I love the move “Lean On Me” with Morgan Freeman. There are so many great moments where Mr. Clark does or says something to inspire his students and teachers. If you’ll remember at the beginning of the film, Mr. Clark is teaching in an active class with involved students in a beautiful high school. A board member comes in to tell him they lost the vote and Mr. Clark lost his job. He was furious. He walks out with the words, “This place will get exactly what it deserves.” Cut to the next scene. Guns and Roses “Welcome to the Jungle” is playing, spray painted walls, drugs being dealt, and a student is shoved in a locker, and all you hear in the empty hallway is the voice of the student crying for help. Same school, but when the leadership went in a different direction, so did the school.
We spend a lot of space, on tv and written, talking about leaders. We hear about the world leaders. We analyze the comings and goings of any person who might be in charge of something. This would include elected officials, CEOs, board members, bosses from any company, and even our own households. Our kids have leaders among them. They form clubs, organize games, and figure out whose house will be best for the next sleepover. Leadership is partly inherent and partly developed. I believe almost anyone can be a leader with the right focus in the right areas. However, leaders can also destroy. They can take their powerful position to serve selfishly and create fear among the people who depend on them.
I spent every school year focusing on bringing out the leaders among our students. We spent the beginning of the year focusing on the qualities of leaders, what a leader does, and who inspires them. I always heard the typical names of Dr. Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, the President, and even people like Steve Jobs and Oprah Winfrey. What I was always inspired by though, was when the students would write and tell me about a personal leader in their life. A parent, an aunt, an older sibling, a church leader, and even sometimes a teacher! I often times think kids know a whole lot more about life than we give them credit for!
Great leaders are followers of other great leaders. They study what others have done and try to emulate the qualities they value and develop those qualities into their own style. Unfortunately, Instagram has hijacked the term “follower.” When you see someone you like, or someone who has great clothes, or advice, you click on “follow” so that you can see their posts in your feed. Gathering followers is a multi-million dollar business. Gather enough followers and companies begin to ask you to feature their products and you get advertising revenue. So our “leaders” are people pushing products that they might or might not use.
“Leader” is now becoming less and less about behavior and more and more about image.
I have a Master’s Degree in Leadership. I attended Trevecca Nazarene University for many Saturdays and summer days to obtain my degree. Going to school with other teachers who wanted to become administrators was so empowering. Many of us were in Nashville, but there were also people from the surrounding counties. I enjoyed the camaraderie and the challenges that this program brought to me. Mostly, I enjoyed the leadership development that took me to the “next level.” Not as a principal (although that was the original goal), but as a leader among my peers.
I always felt it was my responsibility to give back. In my job, in my community, to my family. I was so fortunate to have the support of so many as I was coming up through the ranks, it never occurred to me to sit on the sidelines and do nothing. So I led committees, clubs, teams, and whatever else needed someone to take charge.
While I don’t intend to be an administrator, I never pass up on an offer to help someone with their instruction and management systems. Leaders make themselves available to support or find the truth in a situation.
I have been talking/texting with a former student teacher. She’s at an elementary school and struggling, mostly with what all first year teachers struggle with, classroom management and planning. We talked earlier in the school year and I encouraged her to persevere, to take a great classroom management class offered by the district, and to reach out to her instructional leaders. That’s their job as leaders. They are to work with and encourage teachers who are struggling, especially one in her first year. I was heartbroken when she texted this week and told me she had decided to resign. That she never left school feeling like she had done a good job.
Then it got worse.
Her principal, the instructional leader in her school, the person who she should be able to turn to for support, berated her and suggested she look for another career. The final nail: she told her that she had no plans to rehire her.
It’s only December.
Why would we take a person who wants to learn and do a good job, and make them feel like a failure? An educational leader, should set the example and offer support, not tear someone down. Would she have said that to a student? You aren’t being successful, so maybe you should just go ahead and quit school? You’d never talk to a student that way, so why would it be ok to talk to a teacher with only 4 months of experience that way? My heart went out to her. At a time when good teachers are leaving in droves, the school leaders take the ones who are left and are trying to get rid of them too!
I put her in contact with our union leaders to help her find some support, and hopefully she will stay in teaching. That principal should be ashamed. Unfortunately, this is happening with a lot of teachers, with a range of experience.
Leaders, at least good ones, will take the time to help and support the people around them. A leader shouldn’t say “good job” because it’s on their to-do list, but because they value people and want to support them. A leader’s job is to enhance self-esteem, to guide, direct, and even sometimes redirect others. They believe in their profession and choose to help novices, because it’s the right thing to do. It’s never about one person, it’s about moving forward as one.
Leadership can also turn toxic. I have watched as good schools turned into bad schools with toxic leadership. Leaders with their own agenda and out-of-control checks and balances can topple a school. That negativity spreads like wildfire, amongst the students, the staff, and the administration. The students get out of control, teachers find other positions, and test scores plummet. I’ve lived through one of these and watched as our former principal revived it to glory. It was my life’s work and I’m proud to have been part of it. A great leader can lead others to their vision and rally them to greatness. Everyone knows it isn’t easy, but with the right vision and with buy-in, a leader can revitalize even the most struggling schools.
I share all of this because everyone who reads this has the capability to lead. The world, whether you’re in education or a student or an athlete, needs people to lead and inspire others. It isn’t easy to put yourself out there. Sometimes you’re out there in the wind all alone, but by rising up and speaking up for what’s right, you make it ok for others to do the same.