October 31, 2011

To all the leaders in the crowd...

Deirdre Bailey

The topics of ‘leadership’, ‘mentorship’ and ‘coaching’ have come up frequently in recent conversations, often related to experienced and extraordinary teachers helping other teachers to become better. I am that ‘new’ teacher; a prime candidate for improvement, the perfect example of inexperience. At the start of this year (3 months ago), I had never taught in a classroom.

My teaching partner, on the other hand, is the perfect example of 'experienced and extraordinary;' an award winning educator with an extensive understanding of inquiry, assessment and the curriculum. People often ask me if I was intimidated to start the year partnered with such an overwhelmingly successful teacher. I wasn’t. I love learning: I was excited to pick her brain, to have her feedback on my teaching and her guidance as I continued to develop my understanding of how to create optimal learning opportunities.

I thought I would be happy to follow her around, emulate her teaching, take notes on her ideas and in the process, become the kind of quality teacher she undoubtedly is already. But this teacher didn’t tell me what to do. She didn’t give me her lesson plans or an outline of her best ideas, she asked questions. An incredible, powerful and meaningful thing resulted from those questions... I started to think. I’d have ideas and I’d ask her questions about my ideas and she’d give feedback based on her experiences and we’d modify theories together. Then she’d share her ideas and ask for feedback based on my experiences. My ideas were instantly empowered and I couldn’t stop having them. I would literally go home and research. I couldn’t wait to debrief my changing understanding so that my teaching partner could provide her perspective and together we could expand and dig deeper than we might have alone.

Sometimes I’d add something to a lesson that just didn’t work the way I expected. I’d run it over in my head a million times reassessing what went wrong, and then try to break it down with this expert teacher's guidance. It became most valuable however, because she never shut it down with a “Yeah that never works,” or “I wouldn’t have done that” or “well at least you won’t do it again”. Instead she gave me a thumbs up for trying something new and then for reflecting on it effectively and she reminded me that learning anything has to include a couple of mistakes because of how valuable they are to the process. She recognized that I already knew what hadn’t worked and had already reflected on why. Restating my obvious ‘failure’ would only have made me feel bad and likely would have shut down further attempts at innovation.

What I desperately want to impart to all leaders out there is how incredible it has been to work with one who never ‘told’, ‘implemented’ or ‘delivered’. I hesitate to say that I was ‘taught’ by Amy Park. Rather, she empowered my learning by recognizing that I had something to share and encouraging me to share it. I believe that every individual is a sum of their understanding and experiences. If Amy had explicitly ‘taught’ me everything she knows I might have become a spectacular teacher, but a version of Amy Park. Instead, she legitimized my thoughts and I became a much much better version of myself. As a pair we became more important because we were able to combine the best of two different thoughts, ideas and perspectives.

I recognize that titles which imply leadership historically represent an ‘elevated’ or ‘powerful’ status and are as such often accompanied by a well-deserved promotion of importance, of ability or of ‘wisdom.’ I am indeed in awe of the school principals and learning leaders I follow on twitter and of the community leaders and creative geniuses that astound me daily with their ways of thinking. In some small way, I have been inspired by every single one. However, the leaders that have made the most difference are those that have recognized that, though I may not have yet earned a spot among them, I might still have something of value to share - a new perspective, a different way of thinking. To those that have treated me as an ‘equal,’ you have made all the difference.

My ‘inquiry into teaching’ has been of value because I was not robbed of my own ‘A-ha!’ moments by a mentor who wanted me to use theirs. Instead, I got a 'thumbs up' every time I made it one step further. Sometimes it was a thumbs up: ‘Yes, you got it!’ Sometimes it was a thumbs up: ‘Way to go, you made a mistake but no big deal you figured it out.’ Sometimes it was even a: ‘That’s a really cool discovery, I never thought of it that way...’ and those were the best of all!

As an inspired student whose entire way of thinking has been revolutionized these last few months, should I ever find myself in a leadership position, I will endeavour to never provide the answers but rather questions, guidance and positive reinforcement. I will make it my goal to look outside of my academic circles for those who are attempting to understand and I will celebrate every step of their success along the way. I have learned that if you are looking to change people’s thinking, you must first inspire them to think. You just can’t do that if you’re too focused on being their ‘leader.’ I am inspired when the leaders I look up to notice, listen, comment and consider. Even as a teacher, in a position in which I have theoretically earned the right to assume my students have nothing to share that I haven’t already considered, I have learned that when I listen to them, often they do. In so many ways, my students are more brilliant than I am and if I am willing to give my ego a break in order to recognize that and encourage it, have I not done the world a greater service than if I had replicated my thoughts in them 25 times over, never having asked for theirs?

‘We are all on a quest to be a genuine actor on the stage of life, rather than an indistinguishable face in the crowd, or worse, an anonymous spectator in the audience’.
-Rob Starratt

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