Book Love Study Session

How Teachers Can Be Leaders

For a long time, leadership was an obscure idea to me. For the majority of my career I worked in one of the lowest performing high schools in Colorado. In six years, I had more than 20 building administrators and equal turnover at the district administration level. Living through this was frustrating to say the least, but as I reflect on it now, I have learned so much in such a short time about what it means to be a leader.

Unfortunately, I learned a lot about leadership through what I saw and did not want to emulate. There were leaders who used intimidation, aggression, and humiliation in an attempt to change the culture, and ultimately the academic achievement, of the building. Amid the chaos, I did have the opportunity to work alongside Cris Tovani who served as our district Language Arts Coordinator for two years. She showed me what I now consider to be the greatest quality of leadership, humility.

We co-taught a class – yes, I had to pinch myself every day to ensure I wasn’t dreaming – and when the bell would ring and kids would file out, I would have 101 praises to share with Cris. I swear, if someone took a photo of me watching her teach, my mouth would have been open and stars would have been coming out of my eyes. I was shocked when she didn’t pat herself on the back for anything I saw. Instead, she was quick to reflect on where she needed to go next, who needed her feedback, who needed more difficult reading, who needed less difficult reading, where pacing was off. Cris’ reaction reminded me of what Kevin said in the episode, “the point isn’t perfection – the point is progress.” I saw everything Cris did as perfect and she saw everything she did as progress towards growing each and every learner in our room.

The best leaders lead by example and humility. They do the work without praise or notoriety and are happy to share not only success stories but also failures, sometimes even more so the failures because that’s where we learn. We’ve all had that lesson, the one that goes (nearly) perfect, and we wonder why our evaluator couldn’t have come in that day. Those lessons make us feel solidified in our practices but if I’m being honest, it’s the lessons that come home with me and keep me up at night that make me a stronger teacher. The one that has me wondering, “What possessed me to think that would work?”

Rebekah Hess talked about how participating in NWP helped her to be more vulnerable in front of kids. That’s really what humility is all about; being open to feedback, open to failure, and in the case of instruction, being willing to put that failure out in the open. When Cris worked in our district, so did Sam Bennett and together they led Lit Lab, a professional development opportunity to work on strengthening literacy practices across content areas. At the end of every Lit Lab PD session, Sam would ask us what risk we were going to take before we met the following month. I loved it. I loved that someone acknowledged that incorporating new practices is scary and uncomfortable yet totally worth it and absolutely necessary to supporting our kids and ourselves. A month later, we would come together and share our successes, our failures, our questions, our embarrassments. There wasn’t judgment. There was just a group of wildly raw and curious educators working together to get smarter for kids. When we take the ego out of it – which I find can be difficult because I am protective of my practice – we open ourselves up to growth.

I’m leaving the classroom this year to share what I have been lucky enough to learn as an instructional coach at a new school. I’m terrified of coming across as a know-it-all, because I do not know it all, but I am deeply curious and passionate about instruction. After reflecting on all of the thinking shared in this episode, here’s where I’m at with my next steps:

  • Continue my personal growth. As Penny said, “we are in charge of how we grow.” I think this is a commitment I need to renew every year. No matter how much I read, YA or professional literature, how many podcasts I listen to; how many conferences I attend, I always miss something. There is ALWAYS something new to learn and that both excites and exhausts me.
  • Be a risk taker. This will look different this year. I need to take risks with teachers. Push harder than I’m comfortable pushing, without shoving, of course! Risk being vulnerable in front of a new staff. Risk trying something new and falling on my face.
  • Although I am attentive in the meetings I attend, I will usually stay fairly quiet. I need time to think and to process, especially with new material, which I fear will be everything for the next few months. So I will put Kevin’s words on repeat, “…teachers who are leaders do for themselves what they expect from their students. They read. They write. They share their thinking with others.”