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On Leadership, Discourse, and the Classroom

In addition to the National Writing Project's main tenets (teacher as writer, researcher, and consultant), this year the Eastern Michigan Writing Project focused on one additional thread: teacher as leader. For the longest time, I pictured teacher leaders in two ways: department chairs or principals. While those are certainly invaluable roles within buildings and departments, the EMWP helped me see a bigger picture of the leadership roles that teachers can take within their buildings. While the title, the recognition, and money would be nice, I'm starting to recognize that I can be a leader without all of those. As just a teacher, I am fully capable of effecting change.

I'm in the process of reading M.T. Anderson's Feed, and this line stuck out to me: "I was thinking of how sometimes, trying to say the right thing to people, it's like some kind of brain surgery, and you have to tweak exactly the right part of the lobe" (54). And I think that's one of the most difficult things about leading others. As an English teacher, discourse analysis intrigues me. My field instructor and lifelong mentor introduced me to Leslie Rex's work, Using Discourse Analysis to Improve Classroom Interaction, and last year an EMWP fellow often quoted Peter Johnston's Choice Words. Regardless of our role, if we communicate in ways that make others feel inferior or threatened, we can no longer lead others to where we want them to go. It's really simple: You can't be a leader if you don't have followers.

Thinking about my own mannerisms, I've come to realize that I can be the worst cynic in my building and that I'm virtually unable to disguise my dislike or frustration with a task; I have no poker face. And that's why I felt so relieved when Penny Kittle made note in Book Love that it is sometimes hard to encourage others to see things your way. I know that I need to do a better job in leveraging my passion, especially if I want others to follow. To this point, I remember one of my first professors in college who equated the current political climate to King Lear: when things become an "us" vs. "them," all room for debate or conversation has gone out the window. If we take this approach as leaders, we won't build consensus and we can't work toward a common goal.

Now that the institute is coming to a close, I look forward to next week's workshop with Dr. Cathy Fleischer on teacher advocacy. I harbor a Taylor Mali-like attitude when people imply that I settled for teaching. Sometimes my family did this when I was in college, posing questions like, "You went to [the University of] Michigan to be a teacher?" I've even encountered this kind of response from students. It's as if people don't expect educators to be smart--and I'm in no way saying that I am so. I'm looking forward to drafting a plan that will allow me to raise my voice and share my story of teaching with the world. I think teachers are uniquely positioned to lead others to respect the profession.

I'm looking forward to Reading Apprenticeship Improving Secondary Education (RAISE) training in August. An amazing set of new and veteran teachers will be attending together, and I am fortunate enough to be the designated teacher leader. In reality, I know these teachers don't need to be led anywhere; instead, they desire to participate in an ongoing collegial conversation about improving student achievement--and not just the kind that will manifest on a standardized test. They, too, share similar passions for helping all students become better lifelong readers, but I didn't realize this until I stepped into one of the participating history teacher's classrooms and I noticed his impressive collection of young adult literature on the shelf. He reminded me that we are all in this together.

But that also raises another point: We don't visit each other's classrooms enough. I won't have a planning period this fall because I've volunteered to teach the additional section of English, but I've begun brainstorming ways that I can learn what my colleagues are doing even when I'm unable to visit their classes. I'm thankful that I work in a context that allows me to take my own approach to teaching reading and writing, but I do want to know what my colleagues are doing! It's not to evaluate or critique; it's to learn. Julia Keider, a teacher consultant for the EMWP, made that distinction during her presentation on coaching. I get that assessment and accountability are buzzwords and reality, but there has to be a comfortable space where growth can occur. You don't grow when you feel threatened.

Other than RAISE training, I know I'll be teaching ninth- and tenth-grade English this fall. Over the past few days, I've received a few emails from students to let me know about their summer reading progress. I've noticed a few things: students are finding time during their busy days of summer jobs and athletics to read; students are seeking out books on their own; and students clearly know that I value their reading progress. This makes my heart palpitate more than any increase in test scores. And it tells me that what I am doing is working.

So, to finally be direct, I don't know what's next for me. I'm appreciative of the EMWP's Summer Institute because it reminded me that there are other avenues of leadership than becoming principal. I've thought about administration, but I know that's not right for me. I'm too soft on discipline (research does show reading makes one more sympathetic!), and I have too many questions that need answering about reading, writing, and thinking. For now, I'm happy with what I am able to do: leading students to more literate lives by modeling a literate life for them and with them.


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