On a gray July morning, I embarked on a bike ride along the Potomac River. The winding and gravely trails reminded me of my journey in becoming a teacher leader.
Being a teacher leader means taking ownership of my practice, collaborating with peers, and advocating for ideas that make education equitable and sustainable. To me, riding a bicycle represents freedom, independence, and joy. Like being a teacher leader, it engages my entire being; the coordination of my thoughts and energy, the alignment of my focus and spirit to a clear goal, all my exertion moving me forward. I must function as one unit in order to keep going. However, neither riding bikes nor teaching was always this synchronized, fluid.
The first years of teaching were similar to the first times learning how to ride a bike. Mentors guided me by holding onto the seat, giving encouragement, feedback; training wheels were set to allow me to balance - the theories and strategies I learned in school, and then I was on my own. I struggled, and I fell. What I did not expect was the toll I was taking on myself for falling, failing. There were times after falling I just laid on the ground. I had the skills, but I did not have the experience nor the self-forgiveness – the experience of navigating roads with cars, of reaching students with emotional problems, of maintaining balance, of what it means to build relationships with kids.
As I laid on the ground, I watched the cars hum by in their set path, following one car after another - the education consultant job with a 9 to 5 schedule, the scripted curriculum. The allure of something different, easy, comfortable beckoned me to admire it; the education job at an arts organization that humanized learning, the air-conditioning and GPS system that told me where to go. Then the honks of horns filled my ears and the smell of exhaust wafted into my nose to wake me from my daze. I blinked and opened my eyes to the side effects of how taking the easy road takes terrible tolls on the environment, on students - quick-fix strategies for obtaining obedience, oversimplified “school reform” options. Drops of rain from the grey landscape jolted me awake to the trail ahead despite the appeal of staying in that desperate stupor.
The first drops of rain that I felt were like my experiences in the Philadelphia Writing Project, where I took a break to regroup with other teachers; to write for and about my life. What did it mean to be a teacher? What was my experience as a student? How does my identity affect my work? What does it mean to use inquiry in the classroom? These questions floated around me like the wispy ends of the weeping willows along the trail, teasing me, drawing me out to find my teacher voice.
From that much-needed break, I got back on the bicycle and changed gears, cruising to a better school year on the side of the trail where ducks in the river congregated in a peaceful mound of mud, to green lush grass that lined the path. My students were engaged, learning, and connected with me. In the turn ahead, I noticed a wooden bridge, the soft thuds and loud clanging, startled me. The irritation I felt in my hands was the irritation I was feeling from the pressures of the outside: standardized testing, funding crises, teacher evaluation mandates that forced me out of my individual complacency.
As I pushed forward despite the irritation, I noticed other bikers, other teachers like those in Teachers Lead Philly, who are forging ahead, allowing me to see the possibilities beyond my school walls, myself. On my next ride, adventure, obstacle, I will be joined by others to continue the conversation of teacher leadership, the next road and trail - before the sounds of cars, drown us out.