By NJ Fellow Michael Dunlea

Currently, teachers have two choices: leave the classroom to lead or tack leadership activities and responsibilities onto a full classroom teaching load. This poses a challenge to me and to hundreds of other teachers who lead from their classrooms. To be a highly effective teacher I am forced to work ridiculous hours that far exceed what I am compensated for. I kept track of how many hours I spent in my classroom that went beyond what I was contracted and paid for last year. I stopped after I hit over 400 hours, a full extra ten weeks worth of work - which just happens to be as long as my summer (non-paid) break. 

On top of the hours it takes to do my job well and to provide for my students what they need, I am a highly engaged teacher leader. Back in 2011 I began my journey as a New Jersey County Teacher of the Year and finalist for New Jersey State Teacher of the Year. In the past four years I have been an America Achieves National Fellow and Hope Street Group National Teacher Fellow. I have served on numerous panels and committees for the New Jersey Department of Education. I have advised the U.S. Department of Education on teacher leadership and assessments. In 2012 I created a non-profit organization consisting of teachers and school staff to help residents and students clean up after Hurricane Sandy devastated our town. This year I have visited the offices of Senator Cory Booker, Senator Al Franken, Representative Keith Ellison, and Representative John Kline to encourage them to support the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act with inclusion of teacher leadership provisions and equitable resource distribution. On November 21st, I achieved National Board Certification after being inspired by other teacher leaders to pursue this.  My teacher leadership has seen me present at over 30 conferences from national to local levels in the past four years. I’ve started a blog and written several op-eds on topics such as Common Core State Standards and student voice. I’ve joined the National Network of State Teachers of the Year as a finalist for New Jersey and represented the organization on a visiting tour of several schools in the Chicago area.

In short, I have been extremely busy, and there are other educators out there who are even busier. No one can say for sure, but it only makes sense that this all played into me suffering a major heart attack while teaching my 2nd graders on a Monday this past September. When the attack happened, I made sure my class was covered and then drove myself to the hospital where a helicopter took me to another hospital that could perform my needed surgery.  

I had the heart attack on September 21st, the day after presenting at an ECET2 Conference for NJ/PA, and I was back in front of my students on October 1st, just a week and a half later. I am committed to my students and students everywhere. As an expert teacher, I feel a compulsion to be involved in educational policy. When I look into the eyes of my students I feel the pressure to advocate on their behalf. 

We cannot afford to be complacent. But I should not have to run my health into the ground in order to be there for my students both physically and educationally. Being a leader while also teaching students has to evolve to a point where the candle isn’t being burned at both ends. 

If not me, then who? If not now, then when? These are questions that drive me to stretch myself to an unhealthy point. The leaders of this country and of the state departments of education need to finally recognize the need for hybrid positions where teachers can remain in classrooms where they maintain their direct contact with students,  while also advocating and helping to craft policy that will improve the learning conditions and outcomes for students. This will help advance the profession to a more respectable level of recognition. The TeachStrong  campaign is a step in the right direction. Of the 40 cooperating partners I personally have ties to at least 8 of them - I am proud to work to help us teach stronger.

Michael J. Dunlea, M.Ed., is a 2nd Grade in New Jersey and the 2011 Ocean Co. NJ Teacher of the Year/State Finalist. He is a Teacher Hope Street Group & America Achieves Teacher Fellow. 

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