At the last faculty meeting of the year, my principal honored a few teachers who were moving on from our school to become administrators. They were becoming assistant principals at other schools. It was joyous. There were reflective speeches, congratulatory hugs, and bittersweet goodbyes. These people had spent years and years in the classroom, one was even a co-teacher of mine for three years. But now, in the name of school leadership, they were leaving the classroom to serve students on a broader scale.
This is natural. We teachers often find ourselves so well-versed in classroom affairs that our influence expands. Our impact seeps out of the walls of our classroom and into the larger community. Or, if this hasn’t happened, we know that it can with some persistence. Often our principals make us believe, too. We then spend lots of money to go back to school, suffer through long nights of rewording essays, all to earn a piece of paper that says that we’re fit to lead a school.
This is commonplace and part of the gravitational pull that exists on teachers. It’s a force works to drive us out of our classrooms. We’re promoted, but we become one step removed from our students. We move up.
Now I’ve known for a long time that I’m a classroom lifer. I have no ambitions of becoming an assistant principal or principal. A progression up the educational food chain is natural, but never something that interested me.
So as I sat there during the faculty meeting thinking about how my colleagues were moving further away from students, my own career flashed before me — especially these few years. While the pathway of these people had taken them up, away from students, mine had actually brought me down, closer to students.
I don’t think this downward movement is the norm — at least it wasn’t for me. I had to really work to move down. I’ve had to reflect, find myself, and then change my entire approach to teaching. I had to learn to be aware of my kids in ways that were foreign to me. And attending to my students’ lives in a personal way — to, paradoxically, not see them as students at all — is what has pulled me down to them. I’ve grown as an educator to affirm my students as sons, daughters, brothers, step-sisters, nieces, and nephews — as young people, as confused young adults, as budding leaders. This mindset is fueled by emotion and it’s not encouraged by the state, nor by the tests, nor by the curriculum. But it’s the single biggest reason why there’s a distinctive oneness that I feel when I’m with my students.
Just like it takes years to move up towards administration, it took my whole career for me to move down towards my students. It’s not a depth that I would have been prepared for early in my career, just like no new teacher is ready to be an assistant principal.
I get now that my career hasn’t been about reaching as far out as I can, despite all that has been fed to me all these years about success and impact. Instead, it has been about appreciating that my career will probably never extend beyond the walls of my classroom; it has been about understanding and tending to the depth of my students. It’s been about moving down.