True teacher leadership: Mentoring others

I think that one of the coolest things about teacher leadership is that sometimes, you don’t even know you are leading.

About two weeks ago, I got an excited call from a colleague. Last year was her first year teaching preschool special ed in my district. It was a challenging and frustrating year for her, as it is for many teachers during their first year teaching. (The first year teaching feels like a gig in the punching ring everyday without anyone on the side to give you water or dab your sweat.) When she told me that she was leaving at the end of the year, I cried. I hate seeing good teachers leave. I talked to her a lot about staying in the profession. She was discouraged, but said that she was planning to try another position in a different district.

When I saw that she had left me a message the other day, I was intrigued to hear the news. Her excited message shared that she had just been offered a position teaching students with autism (K-2 grade) in another school district. I was delighted! In her message she thanked me for the support and insight last year and asked for recommendations of books to read (I teach preschool kids with autism). I think it’s the best phone message I have EVER heard! Retaining people in special education is something that I passionately pursue. I’m still sad that we lost her in my district, but I am so grateful that she found the courage and passion to try again somewhere else.

When I called her back, her voice bubbled excitedly through the phone line. She told me about the position and talked about collaborating with me next year for ideas. She used the word “mentor” when she talked about the way I had helped her last year. Honestly, I was a little astounded. I’ve never really thought of myself as a mentor. I just talk about teaching and staying in the profession all the time because I hope that some of it will stick with somebody. I know that changing the profession will take more than just me.

I’m so glad that this teacher called me to share her good news. Celebrating with her was awesome! And I am so glad she mentioned that the things I did and said made a difference for her. It made me realize something pretty cool about being part of this profession: we get the chance to inspire other teachers as well as inspiring students.

In about a month, my district will welcome another group of new special education teachers. Each year, about one third of our special education teachers leave! I’m really motivated to change that because our students deserve experienced teachers, and I like building collaborative relationships with colleagues who stick around. I love working as an induction coach because it gives me the opportunity to help teachers set expectations that they will be stayers instead of leavers. There are far too many statistics about teachers leaving the field. I think statistics about leavers give other teachers permission to give up in this tough war for public education. We don’t need more leavers.

How about these statistics: I’m aiming for 100% retention this year, and I plan to tell the new teachers that the very first day (and every other chance I get!). The only way we can change this profession is from the inside. I hope I can inspire teachers who become stayers so that they can inspire other teachers to do the same.

Sometimes teacher leadership is unintentional. In this case, unintentional leadership made a difference. Teachers, speak encouragement to one another. Be intentional about it. You never know who you might be leading. Talk about the importance of staying in this profession and collaborating with colleagues to bring about change.

When you speak intentionally about things that matter to you, you might unintentionally build a chain of followers who take up the cause. Lead on!

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