Delicious ambiguity: Leading by the seat of your pants

When I began my career as a classroom teacher fifteen years ago, I could never have imagined the trajectory my professional life would take. First a brief detour, though, to explain how I ended up as an educator in the first place.

My route to teaching came as a result of two equally important experiences: First, I hated school and planned to drop out when I was a teenager. My life and family circumstances made it difficult for me to find meaning and relevance in school, and educators failed to see me as more than the kid who never did her homework. I engaged in a battle of wills with adults over completing work that didn’t mean anything to me for YEARS. This left me scarred and humiliated by school and teachers. That leads to the second force that shaped my desire to become an educator: I found a small high school that engaged with me as a whole person — a place where I was able to make choices about what and how I learned, where I was treated with respect and dignity, and where adults supported me in finding my path as a student and a human being. This changed my life and led me to become an educator.

That decision to embark on a career in education is the last time I felt sure of what I wanted to do with my life. Gilda Radner, 1970s comedian of Saturday Night Live fame, made an observation about life that’s provided me with a lot of comfort throughout my shifting career. She said, “I wanted a perfect ending. Now I’ve learned, the hard way, that some poems don’t rhyme, and some stories don’t have a clear beginning, middle, and end. Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what’s going to happen next. Delicious Ambiguity.”  

After six years in the classroom with four principals and ten assistant principals, I knew that I wanted to continue to make an impact on the lives of young people, but I felt that the classroom wasn’t the right place for me to do my best work given constantly shifting leadership. That decision led me to embrace, and eventually to savor, opportunities to push, pull, and stretch K-12 education so that systems would become more responsive to learners instead of requiring students to conform to the needs of systems.

Over the last nine years, I’ve engaged in everything from preservice teacher preparation to helping transform districts toward Personalized Learning to serving as the Director of Innovation at the Colorado Department of Education — and a few more things besides. Throughout this nonlinear — and at times seemingly nonsensical — career path, I’ve learned a few things about leadership that have served me well and that I hope provide you with insight from someone who has chosen ambiguity over certainty in service of providing each learner with an education that honors and affirms their gifts, dignity, and path in life.

  1. Leadership matters.  It’s worth noting that my need to follow leaders who are principled and generous and want me to grow has informed every step of my professional life since I left the classroom. In the same way that as a student I craved leadership from adults who knew me, acknowledged my strengths, and wanted to work with me to define and achieve success, I still want those things as an adult. Moreover, as I have grown into roles where I’m provided opportunities to lead, I feel very accountable to myself and others to be the kind of leader I want and expect. Lead as you want to be led, whether that’s from the front of a classroom or in a boardroom.
  2. What’s your bottom line? I’m compelled to work in K-12 education in large part because of my deeply held beliefs about equity and the power of civil and civic institutions to help people. Why does this matter? Because every decision I’ve made as a professional comes down to the question of whether what I’m doing will make systems, structures, and practices of K-12 education more equitable. Not only does having a set of values that guide decision making help me avoid overcommitment and burn out — issues I’ve struggled with throughout my career — but it also allows me to take full advantage of opportunities that come up. As you consider whether to take on another responsibility — to sit on a board, to develop a professional learning opportunity for others — what’s the why that guides you?
  3. Don’t take no for an answer. Leveraging your values to help you make decisions may, at times, force you to confront systems, structures, or practices that look like barriers and obstacles. My time working as a leader in large systems and structures taught me that, most of the time, there’s no one who will really ever have the authority to tell you “no.” What I mean by that is that many of us in education carry around perceptions of what we’re allowed to do. We think we can’t do grading a certain way because there’s a policy or a person with a clipboard waiting to catch us. And since most of us are good students, we also don’t want to break the rules. It’s this tendency to defer to authority that keeps a lot of great leaders from pushing for changes they think could benefit students and schools.
  4. It’s very unlikely that there are policies or people who have the ability to stop you. In absence of policies that prescribe how something must be done, and those are few and far between, most policies are written to allow for local decision making and professional judgement. What I’ve encountered far more often in my career were practices that got in the way: the terrible old saying “That’s how we’ve always done things.” If you feel that what you want to do is in the best interest of students, teachers, schools, and communities, I wholeheartedly recommend not taking “no” for an answer. Ask people why things are done a certain way and if they can show you the policy that requires a certain course of action. With that you can either creatively problem solve to try new things, apply for a waiver from a policy or rule, or work to get a policy changed. We owe it to our students and those we lead to stop allowing a compliance orientation to stop us from doing whatever we can to serve our bottom lines.
  5. It’s all about perspective. Probably the greatest insight I can share with other teacher leaders comes from the different altitudes at which I’ve spent professional time. As a classroom teacher, I felt like I had a great birds-eye view of my classroom, school, and district. My involvement in various district level committees and groups helped me understand how policies were made and how those in turn had an impact on what my school and classroom looked like. As I moved into central administration, I gained even broader perspective about the intricacies and moving parts involved in trying to change a whole system. Moving up to the state and national levels, my horizons expanded further still, allowing me to understand how grassroots and grasstops efforts that could support more learners are necessary to push for real changes in K-12 education. I mention this because this perspective has proven so incredibly valuable to me in my work on issues of educational equity. I’ve learned how ineffective it is to use policy to sledgehammer educators into doing something, and I’ve seen how powerful it is when leaders in classrooms, schools, and districts come together to push on districts and states to do something different in service of meeting the needs of learners, families, and communities.

In conclusion, I encourage leaders to embrace the delicious ambiguity that so often presents opportunities for learning, to have a deeper impact, and to work with students, families, and communities to help shape an educational system that is more responsive to students. Take advantage of any opportunities you have to see how other people do things, to understand why they act in certain ways, and to watch as ideas play out in reality. You never know how they’ll inform your next moves as a leader. I would also implore leaders in education to let their principles and values guide them rather than falling into the trap of compliance that our industry seems to value too highly.

And finally, I hope that each of us is able to lead in such a way that we affirm the dignity and humanity of those in our charge, whether students or CEOs. Throughout my winding career, I’ve aspired to live by these ideals. I can honestly say that while I could never have predicted my journey and have no idea where I’ll go next, I’m glad my life has been “about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what’s going to happen next.”

Christina’s post is part of CTQ’s September and October blogging roundtable. To join the conversation, comment on this blog and read the other blogs in this series. You can find an updated list of all posts on the Teachers leading/leading teachers landing page. Follow CTQ on Facebook and Twitter to see when each new blog is posted, and use #CTQCollab to join the conversation on social media.

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