Three Lessons from a Hybrid Teacher Leader
This time last year, I was on the Hill answering phone calls related to “the wall” amid the longest government shutdown in U.S. history. I learned a lot during my fellowship in D.C. (see my previous blog post). I knew that the policy bug had bitten me and there was no turning back. But being out of the classroom and away from students for a year reminded me how much I missed teaching kids. So, last spring, I called my Superintendent in Texas and said, “I’ve gained this legislative skill set that I can’t just table, but I also want to be in front of kids. Is there any way I can do a hybrid teaching position?”
Pictured: Democrats & Speaker Pelosi on H.R. 1
I pitched the pros and cons and while we had yet to work out the specifics, my Supt knew that I could shine in both arenas - the classroom and the policy space. Teachers know having administrators and leaders who support you and let you leverage your natural talents for the betterment of the district are a blessing. Every day, I’m grateful to have found that in Lewisville.
My days look like this: in the morning, I teach algebra to newcomer ESL students in two different classrooms. I don’t have my own classroom this year because I’m only on campus half the day and it’d be hard to justify needing my own classroom when it’d be vacant each afternoon. After two morning classes and an advisory period, I head to my lunch duty. I’m still on a teacher contract and a teacher salary, so there’s no getting out of my required duty each day. Afterward, I head over to my office in the central administration building where I wear my government relations hat. The best part of all of this is that it’s not about taking off my teacher hat and replacing it with another - I get to wear both simultaneously. Therein lies the hook when I’m speaking with legislators and their staff.
Texas lawmakers are accustomed to speaking with lobbyists, pro-public education groups, administrators, and on occasion, teachers. What they are not used to is meeting with a currently practicing classroom teacher who also represents their district in an official government relations capacity. So, when I speak to the issues educators face and the laws that impact them, I’m speaking from firsthand experience. I get to say, “Hi, my name is Shawn Sheehan and I’m a math teacher in Lewisville, Texas. I also do government relations for the district and I would like to speak with you about [insert policy/bill] and how it affects our district and our students. I say this not as someone who taught ten years ago when Snapchat wasn’t a thing for students. I come to you as a current teacher who took attendance yesterday. I have a stack of papers to grade in my car right now as we speak. But I’m also here in an official capacity, representing my district leadership.”
Pictured: Texas Senate Floor
The expression of surprise on the faces of legislators, staffers, educators, and community members will never get old. The response is typically something like, “Wait, so you do two jobs? How do you do that?” My response generally includes much of what I just covered and when the opportunity is right, I also mention my title as Oklahoma’s 2016 Teacher of the Year. That tends to be a talking point and I get to discuss my unique perspective on differences in education in each respective state. The challenge ahead of me is learning more about the details and intricacies of public education in the state of Texas. And as a Texas transplant, I also have to be intentional about learning as much as I can about the history of politics on my new home state - no small endeavor to be sure.
There may be a few readers here interested in pursuing a position similar to my own. Prior to pitching this position to my superintendent, I researched quite a bit on hybrid teacher leader roles and most tend to focus on the curriculum or staff development. I hadn’t found another example of a teacher who taught part-time and did government relations work or some other outward-facing role for their district. To help expand these sorts of opportunities, I’ve taken many notes along the way to make it scalable and replicable. Here are my top three takeaways so far as a hybrid teacher leader:
1) This is really two full-time jobs. While my workload is reduced on either side (teaching half-day and government relations half-day), I find myself doing work for each respective role throughout the day. Some days I need more time to grade and contact parents and other days, I need to secure a sub to attend important policy-focused conferences. As I said before, I don’t take off one hat and put on another half-way through the day - I’m wearing both hats at all times. I’ve long advocated for a position between administrator and teacher and I feel like this is pretty close.
Pictured: My temporary office in the admin building
2) The work is lonely. Don’t take that as a bad thing, but what has happened is that it kind of feels like I don’t have a home base. There are little things that contribute to this. For example, I can’t really participate in spirit days at the high school because each afternoon, I am taking meetings and engaging in professional government relations work, so my attire is pretty much a suit and tie each day. Those who have taught with me know that’s my style anyway, but jeans days are basically a no-go now. Not having my own classroom also makes me feel disconnected from the rest of the high school. And since I don’t start my days at the admin building, I don’t have as strong relationships with the other district office staff as I could. The tradeoff is a high degree of autonomy, though, and I am grateful to have it. I schedule my own meetings (much like I did on the Hill) and am afforded many professional development opportunities that are related to education policy and legislation.
3) Teachers need more pathways to leadership that don’t require leaving the classroom entirely. Currently, a teacher’s primary option to advance their career is to leave the classroom - typically for administration or district-level work. For much of 2019, I contemplated if it was possible to truly lead from the classroom; to fully engage in education policy work while still standing in front of students each day. The position I wanted didn’t exist, so I researched it, outlined the return on investment (ROI), pitched it, and am now doing the work. A lot of things had to be in the right place for this to happen. First, I needed the expertise necessary to do the work. I can thank my year-long fellowship in D.C. working for Congressman Grijalva for equipping me with my legislative skills. Next, I needed district leadership with a forward-thinking attitude. Here in Texas, I’m seeing more school districts tackle the education policy work more seriously. In the past, it tended to be a secondary role for the legal department or left only to the board of trustees and superintendent. I think there’s been a conscious shift that has sparked a movement to hold legislators more accountable in supporting schools in the wake of teacher walkouts, strikes, expansion of charter schools, and cuts to public education funding. Increasingly, teachers are more diligent in policy work and acknowledging that their voices are loudest when they 1) vote and 2) encourage their work colleagues to do the same. This leads me to my closing PSA.
I recently heard Texas State Senator Kel Seliger, a Republican representing parts of the Texas panhandle and West Texas, speak at an education conference. He said educators need to stop complaining to legislators. Instead, we need to elect the right ones. It’s the best plug for educators getting out and voting that I’ve heard in some time. I experienced and witnessed how ineffective advocating for public education can be at both the state and federal levels when you don’t have the right legislator in office. When the elected official is not friendly to public education in the first place, it’s a losing battle almost every time. Instead, we educators need to ensure we’re voting for candidates who are supportive of public education. You may find yourself siding with one party because of non-education issues, but it is critical that you identify where they stand on education, too. It will go much further than constantly having to defend our work to a legislator and staffers who just don’t get it. If you’ve had the pleasure of speaking with a legislator and staffers who are friendly to public education, you know how much more enjoyable the meetings can be. Conversely, if you’ve had the opposite experience, you know how frustrating it is.
There is much work to be done in the next year and the next decade, but I believe educators are moving in the right direction. Happy New Year to you and yours, my friend!