We can be change leaders and help our school improve and grow. Rebecca Wattleworth, an award-winning teacher from Illinois, talks about lessons she's learned about being a change leader.
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Below is an enhanced transcript, modified for your reading pleasure. For guests and hyperlinks to resources, scroll down.
How to Be a Change Leader in Your School
Link to show: www.coolcatteacher.com/e200
Date: Friday, November 24, 2017
Vicki: Be the classroom change leader! But how can you do it when your district doesn’t have funding, and you just have so many struggles?
Well today we have with us Rebecca Wattleworth @wattleworthr. She is one of our teachers from NNSTOY, the National Network for State Teachers of the Year. They have let me come here to their conference. I’m presenting, but I’m also interviewing a lot of amazing educators.
So Rebecca, how can you be the voice when you’re struggling to have enough money to just run your classroom?
Step 1: Research Opportunities to Improve
Rebecca: You really have to be a teacher leader and seek out those opportunities to improve your professionalism, your teacher voice, your curriculum, education in your district totally.
So I research and network and find ways that I can be able to go to conferences. I seek out grants so that I can be able to bring that into my classroom for my kids.
Vicki: Give me an example.
Rebecca: I was just in Orlando. I’ve been living out of a suitcase for about three weeks. I was just in Orlando for STEM On the Farm Conference. This was a national organization that brought seventeen teachers to Orlando. I was one of those who was chosen. We were able to go down to Orlando and learn about Ag and STEM and how to connect those in the classroom.
We no longer have any of those programs in my district because of funding. I wanted to be able to bring these to the kids because I’m from central Illinois and we are surrounded by Ag, This was a way that I could learn about it because we don’t have money for professional development, either, so I can bring it back for my kids.
Vicki: OK, so some people would say, “You’re one teacher in the huge state of Illinois. How can you bring all that knowledge back to help more than just your classroom?”
Step 2: Bring Your Learning Back to Your Area
Rebecca: That’s where the networking piece comes in. There are teachers that are thirsting for the same things I am. I was just blessed to be able to be chosen to go. So I’m bringing that back to my networks within central Illinois. I’m a part of NNSTOY and also ILSTOY, so I’ve got networks all across Illinois to be able to help.
Vicki: You’re sharing your knowledge. You’re sharing what you learned. How are you doing that?
Rebecca: Actually, it’s emails to start with. Then we pick up a phone and call different people and talk to them. Actually, I’m going to be connected to the Illinois Ag in the Classroom, so through that organization, I’m going to be able to connect with other teachers as well.
Vicki: How should we be the change leader? You’re obviously a teacher. You’re a leader. You’re trying to help your classroom and others. So what’s your recommendation for teachers out there who feel like, “Well, I’m just one teacher.”
Step 3: Understand How to Be an Effective Change Leader
Rebecca: And… it just takes one person to change the world. That’s one of my favorite quotes. You just need to reach out.
Don’t ask permission anymore to just stay in your classrooms.
Search out opportunities.
Search out ways to learn.
Find networks of teachers that are making those changes. Just like NNSTOY or ILSTOY, being able to connect with those. Then your one voice is now grouped with others.
You can change. I mean, we got funding passed, in Illinois, for the first time in two-and-a-half years. So just using that one voice to start the rumble. Then you can connect, and then it becomes more.
Vicki: But every teacher is not going to be a State Teacher of the Year, right? So I might feel like, “You know, Rebecca, I am just an average teacher in my classroom.”
Rebecca: You know, to be a teacher, I would say, “Oh, you’re selling yourself short.” To be a teacher, you have to have that passion for your students. So you already have the first key.
You don’t have to be a State Teacher of the Year. Connect with other districts around you.
There are a bazillion different Twitters. Start following Twitter.
Start reading. Start talking to teachers. You don’t have to be a State Teacher of the Year. You can just be a teacher. Nobody’s average. (laughs)
Rebecca: But just start connecting, reaching out, asking questions. Find those opportunities like that STEM. Now I’m connected to sixteen other teachers from across the United States. Some of them have different strengths, and I’m going to actually ask and beg and steal so that I can be able to bring that to my classroom and to Illinois.
Vicki: OK, if you could go back to your first year of teaching and give yourself advice, what would it be?
Step 4: Start Making Change Now
Rebecca: Not to wait. I just finished my 22nd year of teaching, and I would say I spent the first fifteen years of teaching, doing what we were “supposed to do” — stay in our classroom, teach. I saw the injustice of what was occurring for some of the students. And so I started using my voice. I started pushing for that change. Not being asked for permission, but I started pushing so that I could be at the table. I want to help make these decisions. I want to use my voice because I’m the voice for my kids.
Vicki: Yeah. If not us, then who?
I mean, we have to. We’re the one who sees it. We’re the one who knows it?
How about the teachers who say, “Well, I’m afraid I’m going to lose my job. Things are really, really bad, and if I speak out, I may end up with… yeah. If I’m in my classroom, I can help. But if I speak out, then I’m out of the classroom because I’m going to lose my job.”
Rebecca: Well, the thing with the change is sometimes it’s hard, but you can do it by approaching administrators and saying, “I want to help you. We have this problem.”
As administrators, they’re usually going to know what the problem is. And you say, “I want to help solve this problem. I’ve got some ideas. What can I do to help you?”
Usually, people approach it from that aspect because they’ve got so much to do. They want to listen to you because you are that connection between the parents, the community, your students.
So they need to leverage that. They don’t have time to solve all the problems. If they can have you help them to solve the problems, and you approach it from, “This is something. You know, here’s some ideas that we came up with. Here are things I want to do to help you and the district.”
They’re not going to say no to that.
Vicki: So, Rebecca, what do you think the biggest mistake is that you made as you were developing your voice? What was that?
Step 5: Propose How to Make Things Better, Don’t Just Criticize
Rebecca: Probably it was to push — not in the positive aspect. I started out saying, “Well this is what’s wrong with the district.” But if you approach it — and I’ve learned from experiences…
Vicki: (laughs) Yeah, we all learn!
Rebecca: …and being told, yes, that you need to approach it from the aspect that, “We want to make education better for the community, the kids, the school. And I want to help this.”
So that you are the agent of change, and you are that voice. That’s how you have to approach it. And it took a couple of meetings of, “No,” and rudeness before I learned that. Definitely approach it from the aspect of you want to help to make it better.
Vicki: Some people would say, “Well, they’re stifling your voice, because there’s a lot wrong.”
Rebecca: Then you still have to push. You’re looking at however many students in your classroom, and you are working for them. Sometimes it is a hard conversation. Sometimes you’re going to have pushback.
But if you keep at it from the kids’ point of view, from the aspect that you’re advocating for them — you know, just with that reasoning, who’s going to keep telling you no? Well, there will be some, but you just keep pushing.
Vicki: Well, and I think your point of having solutions… I mean, that’s the thing.
When you’re in charge of something, you’re used to everybody criticizing. What you’re not used to is somebody saying, “OK, this is a problem, and here are a couple of solutions I think might work. And I want to help you be part of the solution.”
That’s when a good leader — or even a fair leader — will say, “Please help. Please help. This is a problem.”
Rebecca: Exactly. I think that another key is to educate yourself. You see a problem, then find those possible solutions. Start calling other teachers, other districts, finding out what they’re going to do. Then you’re able to approach your district with, “I want to help, and here are some things that I think might help to solve this.”
Vicki: Such great advice from Rebecca Wattleworth today on being a change leader.
I love where we’ve ended up, which is really, “Do your homework. Do your research.”
Yes, point out the problems, but let’s be solutions-oriented because we’re all in this together. There are people who are maybe a little bit farther along in one area, and we’re farther along in another.
So let’s get out there, and let’s be the change leaders because the kids can’t wait.
We love them and we want to help them have a great and remarkable education.
Transcribed by Kymberli Mulford
Bio as submitted
Rebecca Wattleworth, Finalist ’11 was nominated for the Herald-Review Reader’s Choice Best Teacher in Central Illinois. She serves as the Co-chairperson of the Advance Illinois Educator Advisory Committee and was a Hope Street Fellow. She teaches high school science and math at Warrensburg-Latham School District.
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