Teach & Serve III, No. 28 – Followership

Teach & Serve III, No. 28 – Followership

February 21, 2018

… how do we, as educational leaders, respond when those above us in the food chain make mistakes, missteps or errors? How do we react when they are not their best selves or when they handle us and situations in a manner we neither understand nor appreciate?

First, let us get this out of the way: our schools exist to serve our students. They – in a very real sense – are the bosses and they should be in charge. Not many of our organizational charts for our schools reflect that, however. Our org charts illustrate the adults who are “in charge.”

Okay. Fair enough.

When considering that, we can note that very few of us are actually the “Big Boss” or the “Head Cheese” or the “El Numero Uno Honcho” of our contexts. Schools are hierarchical systems. Typically, no matter our position as educational leaders, we answer to someone. Teachers answer to department chairs, department chairs to assistant principals, assistant principals to principals, principals answer to presidents, presidents to boards, and so on. This comes as little surprise to any of us working in schools.

It should also come as no surprise, then, that how we follow says very much about how we lead.

If we are good leaders, we expect that we will be followed. Whether we are consultative, collaborative or servant leaders – how ever we define our leadership – we anticipate that, if we are doing a good job as leaders, we will be followed. But even the best leadership cannot function in the real world without sometimes creating conflict or friction or unintended confusion. We know this. No process is perfect. No system is perfect. No leader is perfect. Not everything will go as we intended or planned.

If we are competent leaders leaning toward good leaders, we can navigate these waters and restore faith and trust. If we do a good job in that process, all will be well. Importantly, though, our followers must allow us to do a good job. The reservoir of faith and trust we have built up indicates much about how we will recover.

But so does our followership and here is the point: how do we, as educational leaders, respond when those above us in the food chain make mistakes, missteps or errors? How do we react when they are not their best selves or when they handle us and situations in a manner we neither understand nor appreciate? Do we presume their good will, listen to their explanations, give them the benefit of the doubt? Do we reflect on what has happened and consider our role in the issue? Do we seek to come to resolution, conclusion and positive outcomes? Or do we perseverate? Complain? Gossip? Vent?

As educational leaders, how we model followership may well be as important as how we lead.

Teach & Serve III, No. 27 – Love the Work. LOVE IT!

Teach & Serve III, No. 27 – Love the Work. LOVE IT!

February 14, 2018

So we better love it. We better love the work. We better love the kids. We better love the hours, and the stress and the cafeteria duty and the dances and the grading, and…

This week, I am in my second week in a row of working with a group of educators from Jesuit schools across the US and Canada as they focus on what makes them great leaders and what they can do to make themselves even better. This is such a terrific blessing of my work and it challenges me to focus in on significant questions facing educational leaders today.

Today is also Valentine’s Day and, rather than focus on the commercialization of love (which might lead to a blog talking about the pitfalls of the commercialization of education – that would be a good one for a future date!), I want to write about love and education and how they ought to be integrally linked.

I have noted before what any teacher or administrator who has committed to our shared work already knows: what we do is very hard. Work in education is highly demanding. The hours are long. The pay is not always terrific. The rewards are not entirely tangible.

This is a tough job!

So we better love it. We better love the work. We better love the kids. We better love the hours, and the stress and the cafeteria duty and the dances and the grading, and… well, I could go on.

Over my 25 years in education, I have learned a few things – stolen them, really – from the many, fine people with whom I have journeyed. One thing I have learned is the best among us are happy to be here. The best among us LOVE the work.

I love the work. Do you?

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Teach & Serve III, No. 26 – When Leadership Lets Us Down

Teach & Serve III, No. 26 – When Leadership Lets Us Down

February 7, 2018

What happens when we find that we have – in good faith – done all we can to eliminate issues, to find middle ground, to offer constructive approaches, to build and become bridges? What do we do when our leadership is actually not very good or working in ways that counter the well-being of the school?

This week, I have the great pleasure of working with a group of educators from Jesuit schools across the US and Canada as they focus on what makes them great leaders and what they can do to make themselves even better. This is such a terrific blessing of my work and it challenges me to focus in on significant questions facing educational leaders today.

Many (most?) of the blogs I have composed for Teach & Serve reflect on or reference conditions wherein good leadership is present in a school. They are written from a perspective assuming solid norms and procedures, relatively healthy environments and excellent standards for behavior.  

Let us be honest: those conditions do not always pertain.

Where does that leave individuals who wish optimal (or, at least, functional) leadership is in play? Where does that leave those who aspire to greater things for themselves and for their schools? Where does that leave people who seek perpetual improvement?

These are challenging questions, to be sure.

But there are answers.

Like the best answers, they start from within us. They start with us making honest and clear assessments of who we are in our leadership and of how we relate to the leaders and systems around us. The best answers ask us to ask ourselves hard questions.

And to answer them.

Good leaders know that one of the fundamental qualities of leadership is authenticity. I have written previously that I believe it to be the central and most important quality of a good leader. Good leaders, then, take the questions they are posing outward and turn them within.

If leadership is bad in our schools, we must ask ourselves if we are part of the issue. What role have we played to sour the milk? Have we contributed to an environment that is less than ideal? We must be willing to examine ourselves as a necessary first step.

And what happens, then, if we find that we have – in good faith – done all we can to eliminate issues, to find middle ground, to offer constructive approaches, to build and become bridges? What do we do when our leadership is actually not very good or working in ways that counter the well-being of the school?

We must, then, assess what change we can make from where we are. We must consider who we can help and for what reason. If our challenge of authority and status quo and broken systems is for the good of our students (and the good of the adult community – a secondary good; students come first) then we are called to confront.

We must respectfully disagree and offer alternatives. We must exercise the authority we have as teachers and as educational leaders within the same structures our chairs and administrators occupy. We must speak truth – truth to colleagues, truth to power. We must do so offering suggestions and solutions, through-lines and conclusions and ways forward. We must be willing to suffer slings, arrows, criticisms and critiques.

When we are authentic, when we act from our true selves, all of this, though incredibly heavy to shoulder, is worth the weight.

If our systems hurt our students, if our leaders are negligent in their most important tasks, they must be examined and changed. They might even need to be set aside or torn down.

However, our seats in the school, our positions and our power along with the management and leadership styles of our superiors may make true and lasting collaboration and change so difficult as to be impossible.

This can be a bleak state of affairs and cause crises of the heart.

When leadership does not work and is unwilling to reflect and consider change, authentic leaders are in painful positions. If one has done all one can on behalf of students to confront challenges and bad actors, to affect change and to advance the institution and there is no way forward, another question comes into play: is my presence here so important for those I serve that I must stay?

If the answer is yes, it is good to remember that systems alter over time and leaders do not stay in place forever.

If the answer is no, it may well be time for an individual to change one’s circumstance. While that is easier written than done, it may be an inevitable conclusion and a legitimate alternative to continuing frustration and pain.

The best answers start from within. Knowing ourselves is a significant key.

Superheroic Leadership Vol. 1 No. 12 – The Roots of Steel

Superheroic Leadership Vol. I * No. 12

The Roots of Steel

Superheroic Leadership is a light-hearted examination of what superheroic figures have to teach about leadership and what I have learned from their adventures.


Superman is one of the most famous fictional characters of all time. I did a little research (on the internet, so it has to be true!) of the most recognizable symbols in the world and the Superman “S” was in the top five on each list I reviewed.

There is some kind of power in that, in the fact that people see that “S” and know it stands for Superman.

And what does Superman stand for?

Truth? Justice? The American way?

Superman was created by two Jewish kids in Cleveland, OH in the 1930s. Children of the Depression, sons of European immigrants and one the child of a man killed in a store robbery, Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster could not conceive how their creation would change the world. That was too big from them to think about.

Rather, in Superman’s earliest adventures, they thought about what a character driven by justice would take on. What type of evil should their Superman confront?

Within the first years of his adventures, Superman battled men who abused women, white supremacists, immoral politicians and corrupt businessmen.

Not a so-called “supervillain” among these criminals.

Within those same first years of his adventures, it was established that Superman came from another world and was adopted and raised in America’s heartland.

He was not shipped back to outer space because of his lack of proper papers.

There was a controversy a few years back when Superman declared himself a citizen of the world, not simply of the United States, when he said he would fight for those in need across the globe.

I did not understand the significance of the moment.

I bet all those who have never held a comic book, who have never seen a Superman movie, who cannot read English would have understood that moment’s significance. They understand the “S” to mean something special, something heroic, something great.

It represents the story of the ultimate immigrant fighting for justice.

For me, it will always stand for hope.

I am not sure why all this came to me this week… perhaps I need a little of what Superman has offered.

Teach & Serve III, No. 25 – Education: Our Family Business

Teach & Serve III, No. 25 – Education: Our Family Business

January 31, 2018

If you ask me what our family business is, I would have to say “teaching.”

And what a wonderful business it is.

Today is my younger sister’s birthday. In the past, I have called her my “little sister” but, as we are both *ahem* over forty, that seems a bit ridiculous now. I wish her the happiest of birthdays and a wonderful year ahead. I wish that all her dreams come true.

My sister is a child librarian and has been one for over twenty years. I have written about her and libraries in a previous Teach & Serve. She is a model for me about commitment and vocation and service. And she is thinking about altering her service from the library setting to the school setting.

She will be terrific and this is a natural progression for her.

My sister and me long before either of us were… forty.

As I was thinking about her and her potential change in career, I began to consider the other teachers in our family.

My mother’s mother was an elementary school teacher for years. One of my earliest memories about schools is being with Grandma in her classroom putting up decorations in the fall. What a lovely memory to have. One of my uncles was a math professor and dean of his department at a major university for decades. His daughter, one of my cousins is a professor at a major university teaching … math. One of my aunts was an English professor and dean of her department at a community college for years. Her daughter, one of my cousins, has directed preschools for years. One of my brothers-in-law taught for almost five years. My wife has been a teacher for almost twenty years. One of my sons is applying to graduate schools in education to become a teacher.

I taught English for over twenty years and am headed back this fall back towards teaching and into direct school leadership.

Other members of the family do critical work in other fields – for the church, for their communities, for the public health – are engineers and business leaders and are studying to be lawyers and nurses and so many more valuable things. I honor each and every one of them.

But, if you ask me what our family business is, I would have to say “teaching.”

And what a wonderful business it is.

I cannot wait to fully welcome my little… er… younger sister to it.