Keeping the First Things First

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I work in education.  It is without question the most rewarding, engaging, and important work I can imagine.  We are entrusted with the care and teaching of people’s children. We show them facts and figures.  We empower them to think and learn things on their own.  And we shape what they believe and who they will become.  It is an awesome responsibility, and it is an enormous joy.

In classrooms, our focus should be on helping students develop the knowledge, skills, and character traits necessary to be the best versions of themselves.

In schools, our focus should be on empowering teachers and supporting students and families in order to meet the needs of everyone as they enter the classroom.

In districts, our focus should be on providing the resources and support necessary to ensure that each student has a successful school experience.

Steven Covey says it like this: Put first things first.

My roles in education have changed over the years.  I was a middle school teacher for thirteen years.  In that time, it was not always easy to put the first things first.  I set challenging objectives, designed engaging lessons and developed authentic and meaningful assessments.  I got to know my students on a personal level and tried to establish relationships.  But without fail, every year, there were things that got in the way of what I knew should be the first things.  Some of my students didn’t have enough to eat.  Some of my students had anxiety or depression or just that painful funk that often accompanies middle school.  Some of my students would misbehave and make it hard for everyone to focus on the lesson.  There were metaphorical fires to put out at times.  And in those times it was hard to put the first things first.

As a building administrator, those issues seemed to grow.  A disagreement between students in the neighborhood at night would spill over into first hour English class and end up in my office.  Those students who didn’t have enough to eat would stop in my office to grab a pop-tart on the way to class.  Sometimes a student who just needed to cry would take up several hours of the day.  I knew that my first job was to be the instructional leader in our school.  I knew that I should be in classrooms watching lessons and providing feedback, but it was not always as easy as I wished it would be.

As a district administrator, I know that putting first things first means being present in our schools and at activities.  I know it means being in classrooms watching lessons and ensuring that our curriculum is sound, our instruction is effective, and our assessment is driving instruction.  But there are still those metaphorical fires that get in the way. Staffing issues, discipline issues, and other emergencies (that many times are actual emergencies) get in the way of me keeping the first things first.

So what to do about it?

I’m not sure I have the answer, but I know that we need to give ourselves and each other grace when what we perceive to be the most important thing that someone should be doing doesn’t get done.  We need to recognize that there may be any number of things happening in our classrooms, in our schools, and in our district that are a more immediate need than what we shared as a necessary task.  We need to accept that our most pressing issue may be minor in the work that others are doing at a given time.  Sometimes putting the first things first means taking care of a hungry student, a frustrated parent, or a building principal who is asking for help

And then we need to refocus our attention, reflect on how we are spending our time, and design systems that support our work and allow for both the emergencies and the deeper leadership that guarantees all students succeed.

Nobody said this was going to easy.  But it is definitely worth it.

Lead Where You Are

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I have a friend who retired after a long career as a middle school social studies teacher.  She was one of those people who taught us all what it means to engage students.  Her classroom looked different every day.  One day the desks were in a huge circle to facilitate a whole class discussion, and the next they were arranged like the legislature to reenact a debate about the Bill of Rights.  She used formative assessment before we knew what that term meant.  And she taught me as much as anyone about good instruction.

I have another friend who has a gift for connecting with students.  Almost weekly a former student would come back to see her to tell her how much she meant to them.  During passing period, the students would hang out in her room to talk.  Before and after school there were always kids in her room for extra help.  While they were dissecting sentences or talking about The Outsiders, they would almost always also be telling her about their soccer games or dance recitals, their babysitting jobs and their trips over winter break.  She built relationships, and she taught me as much as anyone about the importance of connecting with students.

Neither of those friends had “official” leadership titles.  They were not department heads or assistant principals.  They were not curriculum facilitators or district administrators.  But make no mistake, they were two of the most influential leaders in my life.

The President came to Omaha a week and a half ago.  Before addressing a crowd at Baxter Arena, he stopped at the home of a high school English teacher.  She had written him a letter, and she had made an impact on his thoughts and his feelings.  A high school English teacher in Omaha, Nebraska had provided leadership to the leader of the free world.

Leadership is not a title.

Everyday we have the opportunity to impact the lives of our family, our friends, and our co-workers.  We can model positivity and strong work ethic.  We can do our jobs well, and we can treat each other with kindness and compassion.  In education we can build relationships with students from whatever seat on the bus we sit.

Every one of those interactions may serve as an example for others.  And every time we have the opportunity to witness those things, we can learn and grow and become better people.

We are all leaders.  We all share the responsibility for teaching our children, and we all share the responsibility for making our world a better place.

I get to watch the leaders in our district work every day.  They are kind and caring, smart and insightful, strategic and student-focused.    They are administrators and teachers, parents and students, and I am proud to be among them.

Leadership is not a title.  Lead from where you are!

 

 

Just a Teacher

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I started my journey in educational leadership ten years ago when I accepted my first administrative position as a middle school assistant principal.  I think there was a time when I believed that my journey really did start there- when I thought that my role as a leader began with that title. It did not.

Twice this week I was lucky enough to spend some time with former students.  It was a vivid reminder of something I have known inside for a long time.  Some of the most important leadership happening in our schools today is happening in the classroom.  It is happening with teachers and paraprofessionals who connect with children every day.

I am fascinated by climate and culture in schools and districts.  I think that a positive climate can foster a positive culture that can result in remarkable growth in the people working and learning in schools.  As “leaders” we spend time and energy measuring our climate and making plans to improve it.  I do think that the “leaders” have the greatest impact on climate. Principals and district leaders make decisions everyday that influence the overall feeling of the building.  Culture though is much deeper.  Culture is long-term.  It is the underlying beliefs that lead to action in a school.  Culture is what controls what happens in a classroom when the doors close and the real interactions take place.

Everyday in classrooms across the world teachers are leading culture in big and small ways.  When a student walks into the room looking upset, a teacher will ask them “what’s wrong?”.  Everyday teachers greet students by name and ask about their world.  Every conversation like this builds a positive culture. These interactions have an enduring impact on students. I was reminded of that this week. There is no greater feeling than knowing you had a small part in creating something positive for kids!

Too many times I have heard someone in a school say, “I’m just a teacher.”  I bet I said it myself at some point in my teaching career.  Just a teacher?  Teachers are the single most important leaders in our schools.  The climate and culture rises and falls on what happens between a teacher and a student.