In October, twenty 5th-8th grade CSISD students showed up at our Transportation Center to learn about and apply leadership skills. The students would learn to identify campus needs, motivate teams to address those needs and complete a project (including writing grants and budgeting).
I expected students to learn a lot. And they did. As one student put it, "This was so much more than I expected it would be."
What I did not expect was how much I learned.
It Takes a Team
Sure, I knew this. I had even applied this thinking throughout my career. But always as a team member, not a team LEADER. I learned the value of delegation- not as well as I could have, but it is a progress. I learned that the best thing a leader can do is identify the strengths of their team, and find ways to empower the team to use those strengths. I saw the power of a team that knew they were believed in, and how encouragement was contagious. When one person showed up with a fire for the day, it spread quickly. I learned the value of opposing ideas. Not that we argued on our LEADS team- but we did have different opinions on how to do things. Sometimes it went as I planned, sometimes the team had better ideas and we went with them. That empowered us all.
Play is Important
We started each day with team building. Usually the action was physical- obstacle courses or spaghetti towers, or lifting hula hoops. Not only did starting with this raise energy levels, it raised engagement and relationship levels. The play also gave students an example of what the day's goal for leadership was. Sometimes it was even planned to be that way.
As educators, it is easy to take ourselves too seriously.
We don't always have to.
Change Where You Are
In my life, I have often found that when change is difficult where you are, it is easier to find a new place. These student Ambassadors showed me that change where are now is not only possible, it is preferential. They sought to change their campus culture, even though they would only be there for a year- or less- of the change's installation. They did not look around and say "I could make this change easier someplace else," they endured and made the change where they are.
As an educator, I love to look for new and better ways to do things. Sometimes it changes easily, sometimes it is hard. Sometimes there is resistance. My student's greatest lesson to me this year was to develop a willingness to stand when it is tough, to stick with something rather than to look for a way out.
It is this last lesson I want to challenge my fellow educators with. Maybe the culture where you are is not good- and leaving is what you want to do. Maybe you desire to change your role- seek administration or more leadership roles but the opportunities are not at your current campus? But ask yourself these two questions- "Who will take care of my kids when I am gone? and "Can I make a difference where I am and still grow as an educator?" Maybe the answers to these questions let you feel released to move on- maybe they do not. Maybe they give you freedom to choose either solution.
I cannot tell you what the correct answer to those questions are for you.
But I can process what the answers are for me thanks to my LEADS team.
My name is Chad, and I am addicted to fettucini alfredo.
It started in college, I would get Chicken Helper boxed dinners and make a quick meal. Later, I started getting the jars of alfredo sauce- but they tasted...bad. Finally, I found a recipe for alfredo sauce online, and began tweaking it and adding to it to make it my own. And while the amount of butter I use in my recipe will likely kill me someday- I never want to go back to boxed dinners.
I get the lure of boxed dinners- they are quick, low effort, and relatively cheap. They also use roughly one pan- so there is not much cleanup. My chicken alfredo recipe uses at least three pots and pans. It requires constant monitoring and sampling to make sure the flavor and texture is just right while the box dinner is 'perfectly' seasoned.
The truth is, in my life, I do not like the 'boxed dinner' approach. Some will say "why reinvent the wheel?" when a good program already exists. But I enjoy the design and building and flavoring that goes into making something new and fresh.
There is something about stepping back from a project that you created from scratch and feeling a sense of accomplishment- knowing that you built that. Following an existing program may get the job done, but the ownership is nor there.
LEADS, the student leadership program I developed with about a dozen fellow educators is an example of this. The program is a complete, from the ground up build. Nothing existed there before, and we used no pre-packaged programs to do it. At the same time, a great program has been started by our district at the high school level (LEADS is intermediate and middle) uses an existing, prepacked program. It is a great program, but I have very little interest in tying our program into that. One reason is that the voice LEADS has created is unique, it is its own thing. To link them would dilute that voice and the voice of the other program. I want LEADS to grow into a high school program organically and naturally and with our district's teachers fashioning it.
There is merit in the 'boxed dinner' approach. It is a great tool for new teachers or teachers who struggle on the innovation side. I used this style when my fourth prep was added this year- I simply lacked the time to develop a total class. So, I used what someone else gave me. But it was not long before I was innovating and adapting my content to fit my unique situation. Giving a common or shared curriculum is good for a start, but I believe a teacher must develop a unique voice. I fear that any move to standardize our instructional style will lead to a loss of individual voice.
Imagine you are a gourmet chef. Even after a long day of cooking, would you crack open some Hamburger Helper? Yet when a teacher is told that they should stop doing cool stuff that another teacher is not- because it is creating a lack of equity, we are giving a chef a boxed dinner. For a chef, it is not about 'reinventing the wheel,' it is about exploring the possibilities freely.
If we are truly to prize innovation, should we use pre-packaged programs on our campuses and in our classrooms? If I say no- I am doing that which I loathe- standardizing a response. So in our school pantry, there must be room for Hamburger Helper lessons AND new wheel lessons. And our 'lesson in a box' teachers AND our 'reinvent the wheel' teachers all need to feel empowered to be the best they can be. And, I believe, both can be challenged from time to time to try the other way. It helps us be more well rounded- but it also helps us see education from the perspective of our friend and colleague down the hall.
Now, if you will excuse me, this extended food metaphor has made me very hungry.
One of my favorite movies is "A Time To Kill," a movie from the 90's that served as a sort of contemporary "To Kill A Mockingbird" where a black man (Samuel L Jackson) is accused of killing two white supremacists that raped his young daughter. Because it is the South, he chooses a white lawyer (Matthew McConaughey) to represent him before an all white jury. In a pivotal scene, McConaughey is about to give up, and this exchange occurs:
This scene captures the heart of what it means to be an advocate. When we advocate, we have an obligation to to speak the words that our charges cannot say to the people they cannot approach. Whether we find ourselves speaking for students or for our fellow teachers, we sometimes must try to put a need or idea into a different perspective. In my last blog, I wrote about the difference between advocates and adversaries- today I want to really dive into how we can be that voice for the voiceless.
Aid Over Act and Advise
I struggle with wanting to provide a solution for someone who is struggling, instead of helping them find that solution themselves. As an advocate, I must remember that I am trying to help a person achieve something, not do it for them. Advocates will be more inclined to ask guiding questions than to tell someone what to do. When a student or a teacher comes to a solution on their own- even with our aid- they take more ownership of the decision. When a person believes that the idea is their own- because it is- their success chance increases greatly. Aside from the questioning side- we need to let the person we are advocating for have the victory themselves. If I do something for a student and get success, they can write that off as my position as a teacher being key. If a student must go to an administrator for something, my role must be background and support, but the student must feel empowered to speak for themselves. My advocacy is to embolden them enough to speak up-- and pave the way with the admin to listen to the student's need.
Wear Their Shoes
Please, do not take this literally.
We need to try to see the world from the perspective of those we advocate for. Here is an example: When students complain to me about a school rule, I try to see why they are bothered by it. Again, I ask questions. Sometimes, I am able to see that their issues arise because they do not get the 'why' of the rule. But often times, I see that they have some legitimate concerns. In those instances, I must advocate for their perspective to those in positions of authority and act as a bridge between the two perspectives. This is the difficult part, because the advocate has to try to see both sides- and what happens if the authority figure is unwilling or unable to see it from the different perspective?
That's when we remember that advocacy is a process.
Okay, this might should have come before the last point, but I really wanted to direct this point to my administrator (and aspiring administrator) friends. You will have students and teachers come to you with ideas and concerns. You will sometimes feel an immediate need to say 'no' because it does not fit your vision or plan.
I am asking you to take a minute and think about what would happen if you said 'yes.'
As a teacher, I have found myself wanting to say 'no' as a default. But when I stop and listen, sometimes the idea the student has is actually better than my vision. But I would not see that unless I thought about the possibilities of a 'yes' response.
Not every idea or complaint is good- but shutting it down arbitrarily will shut down the good ideas that might come in the future- whether the bringer is a student or a teacher.
Outsiders is a very broad term here. Yes, it means those who are actually outsiders and wallflowers and 'different.' It also means that we need to listen to voices other than the usual voices. Good leaders have good and trusted advisers. But listen to the same voices for too long, and they become an echo chamber of yes's and not critical thinkers. Department heads and star students are great to go to, but first year teachers and wallflowers need to be engaged, too.
A couple years ago, when Pecan Trail Intermediate opened in College Station, their principal Kellie Deegear invited students to not only share what they were looking for in teachers, they also sat in on some interviews. Our students are our target audience, our clients- yet we rarely seek their feedback about what kind of teachers or administrators we should hire. And do students get a say in "Teacher of the Month/Year" or is that totally decided by staff? What involvement should students have in these processes?
Advocates are honest. They tell the truth when they fall short, they tell the truth when those they are advocating for fall short. An advocate cannot spare feelings if a change is needed for success to occur. Saying "Keep doing what you're doing" is not advocating, it is softening the blow and missing the point. If there is a failure, it is better to say " They liked a lot, but here is something you need to do differently..." than give no critique at all. My debate students would rather get a harsh critique than one that says "Good job!" while ranking them low. The reason- a critique helps you improve, and that's what an advocate is for.
Being an advocate for students or teachers is a difficult task. Sometimes it means you will take a shot for the ones you are standing up for. Most of the time, it means you need to operate in the background so the other person can have their own victory. But the one constant of any true advocate is this:
They put others first.