Stretch yourself


Forty-seven years ago this month I began my teaching career. Over those years the challenges and opportunities of teaching, learning, leadership, and public education gradually became a part of my daily consciousness, whether I was “on the job” or not.

I started teaching in 1968 in a high school with team teaching and modular scheduling that allowed for the flexible grouping of students, which by their very nature immediately engaged me in collaboration and job-embedded professional learning, although both terms would have been foreign to me at that time.

In 1972 I was invited to participate in designing and implementing a public alternative high school for “disaffected youth.” I had not heard the term “teacher leader,” nor was I aware how rare it was for a teacher to be meaningfully engaged in creating such a school.

In 1978 I became director of a teacher center, again as a teacher leader. A year later I became a member of the National Staff Development Council (now Learning Forward).

I did not then know how my career was being subtly and irrevocably shaped by this succession of important and rare opportunities.

And in 1984 I became executive director of NSDC, a part-time position with an organization that at that time had just a few hundred members. For the next 23 years I had  the privilege of meeting outstanding educators from around the world and abundant opportunities to think deeply about professional learning.

What all of these things had in common is that they stretched me in ways I could not have anticipated and often did not desire. And, because I often worked outside my comfort zone, the fear of failure was a constant companion.

While I had not yet heard of the “impostor syndrome,” I lived it daily.

And in each setting —an innovative high school, an alternative program, a teacher center, and NSDC — I benefited from the support of respected colleagues who offered encouragement and mentoring along the way.

So what would I say to a teacher near the beginning of his or her career?

Look for and be open to opportunities and mentors who will challenge and stretch you. If you do, I predict that you will have a rich and fulfilling professional journey. I wish you well wherever you may be along that road….

17 Responses to “Stretch yourself”

  1. 1 Jamie September 2, 2015 at 6:16 am

    Deinnis, It’s so interesting to read about your journey in education. Your advice to new teachers is wise. I believe there are mentors in every school and I too benefitted from those powerful relationships. I taught in three different school districts in my first three years of teaching because new and innovative opportunities kept presenting themselves to me. I never gave a thought to staying in that first district to acquire tenure more quickly. I often imagine how my career might have been different if I had.

  2. 3 Mary Magness Gaworecki September 2, 2015 at 7:41 am

    I, for one, am very glad that you started that school for ‘disaffected youth’. Those were my best high school days. You and John saved a lot of kids. I learned a lot in that short year. Thank-you and John too. Oh, and Robin Caza says “HI”….

  3. 5 Peggy Dickerson September 2, 2015 at 9:43 am

    You have truly been an inspiration and mentor in my professional journey. As I stretched into my discomfort zone.within NSDC and particularly the Academy experience, your words of wisdom both spoken and written have inspired, challenged, and deepened my thinking and practices. As I encourage other new teacher leaders and administrators in our field who are also living the “imposter syndrome, please know that your influence and the way you have lived your professional life continues to drive the inner passions to become what students needs for us to be. Thank you!

    • 6 Dennis Sparks September 2, 2015 at 10:48 am

      Your thoughtful response is deeply appreciated, Peggy! We never know for sure what traces we leave behind on our professional and life journeys, but those of us who have chosen education as a career are more fortunate than most because of the many ways we can make a positive difference in the lives of both young people and adults.

  4. 7 Syndee Malek September 2, 2015 at 12:54 pm

    Congratulations! AND…THANK YOU for being that mentor, encourager, and forgive me “stretcher.” Your blog has been that to me as I find my way…

    Syndee Malek
    Education Services Leadership Consultant
    Office: 734.334.1440
    Cell: 734.748.8040

  5. 9 Justin Baeder (@eduleadership) September 2, 2015 at 3:57 pm

    Great reflections on an inspiring career. Harry Wong says in The First Days of School that you can have any job you want in education within 3-5 years. He’s right.

    On the other hand, you can keep the job you have for the rest of your career if you’d prefer…and if you do, growth is just as important.

  6. 11 Joan Vydra September 2, 2015 at 6:11 pm

    As always, Dennis, your comments are “spot on.” I don’t think I’ve ever thanked you all you did for NSDC and for me, especially, because you understood the role of culture from the very beginning. You’re an awesome educator!

    • 12 Dennis Sparks September 2, 2015 at 6:45 pm

      I feel so privileged, Joan, to have had the opportunity to work with you and so many wonderful educators across the years. And I am grateful today to have heard from so many former students and colleagues here and on other sites and through personal email. It was not what I anticipated when I wrote this little remembrance…

  7. 14 daynarichardson45 September 3, 2015 at 5:06 pm

    So true. Each stop on my educational journey brought me face-to-face with the “imposter syndrome.” And each lead to another more and exciting opportunity. LF (NSDC) and you have fed my soul for 30+ years, always inspiring me to climb another mountain and see another amazing view! True leadership!
    Thanx, Dennis

  8. 16 Tom De Bello September 8, 2015 at 11:33 am

    Sharing your professional journey is not only supportive and encouraging, but as many other have remarked, inspiring. Thank you and keep the posts coming!! Tom

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 4,778 other followers



Recent Twitter Posts