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Opening Doors for Myself and Others

By Julie Scullen
 | May 18, 2016

ThinkstockPhotos-84464828_x300Leadership in literacy was not in my grand plan when I left my undergrad program.  With a double major—Elementary Education and Reading Instruction—my professional goal was to be the best darned fourth-grade teacher ever and eventually retire quietly having systematically given all my tattered classroom resources and picture books to new teachers starting their journey.  I planned to spend my career making a difference for 30 students a year. Then I gratefully took a job teaching remedial reading to seventh and eighth graders.

Ironically, I haven’t taught one day of fourth grade beyond student teaching.  I found I spoke the same language as middle schoolers, they made me laugh. I’ve never looked back.

In addition to teaching, I was asked to lead the Reading Department—of which I was the one and only member—which entailed keeping track of where the $200 I was given to spend on materials went.  There were no committee approvals or hoops to jump through.  I used a legal pad, a pencil, and a calculator to perform all my leadership duties.

A few years later, in a different district, my department was slightly larger, but the legal pad of computations was similar.  “Leading” meant keeping track of money, ordering highlighters, and choosing the size and color of our sticky notes.

One transformative day, my principal called me in to her office. “So, I’ve heard of this new thing called ‘reading coaching.’  Would you like to be one?  I think you would do a great job of helping teachers here in our building.”  She freed me up a couple hours a day to “coach” my peers, model in classrooms, and problem solve.  At that time there wasn’t a model in place, we weren’t sure where it was going, and I spent a long summer reading everything I could on instructional coaching.  What I couldn’t see at the time was that she had opened an invisible door.  I now had opportunities that weren’t visible to me before that fateful meeting.

Soon after I started coaching, I realized it was lonely work.  I had no one to ask when I had a question. I had no one to coach me.

I reached out to our local council leaders, who linked me to people in similar professional roles.  We met in coffee shops or over pizza surrounded by dirty napkins and piles of resources we wanted to share. We frantically took notes regarding each other’s experiences.  I had stumbled across a group of like-minded and equally passionate people. 

I volunteered for a committee, and suddenly I was on the state executive board and planning professional development opportunities for teachers outside of my community.  Another invisible door had opened.

Skip forward a few years.  Reports of the success of building coaching spread to the district office, and I was invited to leave my home school and, with two others, implement literacy coaching in all seven middle schools.  I packed up my classroom, all the while reassuring fellow teachers and students I would only be gone one year, two at the most. 

As it turns out, I haven’t been back. Yet.

I continued to lean on my local council colleagues for support and advice.

While I was coaching, my supervisor pushed me to earn my administrative license.  She predicted I would soon be leading groups, and I would need supervisory credentials to make it happen.  Even without knowing when I would ever use it, I completed a program and earned my education specialist credential.  She had also opened an invisible door.

My work with our state council allowed me to work with staff and Board members from International Reading Association.  I attended two advocacy workshops in Washington D.C., learned from IRA staff at Leadership Academies, and found myself again surrounded with people holding similar passions.  Each person I met opened more and more invisible doors to new possibilities.

Now I’m completing my third year on the (now) International Literacy Association Board of Directors, still surrounded by passionate and energetic people, and highly grateful for those who pushed me along the way.

Invisible doors opened to me because of a handful of leaders.

Each time I took a risk, it was due to one person making a personal contact, pointing out a door I didn’t realize was there.  We need more leaders to push our passionate and energetic peers to share their talents, to speak out and advocate, to strive for more—to see possibilities they might not yet see.

Julie Scullen is a former president of the Minnesota Reading Association and Minnesota Secondary Reading Interest Council and is a current member of the International Literacy Association Board of Directors. She taught most of her career in Secondary Reading Intervention classrooms and now serves as Teaching and Learning Specialist for Secondary Reading in Anoka-Hennepin schools in Minnesota, working with teachers of all content areas to foster literacy achievement. She teaches graduate courses at Hamline University in St. Paul in literacy leadership and coaching, as well as reading assessment and evaluation.


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