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Breaking Boundaries: A Journey from Classroom to Leadership in Education

By: Dannielle Dorris

As someone who has always been a planner, it’s astounding to me how many ways Teach for America helped me to break out of my comfort zones and what I thought my plans were, and instead land where I truly should be.

I applied for Teach for America my junior year of college, having never been to Nashville, and was thrilled to be placed there, albeit a tad apprehensive about living in a city I had never even visited. I never expected to spend more than two, maybe three years living in Nashville, but instead I found a role I am deeply passionate about that is keeping me here for the long haul. 

I was placed at Intrepid College Prep, a college prep charter school located in Antioch, that in many ways paralleled the college prep charter school I attended in middle and high school in Idaho, Coeur d’Alene Charter Academy. Both schools have middle through high school models with a focus on literacy. As someone deeply passionate about reading and literacy, I was delighted to eventually teach what had been my favorite class, AP English Literature and Composition.

Intrepid was the perfect place for me to start my career in education surrounded by educators who were deeply passionate about their content and their students. I was lucky to be welcomed into the Antioch community by my students and their families. Even more importantly, I got to spend three years in the classroom, looping up with many of my students from their sophomore year through their senior year, where I taught an additional English elective. Shortly after meeting them in my first year of teaching, I knew I was going to see them through to graduation. Watching them walk across the stage in 2021, I felt that I was ready to take the next step in my career. 

Thankfully, I had been given the opportunity at Intrepid to work on the Human Capital team for several years over the summers. I loved learning about the hiring process and the joy of conducting phone interviews with incoming teachers, even some incoming TFA corps members. When I shared with my administration that I was ready to step out of the classroom, I was delighted to be given the opportunity to move onto the Human Capital team and begin this work full-time, working under a fellow TFA-Nashville alumni who had followed a similar trajectory from classroom teacher to working on the recruitment side of education. It gave me the chance to stay in the community of students, teachers, and families that I loved dearly, while also expanding my skill set and shifting my focus to a deep need in education: teacher recruitment and retention. I was able to leverage experience from the classroom and share honestly with potential incoming teachers about my day-to-day at the school. I brought the perspective of what I had seen from our most successful teachers - a sincere belief in the students they served, as well as a willingness to learn, grow, and refine their practice. Finally, I began to learn more about the various partners in Nashville that were working to develop robust and supportive teacher pathways for non-traditional teaching candidates, including Teach for America, Relay Graduate School of Education, and Nashville Teacher Residency. Building relationships with folks on each of those teams I began to understand just how many people were collaborating and working towards the same goal - training and supporting teachers who would support the academic growth and honor the dignity of each of our students in MNPS. 

When I learned about the Leadership Public Education Fellowship at the Nashville Chamber of Commerce from a TFA Alumni Blast, I jumped at the chance to apply. Having only worked in a single school setting in Nashville, I wanted to expand my frame of reference. I knew my own school well, but there was so much more about the greater scope of the work in Nashville - across MNPS, in various charter districts, and at the state level. I learned about budgeting processes, the history of education in Nashville. I also had the opportunity to connect with a large group of fellows, many of whom do not work in education in their careers, but felt passionately about spending a Friday a month learning Nashville’s schools and the challenges and opportunities facing them. It was inspiring to be among people who, despite not being career educators, wanted to learn more about the work being done in Nashville to continuously improve the practices of education. Expanding my professional horizon through participating in the LPE, I realized that I was ready to step out of my comfort zone where I had spent the first 5+ years of my career, and step into what I had realized was my deep passion - teacher licensure. 

The idea of transitioning out of my comfort zone was daunting. Even after helping many people transition into education and into positions they are passionate about, I had not gone through this process myself. Thankfully, just as the Leadership Public Education fellowship wrapped up, I was able to join the newly minted Leadership Accelerator offered by TFA-Nashville. This program offers a combination of leadership and career coaching, and working with my coach there, I was able to take a step back and think about my own leadership strengths and areas of growth, what I was looking for in a leadership model, and even think tactically about where I had seen examples of the environments I was hoping to grow into. All of this advice guided my career search, and I was thrilled to join the team at Nashville Teacher Residency where I had seen true servant leadership, a deep passion for supporting teacher candidates, and a lived commitment to equity. 

Looking back on this first part of my career journey and first major transition, it’s obvious that it was all made possible by the people who saw my strengths, offered me opportunities to learn, and coached me on different methods of developing my own leadership. Without the opportunity to step into Human Capital work, I never would have realized what an obstacle teacher licensure and certification can be to fostering schools that offer a high quality education. Without the Leadership Accelerator program, I would have stumbled blindly into a job search, instead of being able to thoughtfully evaluate what I valued in the leadership I wanted to work under and grow with. And without Teach for America placing me in Nashville and at Intrepid, I never would have been able to meet the students who inspired me to stay in the education realm for the long haul and discover where my unique talents fit best. 

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