We Can All Be Leaders

I was never a leader — not even close. I never once imagined I possessed the ability to be seen as a leader. For most of my life, I was a steadfast member of the follower party. I grew up as the quintessential shy middle schooler, unsure of my place in this world. Friends did not flock to me. Teachers did not remember me. In high school, I sat in the back of class, answering an occasional question when the silence of a disengaged classroom became too uncomfortable. I avoided drawing too much attention towards me, finding comfort in being the third or fourth person to make a move. I liked being a follower. It was familiar; it was easy. It was what I had always known and how everyone around me defined me. If someone told me at 16 that I would lead children through their learning journey at 26, I would have laughed in their face.

I remember my first day teaching at high school English very clearly, the kind of day you can vividly hear the clicks of high heels echoing down the halls, feel the warm breeze enter through the slightly cracked window of classroom E27 — the kind of day where the emotions you felt then remain palpable each time you recall the memory.

I was timid and intimidated as a new teacher. I had entered a very grounded department that was noted for leadership time and time again; I mean, I had heard repeatedly in my interview that the English department was respected and admired for standing out amongst the crowd — something that remains true to this day. At that point in my life, I constantly avoided rocking the metaphorical boat, and I fully intended to proceed in such a fashion on my latest venture: shaping the minds of our youth. I didn’t plan on asking questions. I planned to teach the curriculum I was given in the way I was told to teach it. I needed to play it safe — because again, safe is comfortable. Safe and comfortable is the follower’s mantra.

However, easy and comfortable does not make a life fulfilling. We only unlock our potential when we step outside of the boxes that restrict our identity and limit our ability to choose who we want to be.

I knew that the material I was teaching did not resonate with my students. The texts were too challenging, the stories too distant from the lives and interests of my students. We continuously marched through assessment after assessment with little time to achieve proficiency and mastery of skills essential for lifelong success. I knew that many of my students were being left behind while simultaneously, other students were being significantly restricted by the diverse skill levels of students in the class. But we had deadlines to meet and assessments to complete. I truly cared about the well-being of my students, but my actions as a teacher did not reflect my sentiments. By the end of my first year as a high school educator, I emphatically told all of my loved ones I was changing career paths. I was a broken mess. Twenty-three out of fifty-six sophomores I had been entrusted to teach failed my class. And I had let them fail by keeping my mouth shut. I knew in my heart what I was doing in my own classroom was negatively impacting student learning. I knew I was teaching in a manner that did not fit who I wanted to be, in a way that did not model the innate potential I wanted to help my students discover. I let my fear overpower what I knew was right. For the first time in my life, status quo did not bring me satisfaction. Comfortable and easy began to infuriate me.

I did not quit teaching, but I as that first summer came to a close, I approached my job with dread and resentment. I became bitter about my career choice, entirely confident that I had chosen the wrong career path. I was too young to be this jaded. I had tried to make some changes to the curriculum I was teaching, but my autonomy was still restricted, and my fear of rocking the boat still present. However, each day I fought incessant disengagement, my anger and frustration grew stronger. I needed to understand why students were so disengaged.

And then, one evening, this whirlwind of realization hit me out of nowhere, particularly on one afternoon which had reduced me to hopeless tears. (And to be clear, I am talking full on mascara running, grab your Kleenexes crying). I loved kids. Kids were and still remain the reason I chose to become a teacher. I wanted to help kids see how much they matter in this world. But again, I continued to fail them. More than half a class of missing homework. Fewer and fewer raised hands each day. Common texts. Common activities. Common pacing. Common assessments. Common prompts — -I was forcing these students to be common despite full awareness that kids are NEVER common.

The beauty in humanity rests in the diversity each human brings to the table. True leaders recognize the strength in numbers, the strength and beauty in these multiple perspectives that compose our world. Of course making a single experience the only possible experience in the classroom fosters disengagement. I had been trying to solve the problems of an entire educational infrastructure independently, and not once had I thought to rely on the diverse perspectives present in my classroom everyday. Evolving the way we “do” learning needed to change, and this change would only begin by asking for help from my students. Kids needed to be empowered to take back their learning, to make their learning meet their needs, passions, and interests. Kids needed an environment that helped them grow as individual learners. In a profession where we help to foster and shape one of the most fundamental elements of human existence, instilling and satiating curiosity there should not be a shortage of teachers. There should not be a multitude of under-performing students. We should not live in a world where we use prison analogies to refer to school. Learning should be beautiful; kids and teachers should be invested. The current state of our educational system simply did not make sense.

I walked into class the next morning, feeling vulnerable. I sat down on the table at the front of my room with my head in my hands. I confided in my students that I did not know what to do anymore. I told them that I felt like giving up. I told them that I felt like I was failing them. I told them that I needed their help. And so, I continued with a question that changed everything: Why do you hate school?

I can assure you, I felt scared. I was afraid the kids would not be receptive. I was afraid my coworkers would mutiny against my demand for change. I was afraid I would lose my job. I was afraid that by telling my kids I did not have the answers, I would lose their respect and trust.

However, the response of my students reflected the complete opposite. In that moment, my students and I formed an unshakeable solidarity. By allowing them to see that I was human and see that I truly valued their role in their education, I connected with my students in a way that enabled us to begin having authentic conversations about the missing pieces in their schooling. I gave my students a voice in their learning, and that was the beginning of a beautiful journey.

I significantly altered existing units and assessments to reflect the needs of my learners and allow for a more individualized curriculum. I maintained the rigor of the assessments, but did my best to create assessments that incorporated student voice, choice, and pacing. Yes, students need to be able to display a set of common skills, but their experience doing so should not be common. For this specific population, the ability to be heard and the recognition of their value goes a long way in the classroom. Being transparent with students, helped them to see why their success in school mattered and also motivated them to strive for more. I became a leader by asking for help. My students became leaders in their moment of raw honesty.

That semester, not a single sophomore failed our class.

Leadership snuck up on me, subtly, when I became angry, when my feelings of passion overwhelmed the mundanity of daily life. When I could no longer put up with the status quo, my voice strengthened. I became a leader when I found my purpose: fix this broken system we call education in America. Find something worth leading for, and I assure you, the task of leadership will not be a daunting weight upon your shoulders, but rather, a welcome calm, a feeling that you have finally found the missing piece to make your life complete.

Leadership is more than simply being the center. It is more than directing people. Leadership is a willingness to be vulnerable, to share your story and voice to help others. We need to show kids that they all have the ability to be leaders through example — by offering continuous moments of voice and choice in school, by stopping for a minute amidst the chaos to truly listen to what each of our kids has to say, to listen to what our teachers need. We need to empower the potential leaders inside each member of our school community.

To step into the shoes of leadership, teachers and students need support. They need to know their vulnerability in taking risks will be commended, because fear combats leadership, and the fear of what happens when one fails without support, toxic.

The world needs more people to recognize themselves as leaders.

One powerful leader creates a culture shift, their influence rippling out. One powerful leader in a school impacts the lives of students, fellow staff members, administration, districts. One powerful leader forces people to think, to step outside of their boxes of easy, comfortable, and safe, and begin to ask themselves: What if?

What if we all chose to be leaders? Now that would be an educational game changer.

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