What distinguishes a professional from a technical worker? The professional works to cultivate and develop knowledge that will enrich his or her professional community and is trusted to make decisions, often made in collaboration with colleagues, about their work. The technical worker follows protocol, and is not asked to make consequential decisions.
What distinguishes a leader from a manager? A leader helps people see what’s possible by setting forth a vision and a model, and nurtures individual interests towards collectively reaching that vision. A manager keeps things running.
Kathleen Melville is a professional teacher leader. She, along with a team of dedicated, active, and transformative teachers, have been working over the last several years in to cultivate the professional knowledge, voice, and leadership of Philadelphia teachers through an organization called Teachers Lead Philly. As the communications director of this organization, Kathleen is the often one of the most public voices in the group, which defines itself as a “steward” for the teaching profession. Passionate about her work, her students, and her colleagues, Kathleen is a model for what it means to be a professional public practitioner. Below is her story, in her words:
1. Can you share a little background with us about your teaching career? For example, what brought you into teaching? What do you teach?
In the first Education class I ever took, my professor assigned Herb Kohl’s 36 Children. I stayed up the whole night reading, and by the time I finished, I knew I wanted to be an urban teacher. After college, I taught for two years at a bilingual school in Guatemala City and two years at a Friends school for students with learning differences. In 2008, I finally got my PA teaching certificate and started working in the School District of Philadelphia, teaching high school students English, Spanish, and Drama.
2. What motivates and sustains you as a teacher?
My students motivate me, and my colleagues sustain me. My students’ backgrounds are very different from mine, so I learn a lot from them every year. They challenge me to build a community where they feel safe and valued, to create lessons that are engaging and useful, and to be an authentic, caring person. My colleagues support me, energize me, and inspire me. I’m so thankful for great teachers like Steve Petro (my husband!), Alison McCartney, and Jesse Todd. Without them, I would have lost my way a long time ago!
Writing about teaching also helps sustain me. In the process of writing, I recognize how complex teaching is, why it’s so important, and why I love it so much.
3. What do you think needs to change or happen in education/schools?
On a large scale, I think two things need to happen. First, we need to start thinking of education as an investment instead of a cost, and we need to invest smarter. Right now, we spend more education dollars in rich districts and less in poor districts. We should be doing the opposite.
Second, I believe that transforming the teaching profession is key to transforming our education system. Better working conditions (smaller classes, more time to collaborate and plan, better preparation) and more opportunities for leadership will help make teaching the highly regarded and sought-after job that it ought to be. And with practicing teachers at the helm of educational change, policy at all levels (from individual schools to entire school systems) will be more aligned with students’ needs and classroom realities.
4. What is something that you are passionate about as a teacher/learner and how do you incorporate it into your teaching?
I love drama, and it tends to fit really well into my English and Spanish curricula. Some of my best experiences with students have involved writing plays, performing scenes, or taking trips to the theater. I also lead the Drama Club and love the process of building a community and a production with a small group of students.
5. What groups, individuals, or networking contexts have supported you in your work? How?
Lisa Smulyan, Professor of Education at Swarthmore College, has been my mentor for over ten years; collaborating with her continues to enrich my life and work as an educator. The Philadelphia Writing Project and Philadelphia Young Playwrights were both contexts that encouraged me to take risks as an educator, develop my teacher identity through writing, and connect with inspiring colleagues like Marsha Pincus, Sam Reed, and Josh Block.
Over the last few years, improving the education system has become as important to me as improving my practice, and Teachers Lead Philly is the context that allows me to develop as a leader and an advocate for my students and colleagues.
6. What advice can you share with new teachers just entering the field?
Accept that it’s going to be really hard. If you’re like me, you won’t feel competent very often in the first five years. Teaching is intellectual and creative, personal and political, social and cultural. Its complexity is what makes it so rich but also so difficult to do well. Find allies who will support you and share your vision; even though it adds hours to my day, my time with my colleagues is what feeds me and keeps me going.
**About Transformative Teacher Profiles: TTPs are meant to “flip the script” and offer a counter-narrative to negative and dehumanizing stereotypes about teachers. Here you’ll read about truly transformative teaching, leadership, and inspiring work. The format is simple: I ask six questions of each teacher that I profile about their teaching and learning. If you know of amazing teachers that I should profile, please write me a comment below or send me a tweet about them!**