by Lea Hunerkoch, Middle School Assistant Director and Teaching Fellows Coordinator at Holton-Arms School in Bethesda, MD
There have been several moments in my career as an educator that have been transformational. The first was my Master in Teaching program at Seattle University that launched my teaching career. The foundation I gained from that program was incredible. To the professors, the opportunities to practice, and the mentors I met along the way, I owe much of my career to that experience.
A second moment was getting a job as a middle school history teacher at a Jewish day school in Houston, Texas. Never in a million years did I think I would teach in an independent school or that I would teach middle school. However, it turned out that independent schools and middle school would be the love of my career.
A third transformational moment was attending the gcLi Leadership Lab in the summer of 2016. I honestly didn’t know what I was getting myself into at gcLi, but a friend had told me about this incredible transformative experience that I had to do, so I signed up. The Leadership Lab exceeded the expectations my friend had set– I soon realized that student leadership was my reason for being a teacher.
Currently, I am in the midst of the next transformational moment of my career, the School Leadership Program at the University of Pennsylvania. I have had tastes of school leadership over the past 10 years, but this year for the first time, most of my day is spent out of the classroom, and that is a first for me.
I feel so fortunate to embark on this journey of the School Leadership Program (SLP) with my fellow cohort members. I am hanging on every word my professors say and digesting every page (that I can handle) of the readings we are assigned. When I returned to school after the first whirlwind weekend in August, I sat in our opening faculty meeting and listened to my head of school give her last opening speech to us: she is retiring at the end of this year.
I had sat in similar seats, listening to heads of schools kick off a new school year, for over 10 years, but this year was different. I heard my head of school speak with a newfound understanding of what it means to be a school leader. Everything she said landed differently than it had in previous years. I felt transformed already.
She spoke about this being a year of empowerment, positivity, and joy. Those words I have heard countless times in a school setting, but after listening to my professors talk about systems of supervision, effective teams, the noble work of leadership, and culturally responsive school leadership, these ideas held new weight.
I felt a sense of ownership I had never felt before. As a classroom teacher and grade-level dean, my career was about helping students find their voice and use it. Now as a school leader, my career is about transforming school cultures to develop leaders who make positive change in the world.
This is not to say that the work of classroom teachers is small; in fact, it’s where the rubber meets the road in schools. It’s that now, my view of schools is much more from the balcony and less on the dance floor, to paraphrase Heifetz. The balcony and dance floor metaphor was introduced to me at the Leadership Lab by my amazing group leader and educator Mike Pardee, and it was brought to my world again in the SLP.
This metaphor, while simple, embodies so much of how my career in education has evolved. I went from being in the thick of it all on the dance floor–sweaty and having a blast–to slowly moving up to the balcony where I now have a bigger-picture view of the overall movement and joy happening below, with some opportunities to join in and other opportunities to influence the music.
Lea Hunerkoch is in two new roles this year as Middle School Assistant Director and Teaching Fellows Coordinator at Holton-Arms School in Bethesda, MD. Prior to this year, Lea had been a history teacher and 8th Grade Dean at Holton. Previously, Lea spent five years as a history teacher, Grade Level Team Leader, and Middle School History Department Chair at the Emery/Weiner School in Houston, TX. She loves watching students grow during the middle school years as they begin to find their voice and use it for positive change in their communities. Lea is a Leadership Lab grad and this year’s recipient of the gcLi-Penn/GSE scholarship for School Leadership.