With a classroom of over 400 students, it’s quite easy to be consumed with managing behaviors, teaching social emotional learning, providing mental health support to students, leading school improvement efforts, creating systems-dependent structures, addressing parent concerns, and responding to an inbox full of requests — just to name a few. As an assistant principal of a Title One elementary school, my classroom is quite large and demanding. It’s filled with preschool through fifth grade students as well as teachers, paraprofessionals, custodians, cafeteria staff, teacher leaders, families, district colleagues, and more.
When I was a teacher leader in a traditional-sized classroom, regardless of the challenges I faced, I fought hard to reach students and help them overcome obstacles related to transiency, trauma, and poverty; all of that pulled me in the same way. But what never waivered was that I believed in my purpose. My work as a teacher leader encouraged and developed the ways in which I articulate my purpose.
As one of the first teacherpreneurs for CTQ, I honed my ability to tell the stories of my students, advocate at the local and state level, and speak with policy makers and leaders. I never forgot how to connect any audience to the heart and then directly speak to what is needed from policy makers. As my purpose became clearer, I realized the importance of knowing my mission.
Entering my third year as assistant principal, the district superintendent asked that we each write a job description that identifies our role and, aligns with the mission of our district: accelerating student learning for every student every day. As I revised the statement, I debated getting rid of the line “I lead with heart to develop systems and structures for students and staff to thrive.” My inner dialogue criticized, “You’re an assistant principal; you need more in here about structures, systems, expectations.” But I answered myself, “Your heart is what is doing the leading: it is aligning to and bleeding at times for the mission.”
I learned in teacher leadership how to articulate my mission, my why. In addition I learned to speak to policy makers with confidence while also being humble. Over time, I became more and more impassioned to speak my truth, to stand up for my students, to articulate the needs of the most vulnerable learners; ultimately, I learned how to be mission-focused.
Each time I was called upon to speak about a policy or practice, I had a student, whom I will call Antonio, in mind. Antonio wore his gang affiliation proudly along with his ankle bracelet. He was at minimum two years behind in reading and writing and was rarely on time and present in class. When he was present, he flirted with the girls and spoke inappropriately. As his English teacher, I led with heart, showing him my dedication to his success and future in a consistent manner. I thanked him excessively, even when I struggled to muster it out of my mouth.
Over time, I noticed subtle changes. Each day I thanked him for being there; his strolling into class went from 30 minutes late to 20 minutes late to (almost) on time. I responded the same each time. Eventually, he focused a bit more on the reading and writing than the flirting. I was so proud when he wrote an opinion piece about detailing cars. Many years later I learned he accomplished that goal when he surprisingly sent me a private message on Facebook; he thanked me. I noticed those capitals and periods still needed work, but although I cared about his preparation for grade level standards, that wasn’t my why, my mission, or the legacy I left Antonio.
Because I am a mission-focused leader, my very large classroom — like my former students — tells me what it needs, and I respond.
On the most difficult of days when you need courage most, here are some questions to ask yourself to find your heart:
- How am I moving forward our (school, district, organization) mission?
- What is my personal mission as an educator?
- Why I am the right person to move this mission forward?
- Whose life did I make better today? What lives did I impact?
- Why am I here? What am I trying to do while I am here?
- What part of my work takes the most courage?
Sometimes you won’t see it, but if you are open to it, at times of difficulty your students will show you your why. Listen to it among the madness, the business, the deadlines, the chaos.
Your self-care also matters. Find ways to keep these questions visual; post them somewhere you do your daily lesson planning:
- Create a mini peace corner on a section of your desk.
- Draw or write your mission and frame it for a visual reminder of your why. Place it at work or at home where you get ready in the morning to help you get motivated for the day.
- Create a visual symbol or image of your why. For me it’s a river rock on my desk with the word invest on it. I invest in others.
- Take a self-care moment to remember someone who made you push harder when you lost your why or a student who was impacted by your dedication.
- Give yourself permission to disconnect for a moment. Go outside for lunch, shoot hoops with kids during PE, take a walk around the building; let your why come to you.
- Share a spotlight of your day with a colleague. My principal and I do this especially on those days we feel particularly deflated.
Knowing your mission means knowing your why. And without the visual reminder of your why, on a rough day you might decide that making frappuccinos sounds more suitable. So hold that mission tightly because it’s in your heart. Learn to share it with others because it will remind them that we are doing something important. Why? Because your very large classroom relies on it.
Dana Tucker’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 Roundtable 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.