For so many of us, teaching is a calling. We hear it from the time we’re young – that desire to nurture children and develop tomorrow’s generation of leaders and innovators. That’s why I was surprised when I told my mom, who recently retired after nearly 40 years of teaching, that I wanted to become a teacher, and she emphatically told me, “DON’T!” I thought she would be proud and excited that I was following her footsteps and attempting to change the world, but instead, she offered a long list of reasons why this was a horrible idea, including: it’s isolating, it’s being shaped by unfair tests and assessments, it’s the most difficult job you can pursue…

As you can see, I didn’t listen.

Nonetheless, years later, when I was standing in my own classroom, I understood exactly what she meant. I looked around the room at my students’ faces, and not only was I reminded of the joy and fulfilment of what I do, but also the pressure. Looking back at me were roughly 20 futures, and I was responsible for all of them. On my own. There were no other adults in the room to help when one student threatened another, or when they asked the questions with impossible answers. I felt lost and helpless when I tried every strategy I knew, and regardless, certain students weren’t able to grasp a new idea.

I felt a bit like a tree that had been planted in a flower pot. Restricted.

I quickly learned the value of reaching out. It started when I asked the teacher next door for advice on classroom management. Without any judgment, she offered ideas for me to try, and I was suddenly filled with optimism. And that was only reaching next door!

When I went to my first professional development session, I was amidst teachers from dozens of schools. When we had opportunities to share our diverse experiences, it was almost like shopping – indulging in the joy of seeing and trying on exotic new ideas and adding the ones that seemed practical to my own toolbox.

The flower pot had cracked! This is what growth felt like!

Then…then I had the opportunity to collaborate with teachers in Penang through an LRTT Fellowship last summer. I arrived here in George Town under the expectation that I would share my experience and ideas with in-country teachers. But that wasn’t quite an accurate description. There was shared learning not only amidst the fellows, but also amidst the incredible teachers here in Penang.

Working with dozens of teachers representing dozens of schools from various countries, my toolbox was suddenly overflowing with innovative ideas! Even though it was the middle of my treasured summer, I was so excited about these strategies and this energy that I couldn’t wait to return to the classroom and implement everything I was learning. My confidence erupted, and my excitement was unbridled. More than that, I felt deeply and meaningfully connected to all of my international colleagues.

The flower pot was shattered. I had discovered an incredible way to obliterate the four walls of my classroom and work around the weighty pressures that seem to descend upon us more and more each year. I realized it’s not about pushing back, but pushing out. Reaching out. I had found a way to gather seeds of inspiration, get the expert help necessary to nurture those seeds and grow them into beautiful strategies that make me a more competent and confident educator. My roots now expand much further than the soil of a much-too-small pot. My roots are now intertwined within a global network of amazing educators, each who are growing their own trees and branches, reaching out to protect and nurture an immeasurable number of students.

That’s why I have returned this year as a team leader. I am humbled and honored to facilitate the same kind of growth for another cohort of eager, adventurous, and inspiring educators. I feel privileged to be part of a program that truly shapes global education and strengthens both individuals and systems.

“One branch at a time, one Fellowship at a time, we are bringing meaningful change to the world.”

Since 2017, LRTT has partnered with Teach for Malaysia and the Penang District Education Office. In two years, we approximate roughly 50 fellows have partnered with more than 150 teachers. If those teachers are working with 40 students at a time, imagine the exponential impact! More than that, we are only planting seeds… after this partnership, the people involved will continue to build upon the ideas they gain, expanding their practices and reaching students more deeply and effectively with each passing year. Not only are we reaching students, we are reaching administrators and officials. Word of our work has spread, and those at the top are curious about how to shift their own approach.

This is anything but a flower pot. We are a forest. Interconnected and strengthened by the relationships we are developing, and expanding via the ideas that we are sharing. One branch at a time, one fellowship at a time, we are bringing meaningful change to the world, and we are making a world of ideas more accessible for our students.

Written by Erin Schaal

Team Leader, LRTT Malaysia

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