Welcome to SmartBrief Education’s original content series about the unique stories of teacherpreneurs. These are the innovative individuals confronting challenges, creating solutions and bringing them to market.
A charming young man with a beard took my order at Starbucks the other day. Before I could offer my name, he wrote “Mrs. Hill” on my cup. Smiling, he reminded me that hadn’t done too well in my class. I conjured the memory of a scrawny kid who bounced instead of walked and liked to help me with technology, and I got a little teary.
The kids are why we do this work. Over the years, I’ve taught over 3,000 young people, and they’ve grown up to be doctors, lawyers, soldiers and baristas. I’ve also received more than one collect call from jail and quite a few letters from rehab. Teachers take part in an intricate system we blithely call “community.” Our experiences and sensibilities make us uniquely suited to fight for the health of that community, and we tell ourselves that we can conduct that fight one kid at a time. But what about our contributions to more systemic improvements? Or our own professional growth?
This year, I’ve used what I’ve learned about improving teaching outside of my classroom to help other educators grow professionally and make their own communities stronger. As a teacherpreneur, I teach English classes in the morning and work in the afternoon with the Kentucky Network to Transform Teaching and the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.
It has been amazing. The opportunity to learn, create new programs and support exciting initiatives has enriched my career beyond measure. In fact, that afternoon at Starbucks, I was meeting with two former students, both elementary teachers, who I coached through the National Board certification process. I think I’ve made a difference for them and many other teachers who will work with thousands more of our kids.
Yet working in a hybrid position is tough. I fight to balance one demand with another. Do I grade these tests or plan the next meeting of my teacher leadership cohort? There have been plenty of hybrid teachers who go back to teaching full time or leave the classroom entirely rather than fight to find this balance.
Under current conditions, teaching is already impossible to do well. Since many teachers only have 50 minutes without the responsibility of directly supervising students, we scramble to plan, review assignments and meet myriad other professional obligations. Yet teaching fewer students does not mean less work for teachers in hybrid roles. Though I may only have 80 essays to read and analyze instead of 150, the time needed for planning lessons stays the same. Add to that the constant revision of my teaching strategies, integration of new technology and continued professional learning in my subject area, and the release time melts away.
So let’s abolish a prevailing myth: Working in a hybrid position is not easier. It is by all accounts much, much harder. As with anything new and worthwhile, we have to keep building new models and experimenting with new organizational structures to find ways to make this role desirable and functional. We need teachers to expand their role without having to leave their students — keeping our best teachers with our kids and in leadership positions.
We can start by crafting hybrid roles that meet a specific need in a fixed time frame with mutually agreed upon goals. For teachers in hybrid roles to thrive, we must make the work outside of the classroom realistic, focused and part of a larger system that will support them and serve as a bridge between the teacher, the classroom and the profession.
If your school, district or organization is thinking about creating hybrid roles — or seeking ways to make the experience more productive and fulfilling for educators — here are a few suggestions to keep in mind:
Create hybrid roles in collaboration with the teachers who will fill them: This year, I took advantage of my strength in professional collaboration and created CTEPS (Classroom Teachers Enacting Positive Solutions), a challenge-based cohort of 18 teachers across our state. This built on my experience in supporting virtual communities, my instructional expertise and my passion for the power of teacher leadership.
Minimize new classes and the number of unique courses taught in a day: Because I teach one course three times a day, and it’s a course I’ve taught for many years, I’m not wrestling with the content. I can rely on proven techniques and lessons. This reduces planning time and helps me feel confident in the product I provide my students.
But teachers in other hybrid roles do not have that luxury. In an elementary environment, consider job sharing and subject specialties. Make sure middle- and high-school teachers are not taking on courses or responsibilities that will make them feel overwhelmed. Work with teachers to ensure that the classroom-based part of their day is familiar to them and narrow in scope. This will help them maximize their teacherpreneur time, which often comes with challenges that demand enormous emotional capital.
Collaboratively devise a plan for meeting school responsibilities: Though I attend every meeting of my PLC, I do not attend faculty meetings. My principal and I set this expectation at the start of the year. Homeroom meets sporadically in the afternoons, so we arranged for a colleague to meet with my students.
Principals and hybrid teachers must know what to expect of one another when it comes to responsibilities like serving on the school’s council or on committees. Can one hybrid teacher’s numerous leadership responsibilities at school become new opportunities for other teachers?
Clarify and celebrate how a teacherpreneur’s work outside of the classroom benefits students: Most of my colleagues at school have little idea what keeps me busy in the afternoon. If they knew the value of this work, it would likely quell any frustration they experience when they have duties I do not, or temper any jealousy they may feel about my class schedule and “free time.”
Teachers tend toward humility. We must support hybrid teachers by publicly celebrating their work. Offer hybrid teachers a chance to present their work to school and district leaders and include references in publications and regular communications, too.
Find an advocate, mentor and network: Teachers often struggle to advocate for what they need, and expert classroom practitioners may be new to leadership. Designate someone to support teachers in hybrid roles — a person who can advocate for them, coordinate regularly with principals, provide coaching and even watch them teach. Encourage mentorship and participation in a network of other hybrid teachers who face similar challenges and can offer support and advice.
In his book, The Great Influenza, John M. Barry reminds us that scientific discoveries happen on the frontier of our knowledge in a frightening yet necessary confluence of certainty and doubt. Just as scientists battled through urgency and uncertainty to invent the flu vaccine and halt a pandemic, we can only transform education to successfully meet the needs of our students by exhibiting this same kind of courage. Teacher leadership is our frontier, and teacherpreneurs are uniquely suited to discover its riches.
Lauren Hill, a National Board certified teacher, teaches English at Western Hills High School in Frankfort, Ky., and serves as teacherpreneur for the Kentucky Network to Transform Teaching to help create teacher leadership opportunities for Kentucky teachers and support teachers as they pursue National Board certification. She also works as a virtual community organizer and blogger for the Center for Teaching Quality. Read more about teacherpreneurs.