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How do you handle the call to lead?

As it turns out, I may have handled the call 38 years ago much better than I do today.

As a fifth grader in 1976, I shared a love for playing jacks with my girlfriends. Each day at recess my friends and I would play jacks outside. The problem: our play area was a hot, humid, pebble-covered hillside.

But together, we thought of a solution. We could play inside our classroom on the perfectly level hardwood floors. We’d hold an indoor jacks tournament just for girls while the boys ran and sweated outside (we had no air conditioning in our central Alabama school, but that didn’t matter).

That led to the next problem: who would talk to the teacher? Now, I want to point out something here. The student-teacher relationship in 1976 had not yet evolved into the open exchange with children that I often see today. For my friends and me, approaching the teacher for a request like this was akin to going off to see the wizard. A very scary wizard.

Someone in the group asked, “Who should talk to Ms. Perry?” I will never forget what happened next. The entire group looked at me and said, “Jennifer. She should go. She’s the one.” One look at their desperate faces and I knew that they were right. It had to be me. I simply replied, “OK.” And that was the moment my life changed forever.

I decided to draft a proposal that addressed all the potential problems Ms. Perry would have with our plan. For example, every day two classes went to recess together. I proposed that one teacher take the boys outside while the other stay inside with the girls.

Then I created a bracket for all the girls who wanted to play in the jacks tournament. I even added some academic appeal to the proposal by promising that every girl would calculate her own probability of winning the tournament (something we’d been studying in math). Finally, I made sure the teacher knew that we’d supply all the jacks and the balls.

Ms. Perry said yes. A few days later we held the most magnificent jacks tournament of all time. (At least we thought it was!) Though I was put out of competition in the first round, I won something more precious than trophies or ribbons that day. I earned the mantle of leadership – a prize I didn’t seek but one I found when willing to be faithful to the cause.

But even if Ms. Perry had said no, I think that day would still have set me on a lifelong path of leadership. That fateful day, I was chosen to be a leader. It was my duty to listen to my friends, craft a message that represented our wishes, and deliver the message convincingly and succinctly. Granted, I had no control over the outcome. But I had total control over the decision to serve my friends.

Leading begins with a very deliberate decision to serve others. It comes from a place of empathy and draws on the deep connection we have to the people we serve. I felt it when I approached my “Wizard of Oz.” And like the tin man, the scarecrow, and the lion who went off to see their wizard, I know so many others who lead with amazing heart, brainpower, and courage. Our CTQ Collaboratory is filled with examples of amazing servant leadership.  

  • Cheryl Suliteanu’s great heart has driven her to work tirelessly toward a vision for school as a community center. This fifth grade Oceanside, CA teacher’s dedication to her dream started long before winning the Goldman Sachs “Innovation is U.S. Education” essay contest, but continues today as she shifts into high gear working with parents to bridge gaps between school and community. Leadership requires a servant’s heart.
  • Marsha Ratzel, Jose Vilson, Larry Ferlazzo, Cindi Rigsbee, Bill Ferriter, Roxanna Elden, and Ariel Sacks put their brainpower to use for the good of educators everywhere. These wise and experienced CTQ Collaboratory members have published books on a wide variety of topics. Sometimes I take for granted the process that produces the inspiration I depend on so often in my career. Writing a book is no simple task. Thought leadership requires enormous brainpower.
  • Wendi Pillars spoke up. This expert teacher in a rural high-poverty North Carolina school spoke up about school policies she believed were not in the best interest of her students. First published on The Washington Post’s The Answer Sheet blog, the letter she wrote to her third graders demonstrates Wendi’s intense compassion for students and commitment to serving their needs. Leadership requires relentless courage.  

But unlike the yellow brick road, the leadership journey is not about a destination. Oz didn’t really give the tin man a heart, the scarecrow a brain, or the lion courage. The potential already existed within each of them. But the journey was necessary in order for them to practice using the qualities they already possessed.

Can one be considered caring and kind if no caring or kind actions are ever taken? Am I courageous if I never do something truly scary? Are you wise if you don’t apply your brainpower to solve a problem or address a challenge? In the same vein, I must ask this: Are you a leader if you aren’t currently serving the needs others?

The mission to serve my friends so many years ago intrigues me today. Saying no just wasn’t an option. And it wasn’t easy. (Adults often unintentionally make light of the struggles of children, and if I’m not careful, I sometimes find myself minimizing the importance of my own experience.) But it was a big deal! I wonder if I understood the essence of leadership better at the age of ten than I do today.

What might have happened if I didn’t respond to my personal and civic duty to lead my friends in our quest to play jacks? Honestly, it’s hard to say. But I do know this: someone else would be telling this story. Someone else would have had taken advantage of the opportunity to take a journey toward developing their mind, heart, and conviction. I would be reading about their growth, not telling the story of mine. I’m glad I confronted the wizard. 

4 Comments

Cheryl Suliteanu commented on April 22, 2014 at 10:06am:

struggles with empathy

Jennifer, it's truly no wonder you and I bonded so immediately - our leadership stories are so similar.  Thank you for sharing yours in such a poignant and relevant message. 

Leading begins with a very deliberate decision to serve others. It comes from a place of empathy and draws on the deep connection we have to the people we serve. 

One draw-back I've experienced on my leadership journey in many ways and many times, is the extent to which I try to help others.  I have often been so immersed in supporting others, I lose track of supporting myself. 

There are not always conducive environments in place for teacher leaders, and as one who has been challenged with this for most of my career, it has been a source of great struggle.  For those like us, who continuously seek opportunities to support our students, their families, our colleagues, in every which way possible - how would you suggest we balance our need to serve others while taking care that our efforts don't become self-sacrificing?

As a teacher leader, how have you overcome obstacles in your path that result from your drive to support others? For example, some administrators and even colleagues take offense when a teacher leader demonstrates initiative. How would you suggest teacher leaders approach situations such as these without losing motivation and determination?

Jennifer Barnett Jennifer Barnett commented on April 22, 2014 at 4:18pm:

Eyes on the Prize

Cheryl,

Thank you so much for sharing what I know is on the minds and hearts of all who lead. The obstacles (whether the challenge itself, others and their responses to our leadership, or what have you) can stifle us and derail our convictions. Maybe I have a little more of my mother's personality than I always thought, but I have a particular attitude that helps me. I unapologetically allow myself to push forward. I know I offend others (though I try hard not to) but at the end of the day, it's really about what motivates my goals -- the students. I also know that not all circumstances are conducive for leadership. Again channeling my mom, I don't care. I can do something. And I must never use the reasons it's tough as my excuse to do nothing. I have not figured this out -- in fact, I have so much to learn. Yet, I am at a point in my career where I can say I do know something about this and I know it really starts with standing firm in your convictions and your belief in yourself. I've got that. Now I'm in need of lots of dialogue and practice about how to be more effective and productive as a leader. That's why I love this community. It really is a nice little plot of fertilized soil in which teacher leaders can plant themselves. Growth is certain!

Let's keep the conversation going, Cheryl. For I know just how much I can learn from you -- a thoughtful, deep thinker with compassion and vision uncommon and unrelenting! :)

Jose Vilson commented on April 22, 2014 at 10:25am:

Resonance

What resonated with me was that, in fact, people DO have the potential within them to do more than the normal, to do above and beyond, given the right conditions (good or bad). Some of us lead because there's a leadership that promotes more leadership. Some of us lead because there's a serious lack thereof, and so we find ourselves wanting. How fortunate we are to have access to a community that can shares similar experiences around leadership, and thank you for this piece.

Jennifer Barnett Jennifer Barnett commented on April 22, 2014 at 4:25pm:

The right MIRROR to help them see?

Jose -- I'm wondering something. We agree that many more teachers have potential within them to lead beyond their own imagination. What is the appropriate "mirror" to prompt their realization of this fact? Most certainly, we need these teachers to actively engage, applying what lies within. What is the process that inspires this? What strategies should those "leaders who lead to promote more leadership" take? Isn't this completely different from "professional development" and if you agree, what implications come to mind?

Enjoying processing the simple thought that teachers DO have untapped leadership potential. Simple but powerful.

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