Embrace the “leader” in teacher leadership

Can you describe your leadership journey in six words? At my school district’s recent first Diversity Council meeting of the year, I asked teacher leaders in the room to write their six word leadership story as a way for us to connect and get to know each other.  As everyone in the room took their pen to their paper, I did so as well. We then gathered in partners to share our stories. I had an opportunity to share my six word leadership story with one of our amazing middle school special education teachers. In response to my story, she asked if I had always sought leadership. Her question gave me pause. In many ways, I feel as if leadership sought me, compelled me, pulled me-even when part of me was unsure if I wanted to take the step. This conversation lead me to think about my leadership lessons in the form of different six word stories.

Lesson 1: Find peace through service to others.

As an undergrad at the University of Pittsburgh, we had a clinical experience serving as tutors at an elementary school in the Homewood community.  I was paired with a first grade student for the entire 10 week experience. Jaron was quiet at first and a bit timid, but as we got to know each other, and I got to understand his needs, our sessions flew by.  At the end of 10 weeks, Jaron made me a card. On the card were the two of us holding hands with the message, “I lik the wrk we did.” He proudly told me how he used our word cards to help him with the spelling and that he gave me a blue dress because he remembered I said I liked that color.

In that moment, I saw the spark, pride, and progress that came from building a relationship, focusing on goals, and having opportunities to show what one can do.  I also noted the great satisfaction it gave me. I knew I wanted to continue this work, particularly in communities that had been historically underserved and starved of the resources that more affluent communities had access to. That moment cemented my why-to find peace through service to others.

Lesson 2: Listen and learn from all feedback.

My leadership story began as a classroom teacher of 22 5th grade students at Dett Elementary School on Chicago’s west side. Even in my early days of first year teacher trials, tribulations, and struggles I saw myself as the leader of the classroom. It was not hard to see how my actions, words, and energy impacted my students.  I quickly learned the power I had as their teacher and that I needed to use my power with care to lead our classroom with humility, grace, and love. This meant seeking my students’ voices to share with me how I was doing as a leader. If you have ever asked 10 year olds to give you feedback, you know they are going to tell it you you straight.  Their insights helped me rethink structures in the classroom that were not working, consider the amount of homework I was giving, and areas I need to improve in.

What helped me survive and thrive during those clunky early days, and has kept me going as my school district’s Senior Director of Equity, has been my openness to feedback. During my monthly one-to-one check-ins with our instructional coaches, I close our meetings with asking if they have feedback for me. Do they have thoughts to share with me about my leadership of our team? Their candid feedback is a gift and one that I rely on to grow as a leader.

Lesson 3: Build capacity in those around me.

One of my first teacher leader roles, was serving as a mentor teacher for the Academy for Urban School Leadership’s Chicago Teacher Residency Program.  During my five years as a mentor teacher, I supported pre-service teachers during a year-long residency program. I scaffolded learning experiences for my resident teachers on planning guided reading groups, building relationships with students, transitioning students from class to class, and talking with families. My goal was to ensure that they felt secure on their first day in a classroom on their own, in a way that I never was.  

In my current role, I have the pleasure working with our district’s coaches in a coaching professional learning community. Although our coaches have different areas of focus, our essential question is, “How do we coach for equity?” As I plan each of our meetings, I think carefully about how our learning experiences will help them to build on their already exceptional skill set. If they leave our time together without a new idea or something new to try in their practice, I feel as if I have not been as effective as I could have.

Lesson 4: Be the best version of me.

One of my most important and enjoyable professional experiences I have had, was serving as the mentor-resident coach at National Teachers Academy, an amazing school in Chicago’s South Loop neighborhood. When I started there, the principal was Amy Rome. From my first days at the school it was clear that Amy was an exceptional leader. She always kept our students and families at the center, while at the same time being responsive to the needs and concerns of teachers. Her door was always open to teachers, students, and families. Her ability to listen and build strong relationships helped to build a strong sense of collective efficacy amongst the staff.  She demonstrated vulnerability and honesty which made me feel safe to go to her with the challenges I faced in my work. When she counseled students when they did not make their best choices, she often asked them how they could work on being a better version of themselves. She brought the best version of herself as a leader each day.I have taken this same idea to guide my own reflection as a leader. How am I bringing my best self as a leader? What are the areas that are challenging for me? How can I learn more about these challenge areas?

As I read over my six word stories, I am struck by how leadership, even with its challenges and stress, has been such a gift. My desire to better understand myself as a leader has kept me open to insights from those I have had the privilege to serve.  As you grow in your leadership, during your reflection, take the time to write your own six word stories. Encourage those you lead to write their own.

Carrie’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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