All Articles Education Path to innovation: Two teacherpreneurs reflect on the journey

Path to innovation: Two teacherpreneurs reflect on the journey

7 min read


Welcome to SmartBrief Education’s original content series about the unique stories of teacherpreneurs. These are the innovative individuals confronting challenges, creating solutions and challenging the traditional definition of “educator.”

What do a Kentucky high-school math teacher and a Colorado middle-school literacy teacher have in common? A shared passion for teacher leadership, a commitment to student-centered implementation of the Common Core and the amazing opportunity to connect and work together as virtual colleagues navigating hybrid roles during the past two school years.

Two summers ago, we connected at a Center for Teaching Quality leadership retreat for teacherpreneurs. Since then, we’ve supported, coached and challenged each other to balance teaching and leading simultaneously in our respective states.

Recently, we came together to reflect on our experiences. In the informal interview that follows, we hope our reflections encourage current and future teacherpreneurs, while providing ideas for school leaders and districts seeking to scale hybrid roles for supporting and sustaining teacher leadership efforts.

What might teachers new — or aspiring — to hybrid roles want to consider?

JC: While teaching and leading simultaneously is often characterized as “the best of both worlds,” working in a hybrid role is also a delicate balancing act which can sometimes feel like a tug-of-war between two distinct scopes of work. If you are an aspiring teacherpreneur, check out Paul Barnwell’s three tips and begin practicing flexibility in your current context.

If you are new to a hybrid role, give yourself grace and space to make mistakes, take risks and be comfortable having more questions than answers in the first year. Like classroom teaching, many days will feel well-planned, uber productive and outcome-based, while others will feel unfinished, messy and incomplete. Anthony Colucci’s “The Four I’s of Teacher Leadership” (imagination, independence, inspiration and integrity) is a powerful frame for determining what projects and opportunities offer authentic teacher leadership development. Learning what (and how) to say, “no” is as critical as tackling the “yes’s” on your hybrid-role plate.

AW: Your first year in a hybrid role is not dissimilar to your first year of teaching. Remember those simultaneous feelings of exhilaration and exhaustion? You might be so eager to try out your brand new teacher leader wings that you forget that your new opportunity will require a great deal of patience and embracing the art of “figuring things out as you go.”

Just like teaching, your hybrid role will demand that you find and use your unique voice and perspective (for this is your superpower!), and this process can take time. Be good to yourself, and don’t be discouraged if you feel like you’re not making progress. For many of us (including me), that critical process of claiming your identity as a hybrid teacher is where we learned and grew the most.

What advice would we give districts or organizations interested in scaling hybrid roles?

AW: Effective teachers have the opportunity to hone their craft over countless hours of professional learning, reflection and teaching experience. Great teachers are not “born,” and the same goes for effective leaders. There is a specific skill set that hybrid teachers have to be provided the opportunity to develop, and this takes time, support and resources.

JC: I think there are many considerations in the strategic planning phase, but my top two nonnegotiables are:

  • Let the needs of the district (or individual school) and the skill set of the teacher leader applicants drive the design of the roles.
  • Recognize that hybrid-role teachers need support, too. Coaching, mentoring and professional learning tailored to this specific community of practice is critical for success and sustainability.

The hybrid role is a career pathway but perhaps not a final destination. What might teachers with experience in hybrid roles do next?

JC: As mentioned, working in a hybrid role can often feel like two full-time jobs instead of one role with multiple parts. As I transition from a hybrid role to a full-time leadership role in my school district next year, I’m still reflecting, processing and weighing the benefits and challenges of hybrid roles. I’m looking forward to focusing my energies in one place and serving as a “dream broker” for other teacher leaders who want to create their own teacher leadership pathway. I believe teacherpreneurs are well-positioned to transition to full-time teaching, full-time leadership or design another iteration of a hybrid role depending on their skill set and the needs of their students, school or district.

AW: It’s as if you’ve tried the “just right” bowl of porridge and now have to decide between too hot and too cold.  I am still trying to figure out what this means for me, but for now I have settled on trying a full-time leadership position working with teachers in my state. Like any transition, this requires the inevitable embracing of an ending, and packing up the classroom that I have called home for over a decade was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. But my new-found “preneurial” spirit constantly challenges me to try new things. Stay tuned!

Q4: Moving forward, what will we take away from this experience?

AW: Having been a teacherpreneur, I have a better sense of who I am as a leader. I was fairly confident in my teaching abilities, but very unsure of the education world beyond Room 126 of Lafayette High School. I know now that I am rebellious and optimistic, constantly pushing boundaries and not afraid to speak to what I know is right — for the interests of my students. I know that teacher leadership is at the center of education reform, and I have a strong desire to help my colleagues find their path toward owning their roles as teacher leaders.

JC: I agree with Ali. I am a more effective teacher and a more fearless leader because of the support and implicit trust I received as a teacherpreneur. I understand what it means to be treated as a true professional, and as a result, I want all of my colleagues to have leadership and career lattice opportunities.

My main takeaway is the power of expanding our networks and connecting and collaborating virtually with educators beyond our own schools and districts. Social media experiences such as Twitter chats have reframed professional learning. Co-authoring blog posts like this one and blogging about teaching and leading experiences helped me understand the power of teachers “going public” with our stories from the field. I want to leverage these connections and experiences to support other teacher leaders to hone their voice, de-privatize their practice and publicly share their expertise.

Ali Wright (@alicrowley) is a National Board certified high-school math teacher who has divided her time between leading other teachers as a CTQ teacherpreneur and teaching algebra 2 and AP Calculus for the past two years. With 14 years of classroom experience, Ali will be taking on a new leadership role next year as Professional Learning for Educator Effectiveness coach at the Kentucky Department of Education.

Jessica Cuthbertson (@JJCuthy) is a National Board certified middle-school English language arts teacher who has served as a CTQ teacherpreneur for the past three years. A passionate educator and advocate for teacher leadership, Cuthbertson is excited to transition into the role of Teacher Leadership TOSA for Aurora Public Schools and begin to develop a Teacher Leadership Academy and career lattice of opportunities for other educators in her district. You can read more on her blog, “In A Teacher’s Shoes.”

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