Theme of the month

Theme of the Month

Join us each month as we focus on a topic of interest to STEM Teacher Leaders with a webinar panel, open discussion, resources and blog post. 

Introduction: Leading Without Leaving the Classroom

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Full Name
William O'Brien

My own journey as a classroom mathematics teacher probably began over thirty years ago, around age fifteen. I didn’t realize it then, but the dopamine rush I got as I helped a classmate finally “get” a Euclidean geometry proof had hooked me- I loved guiding others to see the beautiful connections inherent in mathematics.

When it came time to apply for college, I was fortunate to find some Maine loan programs which would be forgiven if I were to teach for a few years after graduation. As the end of my college days neared, I dutifully sent off my cover letter and resume to any Maine public school with a mathematics opening. As a not-yet-college graduate with a math major and few education courses, I wasn’t the most desirable candidate, but I found a few schools willing to look at me, and by a twist of fate, the principal of one of these schools was departing for a school in Switzerland… and offered me a position teaching there instead.

So, at the age of twenty-two, my first passport in hand, I departed for my teaching job. In that initial year, I discovered some truths. First, I loved travelling and exploring new places. Second, I loved the rhythm of an academic year. And third, I still loved the thrill of making mathematics come alive for my students and yet I now knew that effective teaching is really (really, really) hard.

I vowed to myself in those first years teaching that I would seek out opportunities to discover what the best teachers knew- how to motivate, how to engage, how to build resilience and grit in their students. And for me, this meant avoiding or turning down offers or positions that took me away from the mathematics classroom. Instead, I sought workshops and conferences where I could work with other colleagues who were seeking to perfect their craft; I wanted to spend time observing in the classrooms of those teachers whose students lit up around them.

I did not return to the United States to finally teach in Maine until I was thirty-five, and by that time, I had discovered the more I learned how to reach my students, the more I realized how much I still needed to figure out; classroom teaching is an ideal profession for a lifelong learner who is always seeking new and better ways of doing things.

I also discovered that, unlike the rather egalitarian teaching environment of international schools, U.S. teachers navigate within a framework that does not always afford them the respect they deserve. I note this because had I wrestled with the challenges of my early years of teaching within this context, I might not have remained in education.

My decade teaching in Maine public schools provided me the opportunity to continue to hone my craft while my young family shifted and grew. I embraced the truism that as long as I continued to evolve slowly, the net result would be great. During this time, I also accepted that I had become a leader, albeit one “from the trenches:” mentoring new teachers, serving on school improvement committees, presenting at workshops. My fellow teachers and administrators sought my perspective as a dedicated and effective classroom teacher.

I chose to accept one leadership role outside of the classroom during my time teaching in Maine public schools: working with the International Baccalaureate. The short time away from my students every few months was challenging, but I knew that they also gained each time I traveled to the United Kingdom and spent a weekend talking mathematics assessment and pedagogy with colleagues. I returned from these trips energized and enthusiastic, ready to jump back into the classroom routine.

I am now in my twenty-sixth year of classroom teaching, and I’m protective of the balance between my professional and personal lives. My mantra when deciding whether to take on a new commitment has become “if it’s not a resounding yes, it’s a no.” My career path has afforded me this luxury.

Last year, I taught at Green School, a progressive school nestled in the jungle of Bali, Indonesia. Although completely out of my element, I took the plunge both for my family and for my own learning. Teaching in wall-less classrooms, challenged to ensure that all that I taught was relevant and meaningful, I couldn’t help but evolve. By the end of the year, I was helping my middle school and high school colleagues revamp our curriculum as we decided which topics deserved to fit in each six week exploration block.

This academic year, I am teaching at Proctor Academy where my daughter has started her high school journey. It is the first since early in my career that I have stepped into a formal department chair role, and I am doing so because it “feels right” as my contribution at this particular school, and it fits with where I am personally and professionally.

I am looking forward to Thursday’s webinar, as the stories of each of our paths through education inspire and guide my own journey. I have a few questions for those of you engaging in this conversation. You can provide your experiences by commenting on this blog, or posting to the facilitated discussion.

  • If you are early in your career in education, what would you like the You at the end of your career to observe about the leadership opportunities where you said “yes” and those where you said “no”?
  • If you are further along in your career, what do you wish you could tell your twenty-something-year-old self about the leadership opportunities to come?
  • As we conclude our season of Thanksgiving, knowing the importance of gratitude for mental health, what leadership opportunities are you most grateful for thus far in your own career?
  • Teaching in Bali brought me out of my comfort zone and provided me with leadership opportunities developing curricula and introducing new programs that I had not expected. What are you doing that’s a little edgy, a little risky, that might put you in a non-traditional leadership role?
  • Effective leaders stay fresh and innovative and that takes energy. What do you do to model balance between personal and professional life for your students and colleagues?
  • How do you manage the tension between meeting the many and varied needs of the students in your classroom and yet still having the space to grow and develop professionally as a STEM teacher leader?

See you this Thursday, December 5th at 7:30 pm EST for our Expert Panel: Leading Without Leaving the Classroom webinar, and please join in our facilitated discussion that starts today.