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Why I’m Happy Being ‘Just a Teacher’ (Opinion)

At a recent dinner party, surrounded by lawyers, engineers, and data scientists, I heard myself say that “I’m just a teacher.” I said it with embarrassment, knowing I was in a room full of people who earn far more money than I do.

It was a few weeks after a friend asked what I was going to do “after teaching” and my “next step.” My uncomfortable answer was that there is no next step. Becoming a teacher was my goal, and I didn’t get into this profession aiming to get out of it as quickly as possible.

Ten years into teaching, I see many of my colleagues striving for that next step—as a department head, a vice principal, a principal. I am a department coordinator, and it is a middle-leadership role I enjoy. But the downsides of it weigh on me: the paperwork, the meetings, being responsible for adults as well as for children, and most of all, being out of the classroom more than I am in it some days.

Educational leadership is a crucial role, but it is not one to which every teacher aspires. Supervising adults is very different from supervising children—for one thing, it’s much easier to be patient with a student who shows up late and doesn’t meet deadlines than it is to be patient with a colleague who behaves much the same way. And calling their parents isn’t an option!

The reality is that being an administrator is an entirely different job and in many ways requires an entirely different skill set than teaching. Being a strong teacher doesn’t necessarily mean that becoming an administrator is a natural next step in career progression.

Part of the reason that so many teachers are eager to climb the ranks of the school system is that society does not value teachers and often views teaching as little more than babysitting. We are not seen as the professionals we are, and this can lead to teachers feeling pressure to move on to leadership roles—even if, for some of us, we are happiest in the classroom.

Many of the administrators I know are open about how much they sometimes miss being a classroom teacher. This perspective has made me consider what I would lose if I stepped into a senior leadership role, in addition to what I would gain.

As teachers, we are never done learning. Every year is a fresh start, with new students with different needs. We’re constantly expanding our skill sets, adapting to new technologies, teaching the same things in different ways.

Good teachers reflect endlessly, and sometimes, as soon as we think we’ve perfected a unit, we find that the brilliant plans from last year don’t work as well with our new group of students. We don’t necessarily need a new job title to grow.

Teachers are natural-born leaders, but not all of us want to be managers. For those who are seeking other kinds of development or change, there are countless opportunities—leading a new extracurricular, participating in a professional learning community, collaborating on an interdisciplinary unit.

These might not sound impressive to people outside the teaching world, but these are the kinds of tasks that excite teachers because they let us hone our skills, bring our passions into our classrooms, and give our students those incredible light bulb moments.

When I think of what I want to do in the future, I don’t necessarily envision myself wanting a bigger leadership role. What I do know is that I want to be that veteran teacher all the new teachers look up to: a teacher who knows her content inside and out, who has such a strong grasp of pedagogy and classroom management that she can experiment with new strategies confidently, whose love for teaching hasn’t dimmed over the years.

These kinds of teachers are leaders in their own right and are role models for students and staff alike. That’s enough of a next step for me.

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