Join the Team That is Your School: Be a Teacher-Leader

Cory Swanson • CommentaryNovember 2023 • November 1, 2023

Imagine you have a loaf of bread. This loaf is finite, it has borders. There’s only so much bread. You can tear off a piece and use it. Sometimes you get something back for your bread, sometimes you waste it.  

Now, shift this analogy to your political capital: in your school, in your district, with teachers and parents/community members. Your loaf is finite, and you spend it in so many ways: when you ask for money, when there’s conflicts with parents or students, when you need help moving equipment or supervising kids or you need a parent to run your bake sale. 

The problem is, we always think we have more bread than we do, or we’re not aware there’s bread at all. We start to wonder why people say no to us, not approving budget requests, not helping with equipment, not understanding what you need out of the master schedule. You’re simply out of bread.

This is my twentieth-year teaching and my twentieth year at Windsor Middle school, and I’ve done all sorts of things with my bread. I’ve spent it, I’ve saved it, I’ve even burnt my toast doing stupid things. The best thing I’ve ever done for my loaf of bread is join our school’s instructional leadership team. Being a teacher-leader in my building has been one of the most rewarding and interesting experiences of my career. 

So, what is a teacher-leader? Our team is composed of representatives from around the school, teachers in all the core subjects at all grade levels, administration, special education teachers, and teacher coaches. We meet weekly and discuss everything from the school’s strategic plan to master schedule to how to structure and implement professional development. We are also expected to be team leads and run team meetings and PLCs.

The experience has increased my global perspective. I now have a window into operations and an understanding of what admin is facing and why decisions are being made. I understand more than ever how my bands and orchestras fit into the fabric of the entire school. I’ve begun to understand the experiences of other teachers, the challenges of their worlds. I’ve learned just how hard consensus is to achieve and how important it is to the implementation of meaningful change for all our students. 

Over the course of my time on the team, I’ve had opportunities to mentor teachers and facilitate their learning as well as learn alongside them. Not just other music teachers but the shop teacher, the STEM teacher, the drama teacher, etc. This work is new, refreshing, and twenty years in, it’s rewarding.

These experiences have made me a better teacher. So many times, throughout my career, I’ve felt like an island. I’m the only instrumental music teacher in my building and one of only a handful in my district. There are very few to lean on and it so often felt as though things happened to me rather than from my own agency. Now things have changed because my perspective has changed. 

So, back to my bread. I’ve got a little more these days. I’m in a position where I can advocate for my program, where my administration and I understand each other. We don’t always agree, and I don’t always get what I want, but they listen. We move toward our goals together, part of a cohesive whole. If nothing else, I’ve earned a seat at the table.

The lesson? Too many of us have an adversarial relationship with our administrators. We see them as the barrier to getting what we need for our program and our kids. We see other teachers in this light as well, their demands and needs as a burden on the systems and resources we also depend upon to operate. We are in competition with them, or at least I’m guilty of having viewed it that way. 

It could do us all some good to listen to each other. To sit at the table and understand how we all view things differently. At the center of it, we’re all here for the same reasons. We want to help kids learn and to love learning. We want them to achieve and be able to succeed in the world. Be on your school’s team, however that looks. Get off your island and learn how to serve others. Who knows, maybe next time the master schedule comes out, you’ll get that class you’ve been wanting. Or you’ll get funding for that new drum set. Or you’ll simply be seen as necessary and vital to your school because you were able to convince the right people that you serve the same interests they do, and that music is part of how we create a better future for our students. 

Cory Swanson is a teacher at Windsor Middle School in Windsor, Colorado.

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