Monday, March 2, 2015

Lessons in Leadership from a Follower's Perspective

If we are in education for the right reasons, we are in it for student achievement. Student success has many twists and turns, but only one path: through a supportive culture, composed of a dedicated team of teachers that is supported by a great leader. It always comes back to leadership. Without a great leader, the life work of a team is in grave danger.

“Where there is no vision, the people perish.” Proverbs 29:18

In fact, there is an intimate connection between the life and work quality of followers and the competence and capacity of the leader. You can find great definitions of leadership from books like ‘Good to Great,’ by Jim Collins. There are innovative motivational techniques in Daniel Pink’s ‘Drive,’ and practical take-aways from master works like ‘Leverage Leadership’ by Paul Bambrick-Santoyo and ‘Teach Like a Champion 2.0,’ by my good friend Doug Lemov. What this blog entry has will not be better than those works, but it hopes to give leaders a glimpse into the hearts and minds of us, the followers. Here are three conditions that help us move (y)our work forward:

1. Our school/office is a place where we are always valued and appreciated.
2. Your agenda never outpaces our understanding.
3. Our work’s goals are clear and progressively attainable.

Dear School/Office Leader,

We thrive in a place where leaders know more than just our names, birthdays and number of dependents. When a leader can tell us the specific gifts and talents we have to offer and how we can get better at our craft, we know that leader is invested. The office is a place that honors our humanity when it is hard to tell who the favorites are, but easy to see where everyone fits on the team. We feel appreciated and valued when we are brought to the table for decisions that directly impact us; when we are allowed space to substantively disagree without expecting a return serve of condescension and when our ideas can also be the solutions to problems that affect us all. When you just care to know how your leadership makes us feel, we truly get a view into a servant’s heart.

Our worth is best answered with these two questions: do your expectations empower or crush us? Do you truly care either way?

There is one clear way we know your commitment to teamwork – you never forget the power of teaching. The vision for our work, ambitious though it may be, is never out of our conceptual reach because you constantly take the time to make it plain for us. Make it sing for us. Make it lead for us. Make it bleed for us. You make the goals for our work so living, tangible and important by the sheer consistent way you help us see them. And when we cannot see them clearly, you do not make them more complex. You simply give us new lenses and patiently wait for us to see it as you see it. As a seasoned leader, however, you do understand that there are things related to student achievement that cannot wait and so those priorities are addressed. However, you care enough for us and for the meaning we get from being a part of something greater, to go as fast you can or as slow as you need to so that we arrive at the finish line together. We never confuse your agenda with our own, because you lead in such a way that it is clear that you believe your vision cannot be accomplished without ours.

We work best when leaders are absolutely clear and deathly serious about student and teacher transformation. We will run through walls for leaders who model the mental sacrifice necessary to create the infrastructure for teacher growth and student progress; and who take the time to collaborate with us on ways we can maximize the life chances of every student. And as we pass each sign on the highway of progress, you keep raising the bar and providing the ladder to reach it. You realize that teaching is not easy and that there are a multitude of variables and personalities that affect each and every learning experience. We need so much from you. And in return we offer you so much of us. 
Thank you for leading. Thank you for listening.

Your teachers/followers

P.S. I need a leader too. I need a leader who looks like me. If I can’t get that, I’ll settle for a leader that fights for me. A leader that won’t let me perish because my parents don’t make it to school.  A leader who’ll consider the consequences of my suspension for violations that endanger no one. A leader who will read me the riot act, and in the next breath read me my future. A leader that knows that I have only one chance to get it right – or my life won’t graduate. I need a leader who loves me, without condition.

Your ‘At-Risk’ Black boy

Earlier, I stated that it always comes back to leadership and it does. The coda to that statement, however, is that every great leader knows that it always comes back to the people. The followers make the work happen. If you are so fortunate to be able to hire the right people, for the right spots on the bus, right away – then you have little need of any more advice. But, if you are like any other leader who makes the right hire only most of the time, then you understand that the culture you create by valuing the perspectives, lives and potential of your subordinates is the best way to move the agenda of student achievement forward.  

Josh Parker,
2012 Maryland Teacher of the Year

3/2/15 – 11:16 p.m.

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