Monday, February 25, 2019

What's Leadership?

This is going to sound like it opens with a brag. But it doesn't. Not really.

A few days ago I had my mid-year goals meeting with my principal. We looked over my data and the growth goals I'd set for my students and saw that things were going well. With a little time left in the meeting the conversation veered towards the other things I'm a part of at school. You know how you know you're busy, but you don't realize how busy until you start listing everything out? It was one of those moments. I'm the head of the MakerFaire committee and on others, my grade level teammate is a first year teacher so I'm doing what I can to help and support him, I'm taking a math studio training to improve my math instruction, I'm part of a group of teachers that is working with the district to revise evaluations and make them more teacher-friendly, and I'm teaching a seven week Google course to fellow teachers through a district-sponsored program, and I just started being a part of an exciting joint partnership with a construction business to help kids see how what we're doing connects to the future. And I'm, you know, teaching. It's a lot. Sometimes everything comes crashing together all at once and I've suddenly got five meetings in four days, but for the most part it's not bad. I'd say no to things if I felt like it was too much.

When I was leaving the meeting my principal said something very nice to me. "Thank you for being such a leader at our school."

I replied, "I appreciate that, but I really don't feel like a leader. I'm just doing things."

This weighed on me. What is leadership, dear reader?

In my head leadership looks like something specific. After a moment’s reflection, I was surprised that idea conflicted with my normal stance of “everything different depending on everyone.” When she called me a leader I immediately thought about how I don’t think anyone at school would call me a leader. It certainly never feels like anyone is saying or even thinking, “Look what Doug is doing, we should be doing that! Let’s follow him.” Leaders need followers, right? Otherwise you’re just someone talking to yourself.

If you asked me what my style of “leadership” is, I’d tell you that it’s completely “Dig this.” Not Terminator “Come with me if you want to live,” but more like “I’m gonna do this, you do what you want with it. I think it’s cool.”

I’ve been spending some time recently speaking to a class of education majors at a local university. (I know this seems like a sharp right turn, stay with me.) I got to go into their class and speak to them, and then they came out to my school and got to check out my room and do some making in our MakerSpace. Helping education students is my biggest education passion that isn’t directly related to something happening in my classroom with my students. The only way to impact education on a deep long-term scale (outside of legislation), is to get ahold of teachers before they become teachers and get them thinking about the job in honest, productive ways. I will run to any chance to speak to education students. I wrote a whole book about the mentor teacher/student teacher relationship. This is Important To Me.

At the end of both my talks I begged them to please email me, tweet me, DM me, carrier pigeon me anything anything anything they want or need to talk about, whether it’s related to what I talked about with them or not. By the time I got home that first night I had an email from one of them. I’m not going to share what it was about, mind your business, but it was the start of what will hopefully be a longer relationship. The night after they came out to my class I had another email from a different student, asking to meet for coffee and talk. Right after I finished at the conference I was speaking at I headed to my favorite local coffee shop and we chatted for at least an hour, probably closer to 90 minutes. We shut the place down. Again, the specifics are none of your business, but I did my best to listen to her and give her the advice and wisdom I feel I’ve gained in my time in the job. And again, it seemed to help.

Helping baby teachers out is what we should all be doing. This job is hard and scary and we all remember those early days. I hope more of them reach out.

I was telling a friend about this, a friend who I’d previously told about my conversation with my principal that ended with the “I’m not sure if I’m a leader” thing. She pointed out to me, “This is leading too. That’s how you lead. It’s not loud (first time I’ve ever been called ‘not loud’), but it’s mentorship.”

Which dovetails nicely with a follow-up conversation I had with my principal earlier the day before. We were the only two people from our school at the conference and ended up having lunch together. I brought up to her that I wanted to clarify my comment about not being a leader and explained my thinking- how I don’t see anyone wanting to follow, and I don’t expect that, how I’m just doing what I’m doing, but I don’t know if it’s having an impact beyond my room. She explained to me that that was because I can’t see beyond my room. I’m too busy getting my head down and trying to do what’s best for my kids. Too busy trying new things and running with ideas. Which is true. Classrooms are often closed systems and it’s hard to see what’s happening in other people’s worlds, even when doors are open. She told me how she had seen the school change in the last four years, since I was hired. I don’t want to make it sound like I changed my site, one teacher really can’t do that alone, but in her paraphrased words my willingness to use technology, to take risks in my room, to building things, echoed through the building. She has a better view of the school than I do, and she’s seen changes happen. People taking risks, trying to use things they hadn’t before, and it was her impression that what I do is part of what helped make that ok. I am not the only teacher like that at my school, I’m lucky to be on a team with one of the most creative teachers I’ve ever met.

I responded, “No one comes to me though. Not really. I offer help all the time. It’s only occasionally taken up.”

“You can’t be a prophet in your own land,” she replied. Which rings so true. That day I’d given a keynote that I’m very proud. I’m also aware that the keynote would never have flown at, say, a staff meeting. Wrong audience, wrong delivery system, right message. But if we brought someone else in for a PD and they said everything I want to say, people would listen better. Isn’t that weird?

That tied itself to my thinking around helping new teachers. It’s not about flashy leadership. It’s not about being the one at my school. It’s about setting an example through choices and actions and being willing to help. Or not help, if help isn’t wanted.

Is leadership “I just want to do things I think are important and do them the best I can, and if that rings true to you then come play too”? Because then I might be a leader, even if few people come. I realize my brand of nonsense isn’t mainstream pop and I’m ok with that. I don’t want anyone else to teach like me, it wouldn’t work. I want everyone to teach like themselves, so purely and truly that they feel one with their process. The only way to keep making stuff and stay happy about it is to accept that not everyone needs to like it as long as I like it. Is not really caring what others think a leadership quality?

I want to be Lemmy. Or Prince. Aim high, right? Lemmy and Prince were leaders. Not because they followed trends, but because they didn’t care and were so good that trends followed them. If I am a leader, I want to lead like Lemmy. From the front, hard and loud, try and keep up.

Leadership is many things. Recognition is nice, but at the end of the day I just want everyone to steal good ideas and change them to be better, and let me do the same. Ultimately, leadership isn't thinking about something or telling others to do something. You can't lead from the outside, because then you're not even modeling things, you're talking about modeling things. Leadership is a verb, it's an action, and it just needs to be done. Do it.

If you like this post and the other posts on this blog you should know I’ve written three books about teaching- He’s the Weird Teacher, THE Teaching Text (You’re Welcome), and A Classroom Of One. I’ve also written one novel- The Unforgiving Road. You should check them out, I’m even better in long form. I’m also on the tweets @TheWeirdTeacher.

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