I am not a principal. I don’t run a school. I don’t monitor if you sign in or not. I develop curriculum and help teachers hone their methodology. It’s what I love to do. But I also found out over the last three days, I lead people too.
For the last few weeks, there has been a growing disconnect between the staff I work with and myself. I am new; my position was just created as of December 1st, but I have worked with this staff in other capacities for almost 5 years. Something was afoot, something palpable, an undercurrent of discontent that showed itself in subtle ways.
Then the fences went up.
We are beginning a three-year construction process (if we are lucky and the construction management Gods smile upon us), and the initial steps to begin destruction of buildings not in the redesign were taken last week. While the exuberance of teaching in a state-of-the-art building appeals to all of the staff, the reality of the three or so years leading up to it hadn’t shown its forlorn self until those fences appeared.
When I was in the classroom, I lead students by example. My passion was my greatest weapon, and the stories we shared together about the history of the world enveloped us all. As I migrated into staff development I relied on the same practice; it was a passionate relationship with the possibilities that technology and new pedagogy opened for me. It, too, infected those around me. Leading people was so much more about the “hey, look what I am doing. I’ll show you so you can do it too.” And it worked because it was a suggestion to a colleague.
What changed when I entered administration, and I don’t know whether it was a preparatory change I made sub-consciously or a change that was overt, was that method of leading by doing no longer was seen as suggestion, but mandate. Although I still felt like a colleague, acted like a colleague, and contributed to the development of ideas, it was no longer taken as collegial, but rather a directive.
Prior to this past week, I had been contacted by a few of the teachers in the departments that I oversee about the climate of the building in which they work. The general feeling was that the morale was extremely low, that teachers were not happy, that they had no voice and no support on issues that are essential to their ability to do their job. Decisions were made that affected their classrooms and they were being told about it after the fact. The top-down approach they were seeing was not helping them feel as if they had a stake in the future of our school.
My plan originally was to address the individuals who spoke with me and assess the situation in a one-to-one conversation. By the time our department meetings rolled around this week, it became clear that what we had was something close to revolution. Our agenda for this week was to have each department meet for 3 hours a day during the HSPA Testing and work on curricular issues. Each department would have 6 hours over the two days to examine their curriculum, methods and resources. That’s a lot to ask of an unhappy group. We have a professional staff and they worked brilliantly to revise and add resources to their curriculum. It was in these meetings over the course of three days that I learned something valuable about leadership.
The English Department came in on Tuesday and on Thursday faced with re-writing their research process due to the fact that our Media Center will not be a Media Center next year, but most likely become classroom space due to rooms lost to reconstruction. Our goal was to analyze what we wanted our students to do with the resources we did have left. As they progressed through the morning, I noticed that they worked hard, they were knowledgeable about what they taught and they cared deeply about doing it well. Something was missing.
A lot of the conversations in the blogosphere are about making students feel like what they are doing has a point in the real world. Meaning is a bigger issue than information. I agree with that, but I agree with that for teachers as well. On Thursday morning, I had planned to do all of this crazy tech stuff with the teachers: Google Docs, Notestar, Google Earth, etc. ad nauseum. On Wednesday afternoon, after meeting with one of the members of the department, I decided to throw all of that aside.
I gave them a copy of my image for the Passion Quilt Meme, and talked about the things I was passionate about in education. I asked them to list the things that made them become English teachers. What were there passions? And we talked about them, we agreed on things, we stole each other’s ideas, we learned about one another, and we laughed with one another. Then I asked them to take those passions and describe how they would want to pass them along to their students. Who do they want entering the world after they graduate? Our results connected us by way of our common and disparate ideas for our students.
I feel like most of the meaningful moments in my career are accidental; that I have no control over when my greatest lessons are going to be learned. This is what happened to me yesterday. I learned to be a leader, and I learned to do it by listening to people tell me what they want, and then helping them get there. Yesterday told me that leadership is not always about gaining control of situations, but giving it over to the people that need it.
I listened, of course, but then I let them act.
Flickr image credits: “Flat” and “Heirarchy” from timabbott’s photostream