Leaders always . . .

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.

13 thoughts on “Leaders always . . .

  1. Love this blog post, Debra! We both had the theme of experience in our posts this week!! (also love how you bolded one sentence — good effect!)

  2. What a great post Debra! I was smiling and nodding the whole time. I too have noticed when speakers have come through my school and they share their background, that many seemed surprisingly short on classroom experience. I too would disregard them and begin wondering why it was that they could become an “expert” or even an administrator after only 5 years in the classroom. The idea of learning from the veteran teachers on staff seems so novel, but it really shouldn’t be. I myself did not feel worthy of coaching others in any capacity until I had a good number of years under my belt. Even as an instructional coach with 16 years experience in the elementary classroom do I think I know it all. There is no way I could know it all, and we always have things to learn from one another. As a coach I enjoy listening to teachers, hearing what works for them, what their struggles are and how I might be able to help. That approach has really made my work as a coach now a lot easier.

    • Oh Melanie!! Thank you for your kind comments. I really agonized over posting this one. I totally agree with you about you never really do know it all, but more experience than 5 years certainly helps expand your opportunities to have experienced a wider range of situations. It shocks me the number of people we have in the classroom today who are there just for the brief period of time they’re required to be there before they can move up into administration. They really never wanted to be teachers. They want to be principals and superintendents because that’s where they see the money is. And our students are the ones that suffer in the meantime. Sometimes, I think the days are totally gone when people actually became teachers because they wanted to teach and not because it was just the fast track to administration.

  3. Thank you for sharing. Ditto, what you said! A school is lucky to have veteran “sounding board” educators, we need them. I have always appreciated having the ability to talk ideas out with someone who has a wide perspective.

    • Me, too! The issue in my building right now is we don’t have very many teachers who are long term veterans. The staff is predominately rookies with 1-5 years in. There are a few with 5-10, but I think I may be the only one with 31. It’s actually sad.

  4. Wow. I do love this post. I didn’t put “listening” as a necessary skill on my list of “Leaders always . . .”, but you are so right. I am a veteran of 20 years now, and I have the gift of working with a new teacher this year in a mentoring capacity. I hope that I am providing her the same validation, experience, and hope that you eventually received from those veteran teachers so long ago. Thank you for your sharing.

  5. Hi Debra

    My personal frustration is educational organizations have very talented staff yet choose to bring in outside presenters. It is the same issue with conferences here in Australia — they bring in oversees presenters.

    Unfortunately part of the challenge can be ourselves 🙁 Sometimes we’re more likely to listen to a message if an outsider delivers it.

    I’m glad your Assistant Principal listened to your feedback and reached out to the veteran teachers.


  6. What an inspiring story you share. How very brave of you to speak up–to me that shows you do have leadership qualities! I too wonder why we listen to those with such little experience when within our own buildings we have so much more knowledge that can be shared. Kudos to your assistant principal for being wise enough to take your suggestion and build new teacher leaders!

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