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Essay: A Classroom of His Own

A Smooth Transition: From National NEA Leadership to the Classroom

Reflections on strong networks, a passion for teaching, and the wisdom of fifth graders.

By Thomas Leaders


I was at NEA’s Washington, D.C., headquarters, serving as the NEA Student Program Chair. It was an amazing opportunity—one I will always cherish—that gave me the opportunity to lead and learn. My passion to teach and be in the classroom propelled me to take on the national leadership post and move to the nation’s capital. It was an exciting time, and I plunged head-first into action—organizing student members, rallying for social justice, supporting advocacy, and promoting the teaching profession.

I gained skills that prepared me well for teaching’s demands and to stand confidently in front of my own classroom. Today, my constituents are the 24 smart, inquisitive, brave, and sometimes boisterous fifth graders in room 219 at the Lewis & Clark Elementary School in Council Bluffs, Iowa. It’s my job to nurture and lead them, but even as they learn, they teach me. Like other students at this level, mine are wise beyond their years, constantly bringing their personal experiences to our classroom discussions and lessons. Sometimes, their comments create a detour from the day’s planned activity, but the journey is often worth the time and enriches us all.

A Strong Network of Support

I didn’t enter the classroom alone. My NEA membership opens the door to a network of connections, which means that as a new teacher I have a solid base of support. If you’re a member of the NEA Student Program, I urge you to begin forging those relationships—now. They can last a lifetime. I link regularly with other fifth-grade teachers in Tennessee, Missouri, and Wisconsin. We share our successes and our struggles, including those never-thought-this-would-happen to-me moments as new teachers.

A Reason to Smile

My first-year classroom experience has been everything that I expected and more. Everyone told me not to smile in front of my fifth graders until we neared the Christmas break and to make sure my procedures were set as a base of classroom management and expectation. Well, I didn’t make it until Christmas without smiling (not a surprise to anyone who knows me), but from that first day in the classroom, I successfully established procedures and expectations. These are some things I’ve already learned as a teacher:

  • Parental support can be huge when it comes to student learning.
  • Don’t be afraid to think outside the box.
  • No matter the experience or situation, reflect, grow, and learn.
  • Ask questions, take notes, and never stop learning.

As a new teacher, I know that even when I’m a veteran there will be learning curves and new things to master. But I also know that support and resources will always be available—from my school colleagues, NEA members and staff, and through the experience I gained as chair of the NEA Student Program.

Thomas Leaders is now a fifth-grade teacher at Lewis & Clark Elementary School in Council Bluffs, Iowa.

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