Education Leadership: 7 Transferable Skills Gained While Leading a Classroom
Teaching offers the firsthand experience impacting students’ lives and can fuel a career leading schools and school systems.
January 14, 2020
At Teach For America, we know it takes leaders working in all sectors to change the inequitable systems that prevent all children from receiving a high-quality education. After working as teachers, our corps members go on to many different careers, continuing to impact children’s lives from any number of industries. In this series, we explore the skills corps members gain from the classroom that help them succeed and deepen their impact as they pursue a variety of careers.
Teach For America alumni work as leaders within all levels of the education system as principals, school superintendents, elected school district officials, state chiefs of education, and members of the U.S. Department of Education. Their hands-on experience in the classroom through TFA helps them develop the necessary skills to excel in a variety of roles in the field of education leadership.
Galvanizing a Wide Audience
Teachers are leaders in the classroom. They practice and deliver daily lessons in which they must be organized, articulate, and engaging.
“Leadership to me is about galvanizing people and getting people together towards one vision, and that's what classroom teaching is,” says Niambi Sampson, a 1998 Metro Atlanta Teach For America alum who currently serves as chief of schools at 3DE, an organization dedicated to creating more relevant and experiential education in high schools. “It’s about having one objective [and] following it to the end.”
Teachers have the opportunity to become skilled at investing others in their visions and proposals, in small discussions and large-group presentations. Being well-spoken and organized is paramount to becoming a successful education leader, which requires engaging others in policy changes and difficult decisions.
Deepening Commitment for the Education System
Teach For America corps members develop a deep understanding of the education system and the policies that underpin it. Many earn master’s degrees while serving as corps members. Others continue on to achieve doctoral degrees that serve to advance their careers in education leadership.
“The relationships I built in the corps—and with students—helped me find my voice and passion for education and educational advocacy,” explains Jade Rivera, a 2012 Las Vegas alum. Rivera went on to serve as a liaison for the House of Representatives Education Committee and establish a charter school.
Because of their experience teaching, TFA corps members often discover a passion for improving the education system, inspiring their commitment to pursuing careers in educational leadership.
Understanding the Realities of the Education System
TFA corps members experience firsthand the challenges and opportunities in our country’s schools and come face to face with the systemic, long-term problems of the U.S. education system. Our teachers understand and develop the skills to navigate and address inequities in the education system.
“The education system in the country is deeply flawed,” says Fade Ojeikere, a 2014 New Jersey alum who went on to work as a curricular consultant and an instructional coach. “Our children come to our classrooms with beautiful aspirations. Educators should remember that our goals should not be to ‘fix’ children. It should be to take in all the unique and wonderful aspects of their story and help them be better people when they leave.”
This perspective influences corps members’ future careers, inspiring them to work toward addressing these problems from a variety of career sectors. Corps members’ personal experiences in the classroom help them advocate for and design policy changes that will truly benefit students and address the needs they experienced as teachers.
Lisa Allen, a 2006 St. Louis alum, took her experience in the corps with her when she was elected to the Hillsboro School Board in 2015. “In my experience campaigning for school board, I realized that in order to get everyone invested in the challenges facing education, you have to show them how those challenges are relevant in their own lives,” she says. “The inequities in our system affect us all, no matter where we come from. We are all connected.”
Data Analysis and Achieving Outcomes
Teachers are responsible for tracking students’ progress, attendance records, and the documentation required by state and federal policies. They must work to improve student outcomes, measuring progress over time for each student and the class as a whole, in an effort to reach benchmarks set by the grade level, school, and school district. Policymakers, superintendents, and other leaders managing budgets need these skills in analyzing data to make clear arguments for different audiences and achieve desired outcomes.
“I’ve become much more analytical,” Erin Stauber, a 2005 Greater Delta alum, says of her time in the corps. “Solving problems both analytically and creatively helps me support my students and teachers. I tackle problems and challenges with data and as much information as possible. Also, I imagine different outcomes and can plan to achieve those outcomes.”
Self-Awareness and Experience with Diversity
TFA’s commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusiveness is central to all corps members’ training and their experiences in the classroom. Teachers may at first be unfamiliar with their students’ backgrounds and must adapt to the values of the community and model how to connect effectively across lines of difference. Members gain firsthand experience working across lines of difference and deepen their empathy, which helps inform their future careers as policymakers and education leaders.
“I was surprised how self-aware I became during the corps,” says Tia Corniel, a 2006 Phoenix alum. “As a person of color, I thought serving people who ‘looked like me’ would be seamless. The corps taught me how diverse people are and how experiences shape us. I put a mirror up to myself and explored my bias, and learned to be reflective in a way that I could identify and correct myself.”
Resourcefulness and Perseverance
School principals, administrators, and other officials are responsible for the budgeting, hiring, and operating of a school. Not every school has funding for lab equipment, field trips, or technology. Teachers work around these obstacles and develop engaging lesson plans nonetheless. They remain innovative and flexible, even when things don’t go as planned.
“I had to learn to overcome my ego and overcome the idea that failure was a place that I had to wallow in. […] Failure is not fundamentally a bad thing. It is a way to truly look at yourself, however uncomfortable it may be. The thing you must then do is rise, because wallowing in failure is not the purpose you’re supposed to walk in,” Fade Ojeikere says.
This ingenuity lends itself to success for our alumni as education leaders, who must often overcome resource limitations and take the lead in making hard decisions while remaining adaptive and creative.
What starts with leading a classroom can turn into leading an entire school. “In the corps, I didn’t just learn to believe that all students can achieve, but I also learned how to plan and overcome the toughest of challenges,” says Oscar Romano, School Director for YES Prep Gulfton and a 2009 Teach For America Houston alum. “As a director of a campus with 1,100 students and 90 staff members, I know I’ll experience various issues and shoulder immense responsibility. However, I have my time in the corps to remind me that anything is possible.”
Experience Navigating School Systems
Countless individuals work together to develop and maintain the inner workings of a school day, including fellow teachers, administrators, and school support staff such as counselors, nurses, and janitors. Working as a teacher for TFA, corps members interact with all the moving parts that make a school run.
“Managing so many things at once and working through difficult conversations and situations with students, parents, and school staff has prepared me to handle situations in a more productive and solutions-oriented manner,” Isabella Rivera, Los Angeles ’11, says. The TFA experience provides corps members with the skills and credibility needed when navigating the various stakeholders in the education system.
Ultimately, TFA corps members are prepared for any number of successful careers. Many though, discover a real passion for improving the education system. Whether continuing their careers in schools or school districts or moving to educational leadership roles on a wider scale, they can feel confident and prepared to lead a classroom.
Interested individuals aspiring to jumpstart their careers in the education system can apply for Teach For America now.
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