I remember as a very young teacher being in awe of those teachers in my building who were 15-30 year veterans. To say the least, I was having a very difficult time my first year. I was so overwhelmed. I had no one I could talk to, no one I could confide in about all the insecurities I felt. Actually, that’s not really true. I did have those veteran teachers I could have turned to, but I didn’t really want to confide in them because I didn’t want them to know just how much I was struggling. I was afraid it would make them think less of me as a professional. They made the job look so easy, so I knew I just had to be doing something wrong. There was no way teaching could be that hard.
The administration that I worked for at that time was bringing in speakers for professional development from all over the nation. I wish I could remember some names, but I don’t. I do, however, remember their curricula vitae all had one glaring thing in common. Most had only taught for 5 years sometimes less. Now, they were making it big on the speaking circuit going from school district to school district talking to teachers about how to be a better teacher. As young and naive as I was, that fact struct me as strange. I would find myself looking around the room at my new friends who had many more years in the classroom than the speaker had and wonder what must be going through their minds.
About two years into my teaching career, I was fortunate enough to serve on a campus committee that my building principal put together to help the administration plan professional development activities for the staff. The assistant principal who was placed in charge of this committee was sharing with us information about various speakers that he was hoping to secure for the upcoming school year. He felt the folks he had chosen could provide us invaluable information about how to be a better teacher. I remember asking him about the teaching experience these potential speakers had. I wanted to know if they were seasoned veterans or not. He wanted to know why I was asking. I suspect because he knew that the very ones he wanted to schedule had very little experience in the classroom.
I was very proud of myself that day. It was one of the first times as a very young teacher that I squared my shoulders back and I answered his question. I looked him straight in the eye and I told him that I wasn’t interested in what some rookie had to say about what makes a good teacher. I wanted to hear from someone like our Latin teacher at the time who had 20 years in the profession, or the Social Studies Department Head who was closing in on 25, or the English teacher in my hallway that I had so much respect for who was closing in on 30. The students loved and revered these teachers and I so wanted to be like them when I “grew up.” I wanted to know WHAT WAS THEIR SECRET???? I was dead serious! How had these people I envied so much managed to maintain a successful work/personal life balance AND their sanity all at the same time? How did they make it all look so easy?
As I told him quite frankly, I was ready to throw in the towel after only two years of teaching. I was ready to walk away from a job that I had worked so hard to get because it was the hardest thing I had ever done. It would be so easy to put a few years in and decide to go and do something else. I told him that as soon as a speaker’s credentials were read at a meeting and I discovered they’d had less than 10 years in the classroom, I totally tuned them out from that moment on, because from my perspective, they were a quitter. And if they chose to leave this very worthy profession for something far more lucrative like public speaking, why should I listen to anything they had to say? Why should they be given any credibility in the education field at all? I desperately wanted to hear from these veterans I had seen in the classroom. I wanted to learn from them!
To his credit, this very astute assistant principal took what I said to heart. He reached out to these veteran teachers and asked them to create and hold workshops for the entire staff. I learned more in those next few years about how to manage students, parents and administrators than I had ever learned before or since. I guess you can chalk it up to the fact that I am, at heart an historian. I like learning from those who’ve gone before me and been successful. Not those who dallied at something for a brief time and then, chose to move on.
So, I’ve told this very long story about what I experienced as a young teacher growing within the profession to illustrate what I think a good, maybe a great leader does. A good leader listens. He listens. It’s as simple as that. What I experienced in that moment with my assistant principal was life changing for me. I was heard. I believe that good leaders listen to those they manage. What a beautiful gift that was! He allowed me the opportunity to ask for what I needed to grow and become more successful in a job that I loved, but was struggling with. He also responded to my request. He responded by providing me the very help I so desperately needed. He didn’t get offended because what I was asking for wasn’t the trendiest thing to do. He genuinely heard me and gave me what I needed to grow.
Now, that I in the library, I try very desperately to be that sounding board for teachers who have no one else to turn to. Unlike that assistant principal in my story, I am not in a position to make any changes for the teachers in my building, but I can let them vent. Sometimes just being able to verbalize the frustration in a safe, nonjudgmental environment is good. I can also offer them advice on how to deal with the stresses they’re feeling. Now, it’s my turn to to be a 30 year veteran that some of my teachers look up to and come to for advice about how to deal with students, administration, and parents. I can only hope that what I provide them is as valuable to them as my assistant principal’s gift was to me.