Welcome to the new school year. Room preparation, lesson plans, finding supplies for all your students and meetings will fill the days ahead. And either others will watch you, or you’ll watch some of your colleagues heading off to this committee or that one, being nominated for a building position, or given a task assignment. If you are not one of those in meetings, stop a moment to take stock. Your reaction may be relief (thankful that you are not dealing with another set of responsibilities), gratitude (others are better at a certain task than you are) or annoyance (the same voices are heard over and over again). Whatever you are feeling, be reminded of some honest truths.
You are a leader. Whatever your role in this education arena, kids are depending on you to believe in them and help them grow into leaders for tomorrow. For the average middle and high school teacher, that’s more than a hundred lives per day. Your attitude, your ability to build relationships, and your compassion can be life and death to those whose lives you will touch daily.
You have a skill set that is uniquely needed. Real collective leadership would mean that we throw away titles like principal, or superintendent, and we organized by our abilities. That idea is still one that is developing; sadly, it may not yet have reached your doorstep. Regardless, those skills you have in teaching critical thinking, reading, collaboration and civil engagement across the narrow lens of content is the best part of your job, and often will take you beyond the walls of your classroom. To clarify, this doesn’t mean anarchy or no team work, but it means a better distribution of the work and decision-making.
Your ideas matter. Replacing the industrial model of education is still a work-in-progress. That means your ideas, your innovations, and your fresh approach have a place. Hopefully there are opportunities in your district to share your knowledge and passion, but if there aren’t, don’t let that stop you. Dream a little. Work in an online cohort developing personalized learning for your students or take existing expertise and offer your skills to staff. Creating the opportunity to reenvision education starts with asking questions. Emails, blogging, and pitching ideas in a conversation with another staff member are some ways to do this. It’s not about having all the answers, but it is about looking for new ways to build capacity and energize your building.
Champion your students. When it comes down to school, I often wonder what ‘sticks’ in long-term memory when I have the opportunity to see these students for such a short slice of time in the whole of their lives. My conclusion, then, is that whatever is being taught, its important to respect students, build their EQ, teach them to think critically and to collaborate. Kids struggle with trauma, high ACES scores, PTSD, and anger issues, but your honest empathy can go a long way in helping them cope.
Listen as well as you speak. That’s a simple shift, but it is absolutely critical when conversing with students, other staff members, community stakeholders, and parents. A true test of leadership is to hear the frustration in the voice of someone else, and realize that the words and emotions are not about you, but about them. Talking is about processing. Listening is about letting another process and, if needed, asking clarifying questions.
Collective leadership is the unspoken promise of every new school year, and it’s about time that such work begins in earnest. We all have networks of ideas, expertise, and skills. Savvy districts will think hard about ways to take advantage of each and every individual, and find ways and time to help them express their voice. If we’re really in this for the students, taking that time is absolutely essential for a changing world and the education we hope to provide.