I am in my sixth district in 12 years. There have been various reasons as to why I’ve left my positions over the years. I’ve been laid off due to budget cuts and limited-term contracts. I’ve left due to changing position types and my determination to get to the job I currently hold. While some people have told me that I’m flat out crazy for moving districts so often (although some of the moves were not intentional), I have learned a great deal from being in so many different places and working for and with various people of differing strengths and abilities. I’ve been given a fairly accurate radar of what is “normal” for a district and what is specific to that environment.
We have a ton of new teachers in our district this year. Overall, at least in Wisconsin, there is a major teacher and administrator shortage, and people are bailing from districts because they feel the grass is greener somewhere else. In some cases, this might be true, but in my experience, every district has it’s own set of special challenges. The question I always have about leaving a district is: how do you know the line between when your job is to create change in a difficult situation and that of your beliefs about education being so fundamentally different from others that it’s time to go?
One of the things I’ve realized over the last few years is that my passion for education includes a strong desire to create change. Systemic change. The kind of change that shifts an entire mindset and experience. I’ve also realized that people like me, and I’ve come to know so many amazing change agents over the last few years, are often seen as boat rockers. We are the ones to push the envelope, challenge others when we feel like what is being done isn’t best for students, hold fast to our fundamental beliefs about learning and relationships. Some people around us don’t like that, and it takes a change agent with a secure confidence in their beliefs to hold fast when other people feel threatened because you’re rocking their boat so hard it might sink. It’s a delicate balance which includes playing the political game of education, being savvy enough to pick your battles, and being able to recognize when change is necessary and when you’re just pushing for change for change sake.
Nobody can argue with the fact that change is hard, especially when you’re looking at systemic changes like wide-spread innovative teaching and learning or greater opportunities for student empowerment. If you’re looking at changes that take time, like a lack of trust or a toxic climate & culture, change can be especially daunting, especially if the people who need the most change don’t recognize that they do. The more of these kinds of people in a district, the more you might question whether your beliefs in education might be so fundamentally different from others that you can’t function to your full capacity in that environment. And there might be times when this is true, but more often than not I wholeheartedly believe that great change takes perseverance, and people who have the tenacity to create change rarely have an easy time doing it, nor do they typically see the fruits of their labors.
Being an agent for change is more about recognizing the small wins in failure than it is about winning the battle. It’s not about seeing quick results or even being liked by everyone all the time. It’s about patience and determination and grit and sustaining your beliefs when everyone else tells you they only sound good in theory. It’s about seeing the big picture while searching for little, quick wins that will move the system forward toward the change you want to see. And when you most disagree with the people around you, it’s about recognizing that if everyone were like you, we wouldn’t need change agents.
Recently, I had the experience of realizing that a change being implemented for teachers was a result of all of my incessant preaching about empowering all learners and modeling opportunities for personalized professional development for teachers. I’m not going to lie…this realization came at a difficult time when professionally there had been several frustrations thrown at me at once and I was beginning to second-guess whether some of my core beliefs were really just pipe dreams. I had even used the analogy to a friend of mine that I felt like I was taking one step forward and two steps back, and behind me was a cliff. If I kept going, I’d just fall off. It had been a small win in the grand scheme of changes I’d like to see, but it was a win nonetheless at a time when I needed to see that I was making any difference at all. At a time when I was walking that line, this small change reminded me that my tendency to be relentless in my pursuits was given to me for a good reason.
There will always be appropriate times when a change is needed for yourself and your own professional goals or sanity, and one day that time will come for me as well. Maybe I’ll have made the changes I want to see and it’s time to move on, maybe another opportunity will present itself where I feel like I could affect learning for a greater population, or maybe I’ll be toeing the line and for whatever reason I no longer have the opportunity to create the changes I think are necessary to improve student learning. For now, I’m going to take my small, quick win, and get back to work.