter to the editor or a guest opinion piece for your local newspaper (if you still have one) to help the general public understand your perspective on teaching and learning, students and schools. If you have some unique insights or successes to share, try writing an article for a professional journal. Look for the “Call for manuscripts” near the front of each edition of journals to find ideas that match your interests and knowledge.
If you’re interested in writing somewhat regularly and perhaps building an audience for your writing, perhaps blogging is the way to go. Putting yourself and your ideas out to the world wide web can be exciting and has the potential to create unanticipated connections and dialogue. My friend and fellow NBPTS blogger, Ray Salazar, wrote a blog post about why teachers should blog if you want further encouragement. Reading a variety of education blogs is an essential starting point. Then, when you’re ready, there’s plenty of blogging advice out there; if you reach out to bloggers you like (and show some familiarity with their work), you’re likely to find some support, and maybe even a cheerleader to steer some readers your way once you do launch that blog.
6. Deliver training or presentations
Beyond writing, you can share your best ideas and learning with others. It’s a rewarding and energizing way to keep your teaching career feeling fresh and vital. I’ve learned something from each presentation or speaking engagement I’ve had. In my school district, we’ve moved toward more “in-house” professional learning. Interested teachers can try out professional presentations by sharing their strengths with colleagues at our site, and with a little more planning, they can find opportunities to offer training or presentations to peers across the district. If there are educational organizations and conferences that you value, and whose audiences might value your contributions, then look up their timeline and process for submitting a proposal. For a first-timer, it might help to submit with an experienced partner or group.
7. Step up to school-based leadership
Grade level leader, content area specialist, instructional leader, department chair, teacher-on-special-assignment, instructional coach, mentor, demonstration teacher… there are many ways to step into a leadership role while still teaching. At the same time, we need many more of these roles and opportunities. The lack of such positions is one of the main factors that drive mid-career teachers out of the classroom. So, next time you’re looking for a teaching job, ask about these kinds of options. If you’re working in a school or district that has those kinds of positions and you’re interested in the work, determine the pathway take steps in that direction. If your school or district has few options for teachers to lead, see what you can do to bring about change, or consider if a different school or district might be a better fit.
The last item in this list is the one I have yet to do myself, but I keep it in mind and figure I have almost twenty years to make it happen. Whether you eventually do all of these isn’t as important as making thoughtful decisions about ways to advance your own learning throughout your career, and hopefully advance the profession and give back to colleagues and the community along the way. Good luck!