Thursday, December 02, 2004

Another diary entry...
Leadership… the ship… the captain… the journey…

Any successful journey requires a well-built ship and a skilled captain at the helm. An educational journey is no different than a voyage sailed on the high seas.

An ocean crossing requires a ship worthy of the voyage, sound, safe, and comfortable, equipped with the necessary supplies and tools to keep the crew well for the trip.

The vessel for education is the building, the actual physical locale in which we educate students. While in theory, the building cannot make education successful, nor keep it from being so, the physical realm sets the tone for the students. When school buildings feel warm and welcoming, kid-friendly and clean, bright and colorful, upon entering students immediately feel they are important. Contrast this with a sterile, old, smelly, dirty building where little effort is put forth to make the building inviting, those same students know, in a deep almost primal way, they are not what is important here.

The building, the school, the vessel, must also be equipped to make the journey here a safe one. The supplies are simple really – paper, pencil, computers, art supplies, text books, manipulatives… the tools and supplies to keep the crew well for the trip.

A ship, even a well-built ship, stocked with all necessities, set to sail the ocean without a competent captain, will likely have problems completing their journey without incidence. A school without a capable leader will encounter similar problems.

However, defining proficiency in a school administrator is much more complex a task than having a ship’s captain prove his skill.

Exactly what makes an administrator a good leader? For that matter, what makes any leader a good one? Webster’s defines leader as a guiding head. Guide is defined as point out way for, or direct the course of. By that logic, a leader would be the guiding force who directs the way of those under his leadership.

Thinking of Webster’s definition, a school administrator should be the guiding force in the school. He should be the very core of what the school is all about. The administrator should have the ability to lead his staff through good times, helping them appreciate their successes, finding ways to celebrate. And also, perhaps even more importantly, this leader, this administrator must have the capacity to rally his troops in times of adversity.

I have worked for a few different administrators. Some were great leaders. Other were leaders. Still others sat behind the desk with the nameplate proclaiming their “leader role”.

As I think back through what are the defining traits among these individuals I was destined to serve under, most assuredly, I don’t think of the ones I did not admire. Rather in my mind, those strong truly great leaders are the ones I focus on.

True leaders seek and grasp those they feel “fit” their vision. A wise man told me once: it is not always about hiring the person with the best qualifications but rather the “right person” for the job. Truly great leaders have this ability to see their own vision, and see those who fill their needs. They can help those in their flock reach and fulfill their own personal potentials. They surround themselves with positive people who work together towards the common goal, who all have the same map, for the same journey.

True leaders, truly great leaders, true captains of ships, are not intimidated by their crew members who are innovative and find solutions they themselves overlooked. They smile, and say, “Gosh… wish I’d thought of that!” and congratulate the discoverer.

My own experiences parallel these qualities of great leaders. I was hired by a superintendent and principal who overlooked the fact I was not the most experienced person applying for the job, overlooked the fact I was nervous and insecure at my interview, and saw the fit I was with their school. They hired me, and helped me grow, encouraged me in my pursuits, gently guiding, giving constructive criticism and positive reinforcement along the way. They had the courage to give me a chance.

My principal now, another individual, is also what I think of when I think true leader. No matter what harebrained idea I come up with, he is willing to listen, support me in my efforts, and offer guidance when my ship is headed for the rocky shoreline. I feel appreciated for my efforts, acknowledged for my accomplishments, and sustained in my day to day needs for making my job go easily and successfully.

A leader is one who leads by example, one who makes those following his path feel secure, confident, competent, and ready to tackle the journey’s path, wherever it may lead.

A ship…a school…
A captain… a principal…
A voyage across the sea… a child’s education…a teacher’s career…
A great captain… a great leader…
A successful journey…

From a TLN diary entry....
When I tell people I teach 7th grade, often I get the same response, “Oh my gosh! How can you do THAT? Don’t they drive you crazy? That’s such a tough age.”

I just smile and tell them I love my 7th graders. Why do I love them? Some days, I wonder that myself. But then I stop and look back at the fun times we have been through and I have to smile again, realizing I would not be anywhere else. The unpredictable nature of my students, their zeal for life and learning, their laughter and tears, all serve to make my job the best one on earth.

I think back to Bobby, the infamous “got his head stuck in his locker” boy. It was right after student lunch, and a crowd of students was gathering loudly by the lockers. Thinking FIGHT, I pushed into the middle of the crowd. As I neared the center of the mass of humanity, I realized there was laughter, not the typical taunts of a fight. As I finally got through all the bodies to the source of entertainment, here I found Bobby, with his rather large head wedged in the locker on that little shelf at the top.

The young man was trying fervently to remove his head, banging it repeatedly, trying to pull out, but finding himself in a Chinese finger trap situation, with his ears keeping him from being successful in his escape. The sharp edge of the metal locker was cutting into his neck, a bit deeper with every backwards thrust. And all the while, Bobby was yelling, “HELP ME! Get my head out of here! SOMEBODY DO SOMETHING!”

I tried to calm him, but the sound of my voice only served to make him bang harder, which only served to make me start to laugh with the crowd. (Granted, this is not the appropriate TEACHER response but the sight of this huge kid, head stuck in the locker, was like something out of a movie!) So here we are, Bobby head banging in his locker, me laughing trying to find a solution, and the crowd growing, and getting louder.

Finally a bit of sanity escaped its hiding place in my head long enough to tell me, “TAKE A BOOK OFF THE SHELF.” So I reached in under Bobby’s head, grabbing his thick literature book, and tried to pull it out, thinking this would give him enough room to make his escape. But the book did not want to leave the locker where it was safe from completing classwork and homework assignments. So I was forced to pull the book repeatedly, each time hitting Bobby in the chest with it and him yelling each time, “OWWW!!! STOP!! THAT HURTS!! HELP ME!!” Eventually I won the fight with the book, wedging it past Bobby’s chest, which immediately freed his head.

With Bobby safely removed from the locker, the crowd dispersed to class, and I had to ask the teacher question of the young man, “Bobby, why’d you put your head in the locker?”

“To sniff the moldy orange in the back.” A response only a middle schooler could give, and one only a true middle school teacher could understand the logic of.

I think about Jessie, the “MY DOOR” girl. I have Jessie for math right after lunch. As students come back upstairs from the cafeteria, I meet them at the door, standing leaned against my classroom door, chatting with them as they come in. I came a bit late from somewhere one day, and there stood Jessie, in my spot on MY DOOR. She emphatically informed me that it was HER DOOR and she was not moving.

I let her stand there, wondering to myself why this normally quiet studious child suddenly had attached herself to my door. Now, what I thought was a one day oddity, has turned into a phenomenon all its own. Not only does Jessie commander my door after lunch each day, whenever she sees me, whether in the school hallway, in the gym in the middle of her playing a basketball game, or at the grocery store, she yells, “MY DOOR!”

Why she needs MY DOOR every day after lunch, I will never understand, but to Jessie, it is some strange 7th grade ritual, important in her mind. It is a bit disconcerting to her basketball coach, the elderly ladies in the grocery store, and other students, but by my calculation, in the whole scheme of life, Jessie yelling “MY DOOR!” is just one of those things we much accept, like the sun shining in the day, and the moon in the sky at night.

I think about Jerry, the cool 7th grade boy who graced my class with wit and charm every day last year, a bright young man, caring, compassionate, just an absolute model student in most every way for me (unfortunately, the rest of the day, he frequented the office and the detention room). Things were no different the day I came to school with laryngitis. Jerry took over for me, without my even asking, telling students what they needed to know and do all class period, starting by reading the day’s assignment off the board getting students started working. He had me and my routine perfected, right down to “PICK UP YOUR CHAIRS” and “Mrs. George says to have a great weekend,” at the end of class.

This becoming my voice evolved then into a year long ritual for Jerry, where at the beginning of each class period, he’d show up at my door to yell down the hall, “LAST CALL FOR MATH CLASS!” to round up my crew. Without bells and with inaccurate clocks, it is difficult for students to know when class is starting, so Jerry devised this system to get them there on time. IT WORKED!! As soon as he yelled, my crew all scurried to class, leaving other teachers standing in amazement, as once again, my door was the first to close. Jerry then went to his class, having taken care of me. He was proud of his role and his responsibility.

This year, with bells, my students come to class like cattle listening to the dinner bell. I sure do miss that yell….

You see, teaching middle schoolers is all about unpredictability. You just never know what will make them sparkle, what will make them feel safe and secure, what will make their day. You just know that they will ALWAYS make your day.