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April 19, 2021

Vulnerability = Online Teacher Leadership

After finishing the 11-week book study Making Number Talks Matter in late December, I began reflecting on the experience of helping to co-construct and co-facilitate #MNTMTch.

Getting Better TogetherMy “normal” teaching day has seven periods with roughly 135 students. I rarely talk to other teachers — beyond a Friday afternoon collaborative session — and my experience with teacher leadership is still in its infancy.

As fellow Teaching Channel Laureate Kristin Gray and I planned the book study, I was nervous to go public with my practice via social media, which was one of the channels we’d use for interacting with participants. In the first place, I literally joined Twitter three months before the book study began and felt a little late to the party! Would I be able to lead with such a small following in an online space?

Second, since I don’t get into other teachers’ classrooms very often to watch them teach, I had doubts that my instructional suggestions would be appropriate for a particular teacher. How could I speak from a place of authority?

Finally, I’ve been a private person online, and was protective and afraid to show my insecurities. Feeling pretty beaten down in the profession, I worried that more criticism would cause me to wallow in negativity.

Ironically, leading an online book study provided the exact opposite experience. Via Twitter, Facebook and Teaching Channel Teams, I connected with teachers like @KhatriMath from around the world.

Making Number Talks Matter Book Study Tweet from Ms. Kahtri

I watched as they attempted number talks for the first time in their classrooms. I read their blog posts and heard their personal reflections.

Together, we relearned mathematics. As most of us were products of traditional algorithm-based teaching, Making Number Talks Matter thrust us into the role of learner as we made sense of various mathematical strategies. Number Talks unified us in that way, despite our varying grade levels.

Over time, I gained a few more Twitter followers and people actually started responding when I would ask a question. As the support grew, I began to feel my confidence grow as well. I started to see myself capable of leading online, and began to celebrate my accomplishments rather than feeling negative about my inadequacies.

Yet I still needed to find my own leadership niche in this online space. I decided I wasn’t comfortable speaking from a place of authority on number talks. I decided that providing an example to be critiqued felt much more authentic to my style. Author Dr. Ruth Parker stepped in to provide face-to-face feedback and critique.

She answered my questions and gave me tips for improving my practice. She was open to push back yet grounded in her principles and thoughts. I felt honored. I had gotten personalized feedback from one of math’s greatest teachers. I realized that Ruth made the several-hours drive to meet with me because she believed in me. This realization reminded me of a quote from Teaching Channel Laureate Emeritus Sarah Brown Wessling:

Sarah Brown Wessling quote

I used Ruth’s feedback the very next day. I told my students what she had told me to improve upon and was transparent with them about my personal goals. The experience with Ruth was one of the first times that I saw critique as valuable and essential to my improvement.

My nerves were starting to ease.

In the end, leading a collaborative group online has been a tremendously positive experience. My worry about negative feedback and comments did not materialize. Disagreements were handled by all with care and respect. Even Kristin and I were able to work through differences of opinion when they arose, by seeing our commonly shared interests and letting each other work within our own strengths. Moreover, watching the teacher participants become leaders in their own buildings through number talks, was affirming for me and empowering for them. This experience clearly made an impact on others.

Being given the space to explore, fail, learn, and grow allowed me to develop what I now describe as leadership through vulnerability. I had finally found my voice in the online community.


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