Choose Your Hill

We read all over the media these days that new teachers are leaving the profession in record numbers. There are teacher shortages in every state as current schools and districts search high and low for people willing to take on this rewarding, yet draining profession. New teachers enter the profession fresh out of college, filled with visions of changing destinies, instilling hope to the hopeless, and bringing about a new generation of world beaters, only to abandon their own dream, beaten by the same world they are trying to change.

With a two year old child still in my house, it is fair to say I will need to keep working for at least another twenty years. This far into my chosen career I don’t have the luxury to simply pack up and try something new. Lucky for me, that won’t be needed because I LOVE my job and I have learned the secret to longevity. I know not every hill is worth dying on, yet some are and it’s those hills that renew my commitment and passion. They don’t dampen it.

As a new teacher, two decades ago, I was ready to set the world on fire. I came to work everyday relishing in what some would describe as hero worship as hundreds of 12 year olds hung on my every word in my middle school classroom. It’s crazy how big my ego was able to swell simply because I was able to entertain some pre-teens who felt like I was the smartest person on earth. Because of that, I often felt invincible and felt like that same competence that I brought to the classroom for my students should be accepted just as openly by the adults I encountered daily…boy was I wrong. My own arrogance and belief in myself often caused me to live and work on an island, fighting for the principles that I held true…every single principle.

I was that guy that caused every staff meeting to run thirty minutes overtime because I would challenge the new dress code policy, I would debate the grading scale, I would question the need for yet another fire drill. Nothing was ever good enough, nothing that is, unless it was the way I would do things.

Within a few years that arrogance really began to swell. In my first two years of teaching I played on my lack of experience to develop practices that I thought were founded on logic and wisdom. By year three those same practices, and many new procedures and policies, were no longer based on logic, but instead on what was best for me. What I began with the best of intentions, to help students, quickly morphed into what was best for me. My reputation as a teacher slowly shifted from one where I was innovative and fun to one where I was seen as strict and unbending. I no longer debated ideas, but simply believed that my way was the way. After all, my way worked my first two years, it would continue to work every year after. If it didn’t, the fault couldn’t be mine. The blame had to go to the kids, their parents, the community, the ineffective teachers who taught around me, and any other scapegoat I could manufacture.

You would think after the sixteen rejections I faced after my third year teaching I would have realized I didn’t know it all. A sane, reflective, mature individual would have reflected on these experiences and questioned himself and what he needed to improve upon. Not me. I knew it all. These schools I had interviewed with were just missing out and had no idea what they had passed on. The fault was theirs, not mine, or at least that’s what I told myself.

I went back to my classroom bitter that fall, frustrated to be back in a classroom instead of sitting in an office creating the world’s best school, when a visitor stopped by who offered me two pieces of advice that would change the direction of my career and my life.

Far too often in schools we think our job is to have the answers. We think we are supposed to be the know-it-alls. In our classrooms we teach from bell to bell without ever taking a break to breathe, let alone to hear from our students. At parent teacher conferences we spend 15 minutes telling parents all that is wrong with their own child and what they need to do to fix it. We fight new fads, new research, new leaders, and anybody who does anything differently than we do. We think our way is the best way simply because it worked for us when we were children, or worse yet, because it’s better for us as teachers today.

The truth is, over the last fifteen years, I have learned that  teaching, effective teaching and effective leading, is about being a servant that is constantly on the hunt for how to support others. Because we are on the hunt to serve, we do not know it all. Our job is to make others feel smarter. To make others feel stronger. Our job is to help others be the best they can be, not just what we want them to be. My job as a teacher was not to work towards my next professional step. My job was to do the best I could, where I was, instead of always trying to position myself to be perceived as someone I wasn’t. In other words, I had to quit trying to work for the next job and just start focusing on being the best I could be at my job. To do that I should work on making my students as well as fellow teachers leave me always feeling smarter, stronger, more confident, and more competent. What I had been doing was worrying so much about making sure everyone else thought I was smart and strong that I often created battles that weren’t worth fighting.

Now in my career I work every day making sure my students feel and believe that they are smart, they are kind, and they are loved. I attempt to find needs of my peers that I can support. I do all I could to just serve….and guess what has happened, I am now in my 10th year as a building administrator, have spoken to more than 50,000 educators across the country, and have written a book that has been bought and read in every state. Because I realized that not every fight needs to be fought I was able to support others more freely and begin to focus in on the fights that do need to be won. I focus on the future of others and not on my own wants. I focus more on keeping my mouth shut and allowing each word I do say to matter.

Each community and each building has its own understanding of what is taboo and what is not. Your job is to stick around long enough to shrink that list. As people begin to trust you, begin to value your input, and begin to understand your heart, opportunities to discuss what has been hidden will present themselves. If on the other hand, you enter into your school on a mission to change, to question everything, because your past experiences vary from your current reality, soon enough you will find yourself on an island looking for a new place to sell your vision. What worked in your past does not necessarily equate to what is needed for your present. Chapter 2 is entitled, “Are you preparing students for your past or their future?”. The same question can be asked here as you examine your role in the lives of your teachers. Your past helped create who you are, but does not have to be replicated for each of your teachers. Identify your goals and then design the strategies to get there, using the people you currently have.

Keep in mind, the people you work with are not just the certified staff in your building. They include your parents, the community, and your students as well. Decisions that are made in schools often impact each group of stakeholders differently. Just like with triangle decision making, the job of a leader is to facilitate productive conversations. When making large level change, it is critical to identify which stakeholder groups should be addressed first, and quite honestly, I often look to win the support of those impacted the least, first. I know this sounds counter intuitive. Why would I work to win over individuals who have the least to gain? But that is exactly the reason why.

Big change often brings with it big emotions. Remembering the premise to assume the good and doubt the bad, we have to enter into change knowing that the status quo exists because good people did what they thought was best. Attempting to dislodge past practice can sometimes be perceived as a passive attempt to judge and indict intentions, whether or not that is reality. When emotions are involved, sometimes we as humans fall into the trap of arguing with people and not ideas. As an idea is just beginning to take shape, having a discussion with those who may not have a strong emotional connection and investment may allow you the opportunity to refine your thinking while also recruiting supporters. Like a snowball rolling down hill, the change initiative is no longer being carried by a lone snow flake, by the time it gets to those impacted the most, it is carrying the collective weight of all others who have bought in.

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