Teachers are leaders. Each one of us makes an impact in the classroom and society.

Dr. Kem Smith reflects on six months of writing her weekly advice column, “After the Bell.” We hope it has inspired you.

A whiteboard reads: Six months of After the Bell.
Dr. Kem Smith reflect on the six months of her weekly column that offers advice and community to teachers. (Illustration: Lauren Bryant / Chalkbeat)

Dr. Kem Smith reflects on the first six months of her advice column.

In graduate school, I was taught that teachers are leaders

We are leaders because we can influence society from our classrooms, and use our voices in our school buildings, districts, and the community to effect change. 

I believe strongly in that sentiment because I enjoy the autonomy of teaching and the impact we can make. 

When I became a teacher, I was discouraged because I knew I could be the best teacher-leader on the planet and those who could change the trajectory of my career would never know about my capabilities unless I volunteered to serve on unpaid committees and took on curriculum writing projects.

Every activity that leads a teacher to promotion pulls her away from what she loves to do most: teach.

I have recently applied for several leadership positions in my district and surrounding communities. I have been passed over every time. I’m told it’s because I don’t have enough leadership experience. 

I was also told, after working in the same district for 17 years, that no one knows who I am or what I do for students. I can’t lie about how discouraging these experiences have been. I know I am a leader. I have been part of a support system for thousands of students.

Writing this column has helped me to see that being a “teacher leader” is more than a buzzword. It has shown me that my knowledge matters. There is nothing wrong with teachers and teaching. But there is a larger issue around how we are treated, and the structure of a job that consumes your life without validating the work you do. 

This column has been my validation.

Looking back over the last six months since “After the Bell” launched… 

The hardest question to address was the one from Needing New Standards. The learning loss teachers and students are experiencing has no easy fix. We cannot keep teaching as if the last three years haven’t happened. 

District and school-level leadership have to understand student needs (emotional, developmental, and physical), and build relationships to get students the support they need. Time and swift action are the only remedies. So far, I feel we have been unsuccessful. 

When it feels like we teachers are failing children, it can make us want to walk away from the profession. No one wants to let children down. 

My favorite question was submitted by Curious for Conversation. More needs to be said about classrooms being safer places for all humans, especially those who historically have been marginalized. 

Bias can inhibit a teacher’s ability to effectively carry out our mission to educate. The cultural awareness conversation has to begin with ourselves before we can approach students.

When Five Jobs In One wrote in, I was surprised by how honestly I was able to answer. Experience has taught me that the general public wants to hear how much we love our jobs specifically because we are responsible for their children’s education. I’ll find myself in conversations with friends and acquaintances who say, “I couldn’t do what you do but at least you get summers off.”

It’s not all sweet tea and summer vacation days. The daily life of a teacher can feel like post-tsunami survival. 

What’s next for teachers is clouded with uncertainty. 

There are teachers who are committed to public education and those who are ticking down until retirement. Experts see how education can be done better; however, teachers, students, and parents often feel they don’t have a voice. School leadership sends us surveys and asks for feedback, but the problems feel bigger than building and district-level. The problems seem nationwide. 

I see a continued push toward technology. 

Teachers will need to know more than their subjects. They have to become tech experts. 

Software companies are making moves to address the teacher shortage with online tutoring and live reading, writing, and math help. Online and virtual learning has opened avenues for teachers who want the freedom to choose their schedules. There will be a shift from traditional in-person education to web-based learning. No one knows yet if these changes will be good or bad.

Regardless of what’s next for our industry, the work continues right now. The stretch toward the holiday break makes me feel both excited and rushed. About 10% of my students will graduate in January. I have more content to cover than time to cover it.  

I want teachers to know there is still hope for people who want to find success in this career. The challenges they face have answers. I won’t betray their trust or belittle them when they have a question. As teachers, we can be honest and open with each other. We can talk one teacher to another. 

Thank you for reading, listening, asking questions, and being a part of the “After the Bell” community these past six months. “After the Bell” will be taking a small break.

Dr. Kem Smith is Chalkbeat’s first advice columnist. She is a full-time 12th-grade English teacher in St. Louis, Missouri. If you have a rebuttal or additional comments you’d like to share, please email afterthebell@chalkbeat.org.

The Latest

The city enlisted Accenture to help analyze supply and demand for preschool seats. Their initial findings, obtained through a public records request, don’t shed much light on the topic.

Longtime activist cites his own health issues, and the recent death of his sister.

The leadership change at the city’s largest network of charter high schools comes as Chicago’s Board of Education has increased scrutiny on charters and school choice.

The federal Office of Civil Rights’ investigation found students didn’t get the support the law guaranteed them. The Michigan Department of Education wants the case thrown out.

Across all high schools in the city, 1 of every 5 students are mandated to receive special education support under an IEP. At specialized high schools, that number is only 1 of 50.

Access to acceleration has long been wildly inequitable. Here’s what schools can do to reduce the financial and logistical barriers.