The final session of the first class of candidates in the NJEA Teacher Leader Academy (TLA) met on Dec. 19. Successful completion of the yearlong program, which concludes with an evaluation by an external review board, leads to TLA candidates receiving the teacher leader endorsement on their teacher certification.
Teacher leadership offers a paradigm shift that not only allows teachers to support their peers from a nonevaluative position, but also to influence the entire system. Teacher leadership gives educators a voice at the decision-making table on instructional issues at the school and district levels.
“I continue to hold that the ones who make the best decisions about schools are the ones closest to kids,” said Richard Wilson. “The phrase ‘leading from the classroom’ should not be a cliché.”
The entire TLA Class of 2020 met for the first time on Jan. 23. Throughout 2020, they met with regional study groups on a weekly basis and monthly as a whole group. With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, meetings moved into a virtual space, but otherwise continued uninterrupted.
Wilson asked candidates bring to the final session an artifact that represented their journey throughout the year. The artifacts were as diverse as the candidates and revealed their personal and professional growth over the course of the year: a passport, a song, a baseball bat, a glass butterfly, kosher salt, a figure of a lighthouse, olive oil, and a mirror among others.
Sharon Ortiz, a Family and Consumer Sciences in West Orange had brought the butterfly.
“I had anticipated growth, but my metamorphosis was stronger than I expected,” Ortiz said. “I thought a leader was one person forging ahead and if you’re alone that’s OK. But that’s not OK. It’s about collective efficacy. I feel like a monarch now, and I am ready to soar.”
“I used to think leadership was a seat at the table, and I have had seats at lots of tables,” said Charlene Gerbig, and elementary school teacher in Closter and vice president of the Closter Education Association. “Now I know it’s about building your own table and bringing others to it.”
Nicole Jacinto, a teacher in Union Township, described teacher leadership as a beacon.
“I don’t have to be the rescue boat,” Jacinto said. “But the light guiding people to find their own way to the harbor.”
Megan King, a teacher in Passaic City, noted her evolving understanding of leadership.
“At the beginning of the program I thought I was a leader already—it was about me,” King said. “I now see leadership as developing trust and holding space for others. I used to tell others what to say. Now I see leadership as giving others the opportunity to use their voice.”
Lateefah Scott, a teacher in Atlantic City, displayed a Zoom background of her looking at herself in the mirror. She explained that self-reflection led her to consider the type of leadership she wants to project.
“You might think that you are projecting one thing as a leader, but others see it differently,” Scott said. “You have to have trust in people for them to trust you.”
Syreeta Primas, a teacher in Pleasantville, brought the olive oil.
“There is a crushing that has to take place to get the essence out of what is in the olive,” Primas said. “Over this time there has been some pressing, in a good way, to get the essence out of us. The press had made us stronger. It has made us pool our resources to find the things that we didn’t know were in our reservoir. I’ve learned that we can’t give up. We can’t stop, even when there’s opposition. I believe the change is going to come from people like us and how we empower other people. Keep pressing. Don’t stop. This is just the beginning of our journey.”
TLA Administrative Assistant