Last March I looked across the conference room table at the English department head, one of our building’s assistant principals, and our site’s literacy instruction specialist and dual language coordinator. The look on each of our faces mirrored the exhaustion we all felt—mentally and physically. We were edging on to 4:30pm on a Tuesday afternoon after a full day of teaching, after school meetings, and one particularly intense IEP meeting. As we prepared to plan our SBA proctoring training, testing room schedule, and reference one pager, the list of tasks to accomplish seemed to multiply with every thought—how will we launch this at our next humanities team meeting? Who will make the agenda? What will our new teachers need to know without feeling completely overwhelmed? What about our veterans? Did someone cross-reference the necessary technology with what is available in each testing room? The list goes on and on.
Sound familiar? This is the context in which many teachers find themselves, certainly at under-resourced sites such as mine. This is the work, it has to get done, and often veteran teachers and/or those with leadership titles end up supporting a lot of the work long after the school day has ended. If you are thinking to yourself this sounds like a perfect formula for burnout, then you might have spiritually joined the four of us at that table. I remember distinctly about twenty minutes into the planning time when I looked my fellow department chair in the eyes and weakly stated, “I don’t think I can do this next year,” to which he quickly acknowledged his own agreement.
What is an administrator to do? This is necessary work to be done, and the more voice and input that projects and tasks have from instructional leaders in the building, the more positive and effective the outcomes tend to be. The solution our admin team settled on, and advocated strongly for the district to support, is for four core department heads to receive a 0.2 FTE release period for instructional leadership duties and for three additional teachers to receive a 0.2 FTE release period for school culture and behavior support leadership duties. Our site used a large chunk of discretionary and building funds to provide for these release periods, but the resulting changes have been more than worth the financial cost.
Teacher leaders meet once weekly to analyze data, reflect on instructional trends and staff feedback, and design professional development accordingly for improving both school culture and instruction. These meetings are teacher-led and developed and are supported within the release period. This is the same for half of our staff’s Friday professional collaboration time; for individual coaching within our department; and for facilitating collaborative planning sessions, student work analysis protocols, and our advisory programs.
For me, personally, it has been life-changing. I now have some structured and supported time in the work day to:
Observe my peers
Provide instructional coaching
Plan intentional book purchasing and inventory that supports an ever more diverse array of reading options for our school community
Organize, plan, and prepare for site, district, and state testing
Support projects such as UW’s ForeFront in the Schools peer mentoring suicide prevention program and Seattle Arts and Lectures Writers-in-the-Schools program
In the past, all of these responsibilities might have been accomplished after school, sipping on coffee number seven, as I edged increasingly towards Burnout City. But with the release period, I have been able to still give my 110% while also maintaining a healthy work-life balance.
Hybrid roles are not a panacea, but they are an essential tool in supporting the smart retention of irreplaceable teacher leaders while simultaneously getting the work done that needs to be done. It honors my expertise and my skills, and supports my instructional leadership development without necessitating the loss of me as a classroom teacher. Do I still feel overwhelmed by that rapidly multiplying list of to-dos? Yes. Do I ever wonder about leaving the classroom and becoming an instructional coach full time or getting my administrator’s credential? Yes and yes. Do I still feel on the edge of burnout some weeks—of course, that is what happens in this job and at diverse, urban, high-poverty schools given the inequity in our public education system and the larger societal contexts I support my students in overcoming every day. But my hybrid leadership role has helped decrease each of these as much as possible.
If you believe that hybrid leadership positions can help your site (they will), I encourage you to read the policy recommendations presented in the Teachers United publication Leading from the Classroom: Hybrid Roles for Teacher Leaders released in 2018. If you would like to ask specific questions about the use of hybrid roles and what a typical week is like, feel free to reach out to me—I’ll be able to respond during my release period.