Teacher-Leader & Other Words I Make Up

This past year, 2021, was not my best year as a blogger. I somehow wrote thousands of words, however. Just not here. Close to having a draft of a book, this girl. A Memoir.

No, really. It’s a memoir. 

I am the closest I’ve ever been to finishing a book. Let’s hope I live to be 146 so I can finish the other four books I have in my head. Writing that took place during a global pandemic, heat waves that melted glaciers, forest fires, and catastrophic floods in an area that I love. Daily life is filled with chaos and horror where we all just press on with business as usual. Writing, most days, feels like the only thing I can control. La vie continue.

I count myself among the lucky.

What I would like to share here is a follow-up response to a question. I will try to tell you a few stories to help some researchers and I’ll end with a short, short story that I wrote.

First, let me say, thank you, researcher friends, for finding me and letting me chat your ear off for an hour. It was pretty refreshing to share ideas with strangers who had interesting questions. It was lovely to think Big Picture and lift my eyes towards the horizon again.

Apparently I used the phrase “teacher-leader” during our chat. So poetic! In fact, when I read the request to say more about it, I was like, “Wow! I said that?”

I have to admit I have no idea where that phrase–teacher-leader–originates in my brain. Look at me making things up! Allow me to use a phrase and then not have the energy to do a single bit of research.

Call it poetry. Then I’m off the hook to pretend like I care, right? I’ve decided to do research for academic publishing once the federal government stops harassing me about my school loans. In other words, I plan to haunt some future writer from beyond my grave. Ninety years from now after I write my four other books.

This Teacher-Leader phrase, to be honest, has filled my thoughts quite a bit. A few questions come to mind.

What do I mean when I say “teacher-leader”–and most horribly, was I one when I was a teacher? Is it fair of me to look back and judge the teacher I was? I feel very far away from being a teacher.

So far, in fact, when I am asked to talk about my teacherly experience, I feel like I am gossiping about another woman. Somebody who used to dress better than I do now. Somebody who had a hair style. Somebody I used to know. A day in the life. Was another lifetime one of toil and blood. Where I came in from the wilderness, a creature void of form. Another day, in other words, when I might have cared if I was plagiarizing song lyrics.

Also, in my short career as an administrator, how did I treat “teacher-leaders?” How have I interacted with them as whatever the fuck I am now?

Three stories come to mind where I’ll change the details slightly, not reference any organization, and hopefully make myself laugh. Everything I write beyond this sentence may or may be not be true.

A Memoir.

Researchers, you can add any of this to our interview. I’m really interested in your project, and I also promised you I would unearth my old thoughts on teacher creativity. Here is a talk that I gave that I really should finish with some research. Here is where I blathered a keynote about change management. And here’s my working hypothesis about adjuncts and their labor conditions, which are also student learning conditions.

Ready? Ok, Magic Machine, let’s see if we remember how the bloggy works.

Let’s start with the question of what a teacher-leader is. 

This is a person who has no ambition to be anything else but a teacher. She might catch the hot potato to be department chair and lead an initiative here and there, but mostly she’s engaged with the business of teaching. She likes students. She cares. She has empathy for the impressionable minds she works with; she likes to collaborate. Most importantly, she’s a life-long learner and her curiosity leads her beyond the scope of her discipline. If you don’t already know, my beat is the community college. I’m somewhat interested in regional publics, very bored by R1s, bewildered by privates. Endlessly fascinated by community colleges, technical schools, and any programs that help students without safety nets get a job and/or to improve their lives. My Commonwealth colleagues have the best title for this beat: The Trades. Give me the open-door policy, scarce budgets, programs connected to blue-collar jobs with more problems than you can solve; and I’d like to think I’m your girl.

I may have been a teacher-leader in a situation that I don’t talk about too much these days. I’ll whisper in your ear a secret: I got into educational technology as an environmentalist. Put simply, I saw an open (hee hee) to reduce handouts and thus lowering the budget for the dean of my division while saving a few trees. A small local tangible goal connected to very interesting technologies. My department had a heavy hand on the college’s print budget so I looked ways to Reduce paper–my R before I knew there were others. I learned about all of the things that currently helps me do a job I now have. Lucky me. All things considered, I’m quite grateful to my former teacher-leader self. At that time, however, I did not see myself as a leader. I was a teacher trying to do some good in the world by saving some trees and money for students. It also gave me a free-ish ride to professional development events we used to call “conferences.”

For me, back then, in The Before Times, being a teacher-leader was pure selfish creativity that helped me get funding to learn. In short, I was curious and easily bored, and I got to travel to different cities, meet like-minded people, and present ideas that other people found interesting. I loved it. Helped me out of the doldrums of teaching the same class over and over. Sustained me until it was a life no longer sustainable. 

Take a look at any long-term change with your campus culture. Chances are it was a teacher-leader who did work outside of her discipline to help things along. For example, my former self connected ways to learn interesting things about open-source projects and small initiatives that brought me to professional development and instructional design. In the Before Times, we had time for circuitous playful self-serving curiosity. Before we were all so fucking exhausted by the pace of change.

Teacher-leaders these days? Probably very exhausted.

My teacher and leader and staff friends, I say this to you, if you need to hear it: do not feel bad for anything you are not doing, love yourself for everything you are doing, and just keep walking forward. Working in education has always been hard; it’s somehow even more difficult than I could have ever imagined. What I write here is a reflection, not advice on what to do next. This I do not know.

This I cannot tell you. Just look down at your boots and keep walking. Or take a nap. 

Here’s the second story that came to mind about the teacher-leader.

What if the teacher-leader is an administrator? (A Memoir). What if winter was always coming with her checking account and that euphemism of “being off contract” started to feel like the tangible unemployment it is? What if “in between contracts” means you will not be paid for three weeks of the month? Let me whisper this in your ear, those administrators are teachers at heart but they most likely made a financial decision to move up the pay scale. They see themselves as caring about the business of teaching and learning, but they have budgets and spreadsheets and meeting agendas centered on the business of the college. Not ideal, but they also have a consistent paycheck and a contract. They lose the “teacher” and just become the “leader,” I suppose. It’s really hard job. If I had to give advice to teacher-leader-administrators right now, I would say to seek out two types of God-tier leaders. One who is interested in the idea of a legacy, and/or one who is really fucking tired and needs a win. They are usually one and the same, so let me parse a slight difference.

The Save My Legacy Administrator probably made a bad call that is now way outside of the zeitgeist. I can’t write about any examples that I can publish without worry, so I’ll write a sentence that I hope helps you see this administrator in a new light. If you can, envision this person with empathy. We’ve all made mistakes. Some more public than others. Some more private than others. Finish this sentence to find the leader on your campus:

Dr. OutsideTheZeitgest does not want to be remembered as the leader who did not support_________.

There is one on every campus.

As for the teacher-leader who became an administrator and needs a win? Ask what they need for their accreditation report or for the next budget planning session. Really fucking boring, but a win. Low hanging fruit maybe. And most importantly, connect a policy or an initiative that actually helps students succeed. There can be creativity with end-of-the-year reports, substantiating budgets, and planning future initiatives. Do I have specific advice for you? No. Take a nap or take a walk. Everyone’s so exhausted. Disappear into a book for a few hours. It helps. I don’t mean to be flippant here. I just have no answers for you. There is no playbook for what we are living through.

The third story that comes to mind is the teacher-leader who likes to collaborate outside of his discipline. There is so much opportunity for cross-discipline collaboration, and I bet there are already initiatives that didn’t work in the past that you can recycle. I used to say it’s 2009 somewhere, and now it’s 2011. Maybe 1991. Depends on your perspective. Maybe you try something cozy and familiar that you tried once. Writing across-the-disciplines. Teachers teaching teachers technology. STEM teachers incorporating co-requisite material into their courses. College success support in every course. Business teachers working with sociology teachers. Marketing teachers working with psychology teachers. Teacher-leaders always already see how their disciplines overlap with others. Giving teachers the space to figure this out together used to happen in the gaps of time between professional development and initiatives.

This time is now scarce, if not gone.

Where this collaboration happens now, I do not know. How it happens now, I do not know. How you pay for it, I have never known. Why it needs to happen, I do know and I can tell you with one word.


Alas! I need to wrap this up. Getting a little Ranty McRanterson here. I hope this helps, dear researchers. I really look forward to your work, and if I can help, please let me know. I’ve had the honor to get to know a lot of very smart leaders, teachers, teacher-leaders, and leader-teachers. They care about students. They care about the business (literally and figuratively) of teaching and learning.

There are two or three things I know, I suppose. Or I am willing to make up.

I count myself among the lucky.

rocks on a beach

I will conclude this bloggy with a short, short story I finished at a friend’s house while I hung out with her pets as she travelled. I wrote the first draft of this near her homeland during my magical month of October 2021. I spent some time on The Peninsula writing like I was a writer, and I followed a few writing prompts by Ursula LeGuin. I don’t remember the exact prompt, but I think she asked reader-writers to capture a scene in as few words as possible using action words. From start to finish. Lines like poetry but really a story in form. A narrative arc of two people meeting.

I share this here for you, dear friend, whom I love to walk with on the mainland and in the mountains. And anyone else who has made it this far. A short short story from a rocky stormy beach in the shadow of the Olympic mountains.

Steel Reserve

Wearing several layers of clothing and a hand-knitted hat, I walked along the stormy beach of the Dungeness Spit near Sequim, WA. Not far from where I was staying in a yurt outside of Port Townsend. I walked towards the bluffs, down the primitive trail, then along the rocky spit.

High tide was two hours ago. The walking was hard. Unsteady. From a distance, I could see a person with a metal detector. As I walked closer, I noticed the hip pouch made of canvas cradling a tall beer can of Steel Reserve. 

An older man. His face. He’s lived a harder life than me. Walking my way. Swinging a metal detector machine across the rocks, pebbles, and sand. Eyes looking at me.

I took the low line by the water. 

Right as we were about to pass one another a larger than normal wave hit. Clopped an arc of watery foam spreading in my direction. Fast.

I hopped and skipped up the beach. Got closer to him than I wanted to be, but away from the wave. 

The sun appeared on the horizon in between the massive grey silvering clouds. 

We looked at one another. 

“I can see the sunset in your eyes,” he smiled. 

I laughed with my best Not-Going-to-Happen look. Nodded. Started to walk away. 

He watched me.

“Does that work for you, ya know, quoting Peter Frampton to women?” I wondered aloud walking backwards.

He smiled. Stagger-leaned a bit towards me. 

Raising his eyebrows he pointed his chin in the direction I was walking.

“Last one who got that reference just divorced me.”

About Alyson Indrunas

Always learning about instructional design, educational technology, professional development, adult education, and writing.
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