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.

EduQuote of the Week: February 5 – 11, 2018

African Heritage Week

Strange, is it not, my brothers, how often in America those great watchwords of human energy – ‘Be strong!’ ‘Know thyself!’ ‘Hitch your wagon to a star!’ – how often these die away into dim whispers when we face these seething millions of black men? And yet do they not belong to them? Are they not their heritage as well as yours?

– W. E. B. Du Bois

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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.

EduQuote of the Week: January 29 – February 4, 2018

Catholic Schools Week

Catholic schools prepare every student to meet the challenges of their future by developing their mind, yes, but also their body and their soul and spirit.

David Vitter

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Teach & Serve III, No. 24 – Support

Teach & Serve III, No. 24 – Support

January 24, 2018

And, from that point on, all he did was support his understudy. He did not sulk. He did not pout. He did not complain.

I am not a college football fan. Growing up, I was (and remain) a devoted follower of the Denver Broncos and, though the University of Colorado was a top ten program from much of my childhood and even won a share of the National Championship in 1988, the year I graduated high school, my affinity was for the NFL in general and the Broncos in particular.

I paid little attention to the college football playoffs this year and would have likely not watched a snap of the title game had my son not been home from college watching it himself. Never wanting to miss an opportunity to be with any of my wife and my college-aged kids, I sat and watched almost the full second half with my son.

And I got to see something that can be great about sports that entirely resonates with our profession as educational leaders.

I saw unconditional and unwavering support.

Allow me to tell you the story, a story that you have probably already heard. The University of Alabama football team, having suffered through a brutal first half on offense, pulled Jalen Hurts, their starting quarterback who had, going into this game, posted an amazing 25 – 2 record. Unhappy with offense production, they sat him, replacing him with backup (and true freshman!) Tua Tagovailoa who went on to win the game and the title for Alabama.

There is much to be written about the boldness of being a leader, about head coach Nick Saban making such a startling and brave choice to change quarterbacks, but this blog is about Hurts.

Jalen Hurts, a sophomore who had done very little but win for Alabama, must have been stunned by his demotion to the sidelines. He must have been in turmoil. Surely, he thought he would lead his team to victory. Certainly, he believed some glory was due him if the team won.

Jalen Hurts and Tua Tagovailoa

But the night did not play out the way he must have imagined. He went from starter to cheerleader in the space of a halftime speech.

And, from that point on, all he did was support his understudy. He did not sulk. He did not pout. He did not complain.

Rather, Hurts was the first person to congratulate Tagovailoa. He was at Tagovailoa’s side during timeouts, coaching him up, helping him out, working with him. He cheered him on, encouraged him after a bad interception, patted him on the back, yelled his support.

If the actions of this kid are not prime examples of servant leadership, then I have never seen it.

Sports can and does teach lessons – lessons that improve lives.

And kids can teach us, too.

What an incredible lesson in how to support a teammate. It is a lesson leaders should learn.

EduQuote of the Week: January 22 – 28, 2018

Clean Your Inbox Week

You should hit inbox zero every week. Every day is even better.

Unknown

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Teach & Serve III, No. 23 – I Hear You

Teach & Serve III, No. 23 – I Hear You

January 17, 2018

Anyone with a well-developed auditory sense can listen. Leaders who want to serve the people with whom they work must hear.

In recent weeks, I have had the opportunity to discuss myself and my leadership in detailed and reflective ways, asked questions by groups of dedicated educators who were most interested in my answers. I was both lucky and blessed to have been part of three separate search processes – processes looking to identify qualities in applicants for instructional leaders of schools. The conversations were long, intense, exciting and exhilarating one-and-all.

As I moved from conversation-to-conversation, process-to-process, I found myself listening to myself and reflecting on what I was saying in medias res which was a very interesting experience. After all, there are questions that good interview committees will be sure to ask and questions for which I very much needed to be prepared, prepared to give my most honest and authentic responses.

Inevitably, the question of how I would, as the instructional leader, listen to the staffs and the teachers and the students of each respective institution – was raised.

I replied that listening is a critical component of educational leadership, but not the most critical one. And, in fact, I found myself saying, on more than one occasion and working quickly to explain myself, how important it is that people feel as though they are heard.

Hang on, now… “feeling” as though one is heard does not actually indicate that someone has been heard.

Good leaders listen, sure. Good educational leaders are good at listening.

Exceptional educational leaders are exceptionally good at hearing.

Anyone with a well-developed auditory sense can listen. Leaders who want to serve the people with whom they work must hear. The must work at it and hone the skill. They must realize that hearing is so much more important than simply listening.

Hearing implies a desire to connect. Hearing implies wanting to comprehend. Hearing implies action.

Listening is passive. Someone who is listening is just there, in the room or the office, nodding, smiling, listening.

Hearing is active. Someone who is hearing is engaged, asking questions, offering support, giving suggestions.

Leaders who valuing hearing put away all distractions, close their laptops and shut down their tablets. They silence and set aside their phones and they hear.

When a true leader says “I hear you” the person to whom they say it does not just feel heard, she or he knows without a doubt she or he has been heard.

A leader does not just listen, a leader hears.

(oh, and a follow up on those conversations about formal educational leadership is coming…)

EduQuote of the Week: January 15 – 21, 2018

MLK Day 2018

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.

Dr. Martin Luther King, jr

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Teach & Serve III, No. 22 – Get Real

Teach & Serve III, No. 22 – Get Real

January 10, 2018

Our students want us to be real. They want us to connect with them in real ways. They want to understand what application any and everything we are teaching them has on their real lives. Our staffs want us to be real. They want us to know them in real ways. They want to understand what implication our leadership has on their real lives.

 

You know what our students and staffs want from us as educational leaders?

They want us to get real.

I am an awards season addict. Okay, in fairness, “addict” may be too strong a word. Let us stipulate to the fact that I pay attention to Hollywood awards beginning with the Golden Globes running right on through the Oscars. Yes, they are self-congratulatory. Yes, there is much to criticize about entertainment and Hollywood culture. Yes, there is typically something vacuous about all this.

Yes, yes, yes.

But, at last Sunday’s Golden Globes, there was something else. There was a reality to the proceedings, a self-awareness. There was a seriousness about sexual harassment, about women’s roles in the industry, about what inspires good work and why people do it.

There was something real about what was said.

And that was before Oprah Winfrey spoke.

What she said, though inspiring, powerful and worth a listen I think, is not what got me thinking about Teach & Serve this week. The fact that Oprah took advantage of her opportunity to be real, to address real issues, to talk about reality is what most moved me. Her conclusions can be debated as can her reasons for sharing these particular comments at this particular time. But the fact that she was real cannot be.

Our students want us to be real. They want us to connect with them in real ways. They want to understand what application any and everything we are teaching them has on their real lives.

They want us to get real.

Our staffs want us to be real. They want us to know them in real ways. They want to understand what implication our leadership has on their real lives.

They want us to get real.

That is a standard to which excellent educational leadership hold themselves: they are real. They know what they say and what they do affects people and they are clear and careful and conscious of that. They understand that their leadership has real-world consequences and they do not take the responsibility lightly.

Be a better educational leader in 2018.

Get real.

EduQuote of the Week: January 8 – 14, 2018

Pizza Appreciation Week

You better cut the pizza in four pieces because I’m not hungry enough to eat six.

Yogi Berra

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