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I have been a educator for over fifteen years. I began as a middle school math and science teacher and eventually enjoyed eight years as a math teacher specialist (a teacher who supports other math teachers). However, at the end of the 2017-2018 school year I made a very challenging decision and filed paperwork to take a leave of absence from Downey Unified School District, where I’ve worked for the last 13 years.

I am fortunate that I will continue to work in math education and already have plans to work regularly with schools, teachers, and students. However, this change will give me more time to develop other ideas in education that I’ve wanted to explore.

I felt like writing a blog post would be a good opportunity for me to pause and reflect on these last eight years. As with all of what I write, I share my thoughts partly because I hope it will help others and partly as a way to process my own experiences. So, here is what I have learned from being a math teacher specialist…

 

It’s About Relationships
When I began my job as a math teacher specialist, I expected the job to be primarily about teaching others how to improve math instruction (side note: at that point I had no clue how little I knew about math instruction myself). While helping others improve their math instruction is certainly part of the job, what I didn’t realize was that it was a minor role.

It’s really about relationships. Relationships are the glue of society. Without them, significant progress rarely happens. It’s similar to the adage that students don’t learn from teachers they don’t like. Teachers don’t learn from colleagues they don’t like. We have to listen to each other and build trust. Teachers have a lot on their plates. Whether it’s a first-year high school teacher who’s expected to spend 15 hours a week coaching a team, a 5th year teacher who still doesn’t have tenure and is afraid of trying something new that might make her look bad, or a veteran teacher who is dealing with dire family situations outside of her control, these are situations that matter.

I naively thought I could just meet a teacher and tell him or her what to do. In retrospect, I realize that this would be like a doctor meeting a new patient and immediately prescribing a treatment plan. It’s critical for the doctor to listen to her patient and establish trust. It took me years to realize this and years more to establish those relationships. I believe that it is usually worth taking the time to build relationships. This is the equivalent to taking time to build a superhighway versus a single lane road. It might take more time up front to build but it will result in significantly more information being able to transfer between the two people in the long run.

 

You Need To Be Part Of A Team
One of the best parts of my job was that I was part of a small team of educators who brought experience and perspective I was sorely lacking. They gave me countless ideas to consider and pushed back when I needed to think about something differently. Prior to working with them, I was impulsive. When I had an idea, I wanted to implement it right away. However, they forced me to slow down and be strategic. They frequently saved me from myself by telling me what I needed to hear, not what I wanted to hear. I also loved just listening to them. I learned about what mattered to them, how they thought about it, and how they interacted with each other. Being a part of this high functioning team was one of the most important experiences in my career, and I highly recommend it for all teacher specialists.

 

It Can Also Be Lonely
Being a teacher specialist is kind of like being in purgatory. You aren’t really a classroom teacher (and so teachers don’t see you as one of them) nor are you an administrator (and so administrators don’t see you as one of them either). Accordingly, it can be hard not having someone to spend time with and relate to. While your school district or organization might have other people in your same role, you are often spread out at sites working. So, time with peers to decompress and share stories can be rare. It’s one of those things you take for granted when you have it (at a school site) but miss when it’s gone. For what it’s worth, I believe that administrators experience something similar.