Choose your hill

Have you read Escaping the School Leader’s Dunk Tank  by Rebecca Coda and Rick Jetter? It is a powerful book put out by Dave Burgess Publishing outlining strategies that school leaders can take to maneuver the increasingly complex and political world surrounding schools today. Although designated primarily for positional leaders, I am here to tell you, all educators are leaders and as such must know how to survive.

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.

I am currently in my 18th year of education. 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 its 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 firedrill. 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. As a matter of fact, after my third year of teaching, after having completed my Masters degree I was ready to go out and become an administrator in my own school. There was one problem. Nobody else was as ready as I was. During that one year, the summer of 2003,  I went on 16 job interviews. Yes, 16 and did not get a single offer. Now 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.

Jerry Sullivan was a retired educator who was often called in to sub in buildings when they were in need of a short term administrator. He was an honest, straight shooter who the kids saw as fair and the adults saw as wisdom in flesh. That fall he was asked to fill in for a few weeks in my building. The previous spring I had met Jerry at a social function and expressed to him my desire to set the world on fire. Seeing me back in my classroom that fall, he decided to stop by and provide a little guidance to me. He popped into my room the first week back said very directly, “I’m not surprised to see you back here.” What? That was rude. Most would expect him to offer condolences and possibly some false sympathy. Nope. Not Jerry. He got right to the point. He said, “I bet you knew all of the answers to every question you were asked on every interview you went on. Am I right?” Of course he was right. That was the point of an interview. My job was to show those who were hiring that I was the smartest person around and I should get the job.

Of course I didn’t say all of that. Instead I simply nodded my head. His response, was exactly what I needed. Jerry walked up next to me, put his hand on my shoulder, and said, “And that’s why you didn’t get the job.” What Jerry and I went on to discuss for the next hour was the idea that knowledge should never get someone a job. He cautioned me to remember that when I did get a leadership position. He explained it by saying my head should make the paperwork that gets me the interview. My heart should drive my interview that gets me the job.

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 its better for us as teachers today.

What Jerry told me that day is that leadership comes from the heart. It 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. He went on to say, 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, 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.

Here is the irony of that advice. First of all, it was a Godsend and revolutionary for me. So much so that after speaking to Jerry I decided that administration and school leadership just wasn’t for. I remember thinking he was exactly right and I needed to make peace with staying in my classroom for the next thirty years. I worked every day on making sure my students heard and believed that they were smart, they were kind, and they were loved. I attempted to find needs of my peers that I could support. I did all I could to just serve….and guess what happened, well 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.

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Today I am known as a disrupter. I am seen as someone who questions the status quo and challenges other teachers to grow and change the systems they are a part of. I have been given a platform to push change both in leadership and teacher practice. Others look to me for answers and ask for my opinions not because they think I am smarter than them, but because, I believe, they see the conviction and passion I posses for the few areas I attempt to address and change. Sure I could go into schools and question their student discipline processes, their school lunch choices, their transportation zones, or even the cleanliness of their bathrooms. There is a lot that I could attempt to address, but that is not how real change and where real leadership begins.  My job is to celebrate educators, to cheer them on, and to help them feel like superheroes. By deciding not to fight on every hill I am able to focus in on which hills I am willing to die on. For those of you that know me, you know what my causes are and what gets me going. For those of you who don’t, I can assure you, your schools tardy policy and dress code are not among them.

Feel free to check out my other blog  entries at www.schmittou.net to see what gets me excited, but more importantly spend some time in your own world identifying what you are passionate about. What can you bring to the surface tomorrow to make yourself the absolute best at what you are doing to help serve others. By serving others, you will begin to lead and that leadership is not just what lets you identify the right hills to fight on, but the mountains to move as well.

Want to check out more from Dave: Feel free to get a copy of his top selling book It’s Like Riding a Bike: How To Make Learning Last a Lifetime.

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