I’ve been in the classroom for 20 plus years and for much of that time I’ve been drowning in a sea of safety, comfort and familiarity. Let me be clear, I’m passionate about education. Teaching is not just what I do but it’s who I am – to my core. However, this enduring love for my craft has led me to become complacent and quite frankly a little bored. It’s like being in a long term relationship with someone you care for deeply, but you allow the fire and passion to die and begin taking that person for granted. This is never a good look for any type of relationship – particularly for an educator because so much depends on what we do. When we become stuck in our ways or unmotivated to innovate our pedagogy as the times and our students change, everyone pays the price. Our students disengage from the learning process because what and how we teach no longer applies to the way they live and learn outside of the classroom. For us, contentment within the four walls of the classroom becomes tantamount to a slow and quiet professional death.
Within the last few years I’ve been gently nudged to expand my teaching and learning experiences beyond the classroom by a close network of my colleagues. But it’s primarily my students that finally snuck up behind me and pushed me over the edge of complacency and out of my comfort zone. It was their boldness to challenge me to grow in ways that I had not imagined.
It has always been important to me that students are able to apply the information that we learn in class to their lives outside of it. Whenever possible, I try to make education “functional” for them. I’m cognizant that what we do in class should not always be an abstract intellectual exercise, prompting them to ask questions like, “why do I need to know this?” or “when will I ever use this stuff?” I’m not always successful, but the attempt is there. I’ve worked hard over the years to strengthen my skills in developing a classroom culture where academic rigor, strong relationships and reflection are the norm. I encourage my students to find their voice and become agents in their lives in an effort to change society for the better, but more importantly, to not be afraid to change themselves. The flip side of creating this type of environment is that students have become comfortable enough to ask me questions and challenge me about how I’m being a change agent outside of the four walls of my classroom. Their challenges are never hostile or confrontational, rather they’re more akin to encouragement and support, empowering me to share with the world what we do in the classroom. The practice of moving from theory to practical application, or like W.E.B Du Bois frames it – the theory of praxis, is so important in being an effective and accomplished educator.
As part of “escaping” the comfort of my classroom and taking on the challenges from my colleagues and students, I’ve delved into teacher leadership roles outside of the classroom and as a result I’ve not only deepened my understanding of the educational system but have had to reflect on my practices inside the classroom. For example, being a member of BOND to help recruit, develop and retain men of color in the classroom allows me to witness the systemic challenges institutions face to enhance their workforce. Within the classroom I’ve designed and proposed new and innovative class offerings for our jurisdiction that is forcing me to reevaluate my pedagogy and the needs/interests of my students. Taking on these responsibilities in addition to my full-time teaching duties sounds like a heavy lift and it is. But I’ve never felt more alive in my professional life!
Teacher burnout is real and all the things that I’ve taken on sound like a recipe for disaster, but it’s the exact opposite. These teacher leadership endeavors have ignited a renewed purpose as a professional educator and also provided me with an expanded vision of the possibilities that exist when I finally leave the classroom. I didn’t jump into these roles overnight. I was thoughtful, intentional and patient as I entered each phase. I also connected with competent, passionate and supportive colleagues as I journeyed through each step. I can’t stress this enough, but finding and building your tribe is essential.
Being a part of the leadership team of BOND is not only a part of my teacher leadership roles but they have also become part of my support network, my tribe. There are other communities that I connect with that not only support my professional vision but that continue to challenge me to live beyond my comfort zone. Whenever I see signs of burnout in my talented colleagues, I encourage them to keep one foot in the classroom because our students deserve good teachers. I also motivate them to become active members in the professional community and share their skills and experiences as teacher leaders in ways that will not only rejuvenate them but ultimately benefit their students.
For those of you that desire to remain in the classroom yet feel “stuck”, I challenge you to step to the outer limits of your comfort zone. If someone from your tribe pushes you over the edge, trust that the net will appear. You will be all the better for it.
Kenneth M. Smith is a National Board Certified Teacher and a member of the BOND Project Leadership Team. Kenneth is passionate about inspiring students to become independent, lifelong learners as well as encouraging his fellow colleagues to engage in teacher leadership endeavors to impact change outside of the classroom. Follow Kenneth on Twitter @MrSmithInspires.