By Charlie Bartsch
I almost wasn’t a teacher. Don’t get me wrong, I knew I wanted to be a teacher since the fifth grade, but I had a cooperating teacher that told me every day that I would never become a teacher. She never explained why that was, but simply insisted on screaming at me and demoralizing me each time I entered her seventh-grade classroom in Lincoln, Nebraska. She went so far as to call me at my home to tell me to “get my act together”. I remember struggling to re-word my instructions so that the students could understand, but guidance from a mentor was needed, not ridicule. Little did she know that throughout my entire life I had been proving disbelievers wrong. I am driven to prove that I can indeed accomplish what others say is not attainable for me. My experience with a demoralizing and discouraging mentor has shaped how I teach and mentor. My educational and leadership philosophies are built upon empathy and asking questions because I never want to make anyone else feel the devastation of being told they could not achieve their dreams. Assisting others to work through their difficulties and weaknesses is so much more effective than making them feel terrible about their mistakes. This approach to mentorship is essential to working with other humans, both young and experienced.
Now, almost twenty years later, I have more than proven my dedication to my craft and to the people who depend on me. I moved to Kansas when my husband got a job with Koch Industries. It was during this transition that I learned what true compassion looks like through my colleagues and peer consultant.
My evolution began at Southeast High School where I learned that empathy and consistency are the tools to connect with the students. Through these connections, another teacher and I decided the freshmen needed some assistance in adjusting to high school. We created a freshmen advocacy program to 1) help new high schoolers gain the knowledge they needed to be successful in high school and 2) provide leadership opportunities to the upperclassmen who taught the underclassmen the lessons. Throughout the process of this project, my leadership skills were put to the test. We not only had to convince the building and district leadership that the program was worth pursuing, but also the staff that it wouldn’t be more work for them. We took on the duties of creating all the lessons, training the upperclassmen, and monitoring to make sure those students did a good job.
Developing this curriculum and developing the program really helped me to refine my language at each level of our system and emboldened me to stand up for what I knew to be good for our students. After five years in the classroom, I left Southeast because I was asked to apply for a Peer Consultant position. I spent five wonderful years mentoring first-year teachers and planning professional learning (PL). I know it sounds strange to say that I enjoy offering PL, but I have sat through enough irrelevant professional learning that being able to offer current and relevant learning for teachers is exciting and refreshing. Being a peer consultant is the position that taught me the most about how to best support teachers.
Learning to assess a situation and offer feedback without being too harsh or too soft was a tricky subject. Teachers have good and bad days and first-year teachers have more bad than good. When offering feedback they often get defensive, but that defensiveness can be fear, feelings of helplessness, and frustration. Listening becomes the best tool to get to the heart of what is really going on. Teachers need to be heard and most of the time that is enough. Many times, just by talking through a problem or frustration with someone else, the teacher is able to arrive at their own solution. This type of listening and leadership is true guidance - not offering advice, but leading others to their own conclusions.
I use all of these skills in my current position as department chair at Northwest High School. I guide my team of amazing teachers with empathy and perspective. All of the teachers in the department are capable, experienced, caring educators that will do what needs to be done for the good of the students. The only leadership needed is advocacy and positivity. Backing them up when a parent complains or fighting for a new course or program they want to offer helps to build a strong team that works together and supports one another. Collaboration and teamwork is essential in our profession because teaching cannot be done in isolation.
The staff at Northwest are not the only progressive and caring teachers in the field. I have found through conferences and connections with teacher friends in other states that Kansas educators as a whole are some of the most progressive and caring individuals in our country. This progressiveness needs to be reflected in how they are treated by their leaders. For instance, the secondary school system needs to get away from the seniority model for choosing course loads and positions held. These things should be based on skill and the department chair cannot put themselves first in line. First, ask each teacher what they would like to teach the following year. Then, take into account each teacher’s special skills and where those would best be utilized. Build the department chair’s schedule last. That’s right. Take what is left after the teachers have been served. Whatever is needed. This ensures that the teachers are supported by showing them that their leader is willing to take a turn at the difficult classes so that they can have a lighter load. Chairs also tend to have lots of teaching experience. This means they may have more skills to deal with a difficult set of students than a new teacher would. The trend that first-year teachers always get freshmen classes which consist of learners with special needs must change. Give the most inexperienced teachers classes that will serve their individual needs. For instance, if they have great content knowledge but need help with management, give them older students that will go along with them when they try out new management strategies. Seniority cannot be the sole determiner. This is only one example of how to support fellow teachers.
Another way for leaders to support teachers is to disseminate information from the other layers of our system efficiently and effectively. The attitude of a leader directly affects those in his/her sphere of influence. The leader does not need to just buy-in and be disingenuous, but they must listen to concerns and work with the team on finding workable additions to take the initiative or behavior work for their students and staff. The teachers look to their leader for guidance on how to react. They need to know they will be supported regardless of how they feel about the task at hand. I want my colleagues, student interns, parents, and building leadership to understand that I will always advocate for my department’s best interest. In turn, the teachers feel empowered to make the professional decisions they need to make every day. Titles are not necessary in order to be a leader in the teaching profession. Each teacher should be encouraged to take on leadership roles within the system: classroom, building, district, state. This allows teachers to advocate for their students’ needs to a larger forum. Teachers have a voice and should use it to benefit the children sitting in front of them each day. This then starts a chain reaction where students also get the opportunity to see what true leadership is and how they too can be leaders.
In conclusion, what I am saying is that teaching is leadership. And in order to be a teacher leader you need to take calculated risks, pay close attention to your own behavior, and always keep others in mind. I have high expectations for those that I work with and they rise to those expectations because they know I will support them when they need it. Leading with empathy and open ears has continued to serve me well. My student teaching experience has shaped how I treat others and encouraged me to take on leadership roles to help support teachers who need it. All teachers are leaders. All leaders make an impact. Make sure that impact is a positive one.
About the Author
Charlie Bartsch teaches sophomore and senior English and AVID at Northwest High School in Wichita, KS. She has taught in the district for 18 years. She loves helping students and other teachers continue their learning.
Facebook: Charlotte Bartsch
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