Two years in and there is already a changing of the guard. My colleagues and I just learned that a new principal would take over at the helm. It was a bittersweet moment. For one, I knew I was going to miss my former principal and would always appreciate how she took a chance on me; she offered me my first teaching job, fresh out of college. She even assigned me to various committees during my first two-years, which afforded me some voice (so I thought) into school decisions. From this experience and many others to follow, I now know we should avoid forming and naming a committee thereby creating a façade that people’s advice and opinions are wanted. Okay, back to the story.
Unfortunately, I also saw a side of my former principal’s leadership that I thought, even as one of the newest staff members, was counterproductive. For example, I observed on many occasions self-reliance at play. Self-reliance, according to Merriam-Webster, means relying on one’s own efforts and abilities. And, yes we all have a set of strengths, but unless we are willing to engage in shared leadership, good organizations will falter. The most effective organizations, as posited by Jim Collins in Good to Great, have disciplined people. Disciplined people who exemplify a combination of personal humility coupled with intense professional will and determination help to propel an organization forward and sustain great results. Consequently, when I thought my former principal should have solicited feedback or assistance in moving the work forward, she did not. She was driving without a seatbelt. She arrived early, stayed late, and missed excellent opportunities to distribute leadership. That seatbelt may have consisted of moments of reflection, becoming a listener, engaging in inquiry alongside her staff, or any other behavior that communicated I am driving, but I still want and need your help. On the other side, however, I have observed teachers disavow leading and/or co-leading the work. This behavior I will never understand. I found it counter-productive and consequently had lasting implications on the organization and stalled positive student outcomes.
As I began to advance in my career, I would find myself making similar mistakes to my former principal. The mistakes were sometimes costly. For example, after teaching 8th grade students my first three years, I felt confident in what I was doing. My students, however, would probably feel differently today L; I certainly do. Worksheets were not engaging, yet I perceived their compliance for engagement. So, when I was asked to pick up another grade, namely sixth-graders, I relied on what I did with my upper grades. I flopped, early and often. I would so often let my pride get in the way and failed to ask for guidance on how to connect to this younger, much more rambunctious, group of inquisitive youngsters. The result was exhaustion and defeatism, which eventually led to me losing the desire to teach.
Ah, but I knew a safe-place to turn. For the sake of this blog, I will call my dear friend, who carried me through that tumultuous time, Tola (pronounced Thee-o-la). She was the homeroom teacher for my sixth grade students, so she had them more than any other classroom teacher did. Tola had a presence about her that carried both strength yet warmth. Before throwing in the towel, again, I reached out to her. Right or wrong, she would come to my classroom and give my/our students a stern lecture about their behavior. I came to rely on her for this, but then it dawned on me that I should come visit her classroom and observe how she interacted with her students. This was one of a few turning points for me, as I would eventually transition to an administrator. I have since learned to solicit not only the input of my colleagues and direct reports, but to value their input as much. I knew that to grow, I had to observe others; I had to be comfortable enough to be vulnerable enough to ask for help. In short, I had to be a learner. What I learned early on in observing leaders and in leading is that one person cannot and should not do it all. Knowing you cannot do the work single-handedly requires humility. I would learn to wear my seat belt.