Lessons in LeadershipFebruary 22, 2017
Shortly after I received the Milken Educator Award in November 2015, the Department of Education at Wake Forest University, my alma mater, invited me to deliver the keynote address at the university's 14th Annual Emerging Teachers Leadership Conference. My remarks to the conference attendees reflected the significant lessons and risks that continue to guide my career and foster my growth. I'm happy to share them here.
Lesson 1: Challenge the curriculum
Straying from frustrating curriculum that didn't meet my students' needs has led my students to their most rewarding work. When students told me assignments like five-paragraph essays and book reports felt frustrating and pointless, I pivoted to nonfiction genres like profiles, podcasts and feature articles. Writing about real people got them invested in the stories they were telling.
Profiles require students to interview and shadow someone in the community. My young writers forge remarkable connections with their subjects. There isn't a dry eye in the house at our public readings at the end of the year; these stories touch everyone, including parents, neighbors, students and fellow teachers. Taking my curriculum outside my classroom has given my students the freedom and opportunity to stretch and shine.
Lesson 2: Relationships matter
My first few years of teaching I rarely spoke to parents. In fact, I was afraid of them. I feared that by reaching out to parents, I would be telling them that I was not reaching their children effectively. I expected disappointment when they heard my voice.
Then I sat in a conference for a student who was in danger of failing my class. The parent across from me happened to belong to my gym. What began as a silly remark about parallel workout times transitioned into a solid relationship, with early-morning conversations about her daughter's personal struggles and their impact on her academics. Our personal connection let us work as a team to ensure her daughter's success.
Building relationships with parents let me advocate for students in new ways. Parents want teachers to reach out – not only to ask for support at home, but also to share a child's shining moments. Do not be afraid to ask your students' parents for help.
The relationships we build with students are even more valuable. I stand in front of a classroom today because of Mrs. Melanie Arfman, my freshman social studies teacher. She gave me the confidence to take Advanced Placement classes and to run for class office three years later. Teacher, mentor, friend, colleague: My relationship with Melanie has evolved over the years, but her investment in me has remained a constant. This one teacher has made an immeasurable impact on my career, my life and my students.
My value as a listener and mentor outweighs any lesson I teach on writing or literature. We must see our students as individuals. We must show them we genuinely care about them as people. Our students may not remember each lesson we deliver, but they will remember how we made them feel.
Lesson 3: Let them see you as human
Five weeks before I received the Milken Educator Award, my father lost his battle with cancer. The day after my father passed, I snuck into school early in the morning to set up lesson plans for my substitute teacher. I was shocked to find two of my seniors in the photocopy room. These students had already designed lesson plans for each of my classes (including classes they were not part of). They gave me a hug and told me to go home. "We've taken care of your classes," they said.
For the next five days, I got to school early to set up plans for the sub. These students got there earlier to do the same. They provided leadership and support that I needed more than I was able to admit. They saw me as an individual, not just the person designing their curriculum. And they supported me the way I always try to support them.
Let students see that you endure similar struggles, your heart aches like theirs, and you rely on the support of others. When we let students into our lives, we teach empathy.
Lesson 4: Embrace failure
As an admitted perfectionist, I hate and fear making mistakes. But when I started teaching I realized that failure needs to be part of the curriculum. My best lessons are the result of trial and error, of revising and tweaking ideas that did not work out as planned. Now I define "failure" differently: Failing is my first attempt at learning.
Don't fear failure. Use your mistakes to collaborate with your colleagues. Ask your students' opinions. At the end of each instructional unit, I ask students to reflect not only on the "big questions" that were answered for them through the lessons, but also which lessons they found most and least effective. I ask them which parts of the unit they would revise, and how. This reflection encourages students to think critically and gives them a voice in their learning. Laugh at your mistakes: Students will appreciate the levity and learn that risk-taking and failure should be embraced, not avoided.
Lesson 5: Take care of yourself
As teachers, we rarely put ourselves first. When we do, we worry: Will our lessons suffer? Will our students feel neglected? Will our colleagues and administrators think less of us? I'm still working on this balance, but I know it's critical.
In 2013, I withdrew from a doctoral program to which I had devoted immeasurable hours of reading, writing, and research. It was the most difficult decision of my professional career. It was also the smartest.
Returning to the classroom inspired me to advocate for myself in new ways. I took personal and professional risks. I wasn't expecting or looking for leadership opportunities, but they appeared. Two years after I returned to the classroom, I won the Milken Educator Award. I am thankful every day when I look at my MEA obelisk. It reminds me that if I hadn't left my Ph.D. program and returned to teaching, I wouldn't be part of the Milken Educator family, a professional network I value so highly.
It's acceptable to turn down opportunities when your plate is full. It's okay to admit that something isn't a good fit. Learn to say "no." Be kind to yourself.
Lesson 6: Be your own hero
Teachers shape the future of our society. We are responsible for our future scientists, politicians, activists, and so much more. I cannot think of a more important role to play.
Never underestimate the influence you have on your students. Students are the most shining examples of our success as teachers. At times, they have more confidence in us than we have in ourselves. Use their confidence to boost your own. Take risks. Celebrate your wins, big or small. Despite the ever-changing climate of education, the power for change exists in our own classrooms.
Thirteen years before I delivered these remarks at DeTamble Hall at Wake Forest, I sat in the audience at the same conference. I remember wondering how someone would earn the right to present a keynote address.
I realize now that sometimes we are called to be leaders, even if that is not how we label ourselves. Leadership will find you in unexpected places. Embrace it. Accept the responsibility. And use the opportunity to push our field forward.
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