The Moments Never Announce Themselves, They Just Arrive


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.

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Flickr image credits: “Flat” and “Heirarchy” from timabbott’s photostream


9 thoughts on “The Moments Never Announce Themselves, They Just Arrive

  1. What an interesting post, Patrick….

    You’re in a position that I’ve long considered taking! While I love the idea of having a full time staff development position, I know how judgmental I am towards people in similar positions.

    As hard as I try, I still see those people as “outsiders.” They no longer have to wrestle with the pressure of accountability because they aren’t the “teacher of record” in classrooms. They have “influence by proximity” that I’ll never have, spending time rubbing elbows with administrators and other district level leaders—-and they can flex their schedules to make and attend presentations that I’ll never be able to get to.

    That kind of disparity between our work causes an unintentional resentment that can only be broken down through the kinds of intentional steps that you took this week to build relationships.

    So many compliments to you—–the work that you did to share passions, conversations and experiences with your peers (emphasis on the word peers!) will go a long way to giving you the kind of leverage that leads to real change.

    Here’s an interesting question for your readers: How many people working in instructional support/professional development positions actually understand the role that relationships play in driving change?

    Do you think that the majority of those people work as hard at relationships as they do at the rest of their work? What specific steps have they taken to make relationships the centerpiece of their work?

    Better question: What are the barriers to positive relationships in schools?

    My mind is flying…

  2. Bill,

    Thanks for the feedback. The barriers to positive relationships in schools? That’s a huge question to drop on us.

    Here is something that stuck with me that a teacher said to me this past week:

    “If we are unhappy, can you imagine what the students feel?”

    More than anything else, that struck me as a powerful motivator to get at what I needed to with the teachers I met with. Happy teachers go a long way towards producing happy students.

    One of the biggest obstacles teachers face, and I remember this from being in the classroom and as tech coordinator, is when they do not feel like they are a part of long range planning. And I don’t mean just in curriculum planning, but building planning. I don’t dig on mission statements or slogans (although I did like Tim Tyson’s at Mabry-‘making learning irresistible for 25 years’), but buildings and districts should have tangible goals. What I tried to do was to identify that we had common goals in the English Department, that what we all wanted individually as teachers was not dissimilar. Despite all of our various methodological differences, political differences, or even differences in how to we approach literature, we still want our students to care about the world when they leave, to think critically about what they see, hear, and read, to know how to learn something on their own, and to know the extent of the world goes far beyond their zip code. Once we identified our common goals, establishing the environment necessary to get to them.

  3. What a wonderful way to reconnect. Very few of us are embracing change and jumping in at our school. I fear the next few years as I believe the mandates are coming and morale is already low. I am passing this post along as well.

  4. I, too, am a tech coordinator in a rural VT school district. I began as a classroom social studies teacher, but then spent many years at home raising my children. I eased back into teaching by substitute teaching and it was in that role that I discovered the KEY to teaching is the relationship one develops with kids. That was even more important than the passion. So now I’m learning that all over again with adult learners. But my staff are never required to spend a block of time locked in a room with me (thank goodness!) so, developing those relationships are tricky. I try to attend as many social gatherings as I can, and now go to the faculty room for lunch. Recently I have begun 10 minute classroom walkthroughs where technology use is only one of many factors I look at. All communication around those visits is positive and has led to really good conversation in some cases. It reminds ME, too, of the challenges of “being in the trenches.” We are in the midst of conducting a survey about what teachers see as the needs our students will have as 21st C learners. Replies are slow in coming, but will help to drive some training we are doing for administrators and tech team members, just to show those leaders what some of the possibilities are with web 2.0 stuff. I generally don’t like the “top-down” training approach, but if the leaders don’t understand the profound changes we need to see in our practices, the best we can hope for is pockets of effectiveness.

  5. Hurricaine,

    I am coming to a few new realizations after this meeting. The first is that people are necessarily afraid of what the future looks like, but rather what they look like in that future. There are lots of people out there who will tell you that the future is happening, with or without you, but to me, that’s unrealistic. What is a better option is to show people, or to let them find, where they fit in the big picture.

    Whether it is top-down, or bottom-up, whoever is being asked to change must see some personal value in it.

  6. Lauren,

    Your last line included the phrase “pockets of effectiveness,” which I think is interesting. Ryan Bretag’s post the other day decried that as not being enough for systemic change, and that connecting those pockets is essential for schools to move forward.

    Like you, I taught social studies, and leaving the classroom was a difficult decision to make. The relationships with the students often made or broke how my year went. Why I didn’t think of doing something like this sooner, I don’t know; giving my students voice in planning what we did through the course of the year had worked very well. There is a feeling I got when I entered administration that I had to have all of the answers and all of the plans–both of which I had never professed to have prior to this. I am not so afraid of “I don’t know” after last week.

    Thanks for the comment, and good luck.

  7. Patrick,

    Two important skills every good leader needs to have, 1) the ability to listen and 2) the ability to have empathy for those with whom they are leading. Perhaps you were better able to recognize this situation with regards to the faculty due to the fact that it wasn’t long ago when you were in the classroom yourself. As your time goes by as an administrator, I hope you never lose that connection to the classroom. I think the better you keep it, the better those with whom you lead will become.

  8. Patrick,

    Thank you for sharing this powerful experience.

    I often think of something Stephen Covey writes about in Seven Habits for Highly Effective People, which is “first, listen.”

    You did just that. It’s the sign of a skilled teacher to know when and how to adjust the plans out of response and concern for the students,whether they are adults or younger.

    And helping them find the passion is probably the most critical thing you could do to energize their professional lives.

    (And as an aside, wondering what will happen with your media center and librarian during the construction?)

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