After eight years as a New York City high school social studies teacher, I thought my love of teaching and leadership would naturally lead me to serve as an administrator; I mean, that IS the “normal” progression for teacher advancement. I was passionate, had the right skill set, and I imagined the role would allow me to make an even greater impact on the students I am dedicated to serving. But after completing two master’s programs to follow that path, something just didn’t add up.
Sure, I had worked nights and weekends, completed hours of training in pedagogy and education leadership, paid for and passed all of the state certification exams. But when it came time to make the leap, I just couldn’t leave the classroom.
I am one of the thousands of teachers around the country who struggles with the discomforting pressure to leave the classroom in order to advance in my career. Nearly all—92%—of teachers wish there were more opportunities as a teacher to further their career and professional skills while remaining in the classroom.
Ultimately, I have been moved to stay in the classroom, particularly by my experience as a Black male educator. In New York, 115,985 Black and Latino students do not have a single educator who shares their race or ethnicity. I am one of the few faces that resemble those of my students and share similar experiences in terms of our ways of being or being perceived by others and how we move through the world. Just seeing me in the classroom every day sends a powerful message to my students: Education is for you too, and I can see the positive influence I have on their lives on a daily basis.
I love the classroom too much to be removed from it, so to find new ways to grow professionally, I had to get creative. I have taken on school instructional lead positions, led curriculum development within the New York City Department of Education, joined equity and evaluation committees within my union and district, and become a Teaching Ambassador Fellow with the U.S. Department of Education. I’ve had to make an effort to find ways to expand my impact and to grow my skills while remaining in the classroom.
And while I am grateful for these opportunities, they signal a much larger, more pervasive and systemic problem within the education system: Teacher growth is not very flexible. I didn’t come into teaching thinking about the next thing. I was just trying to be a good teacher. It took years to realize, “Ok, I’ve got my teaching game down pretty good,” but when I got there, I thought, “Now how can I improve?”
When we teachers get to this point in our careers, we should have the opportunity to take on a hybrid position. For example, I could use my principal training to help my colleagues while still teaching part-time. Or, veteran teachers could have time built in to network with other educators from around the nation or to engage in district and federal opportunities. Strategically, these experiences can generate ideas for educators to take back to their schools that go well beyond checking a box on a professional development form. And, I’m not the only one who wants these opportunities. This year, a national teacher survey “Voices from the Classroom” found that 89% of teachers agree career ladders would make them more likely to stay in teaching.
Yet, despite considerable support hybrid roles are still rare, and this reality can place school leaders in a tough spot. How can a teacher travel for work without the budget to allow another teacher to sub in for a class? It is a valid concern, truly.
Ultimately, a lack of time and money dedicated to teacher leadership sends the message that keeping great teachers in the classroom isn’t that important.
Education leaders need to think differently about how we can shift structures, invest in teacher growth, and develop real opportunities for our advancement—especially for veteran and mid-career teachers like me. Perhaps we could start allocating funds specifically to allow leaders to get creative with their responsibilities and to foster shared leadership.
Teachers shouldn’t have to leave their kids behind as they try to get ahead.