It has been an interesting year this year. I have learned a great deal about leadership. Especially in education.
As a teacher I have always subscribed to a quote by Haim Ginott:
“I’ve come to a frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element in the classroom. It’s my personal approach that creates the climate. It’s my daily mood that makes the weather. As a teacher, I possess a tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated and a child humanized or dehumanized.”
Mr Ginott died in 1973 yet so much of his writing on Education is so so relevant. For me, this quote has gained deeper significance in my role as a leader this year. It is as relevant for leadership as it is for teaching, possibly more so.
I have fulfilled two significant roles in leadership this year: as Head Teacher of a new Creative and Performing Arts faculty and as a Literacy Co-ordinator under Improving Literacy and Numeracy National Partnerships (ILNNP). I have worked with many staff and as a result I have learned a great deal. About myself, about the importance of leadership, and the importance of offering compassion and stability. It isn’t always easy but it is necessary for success. And at the crux of success in leadership is the development and maintenance of strong, professional relationships.
As a human, I am not always perfect in my role, but I aspire to be without sacrificing my humanity. I feel like I have attained some success in this in recent days. And I think it stemmed from a conversation I had with a student in a shop eight weeks ago.
Eight weeks ago I had failed in my final IVF cycle. And I needed bread. After tears from watching a movie that triggered emotion, I decided to throw on my nearest clothes, without makeup and without even brushing my teeth or putting my hair up or putting my glasses on, I left the house to buy bread from a local supermarket (not my local bakery because some people I know work there and I didn’t want to run into anyone I knew).
And then I did. Run into people. A Year 11 student and we chatted nicely, me dismissing my appearance self-consciously, before heading to the cash register. And there she was. The catalyst for a moment that would yield change in my performance at work; not that either of us realised its significance at the time.
Her: Hi Miss.
Me: Hi C-L. How are you?
Her: Good thanks.
Idle chit chat.
Her: You are really nice outside of school.
Me: I’m always nice.
Her: No. At school you aren’t very nice.
Me: [surprise; hurt; ego driven emotion]
To be fair, this was a student who had disrespected one of my staff members and I had fought for her suspension as a result.
Obviously I went home considering what she had said. I do not feel the need to be a friend to my students but I do feel the need to be friendly, approachable, caring. So I was shocked. I had always been known as a caring teacher, strict but fair. And then I realised that kids used to speak to me for support and that they didn’t really approach me anymore. Year 7 are scared of me and regard me as a B word. And in the process of unpacking all of this I realised that my change in role from teacher to leader had created this, sometimes but not always necessary, divide.
And I didn’t like it.
And so acknowledging this inspired me to change the way I was interacting with the kids. And I started with my Year 9 class.
I walked in, I sat down, and I told them about my interaction with one of their peers during the weekend. And so I stayed nice for the whole period until the last five minutes. I was exceptionally polite, caring, no firm tone, and they did very little work. They talked over the top of me. They talked to each other. I requested silence several [hundred] times, to no avail. And then it happened. It was inevitable. I shrieked,
“I’ve had an epiphany! The reason I am not nice to you people is because you don’t work when I’m nice. In fact, you achieve nothing. You are creating the teacher you have in front of you. You choose her by your behaviour. And your behaviour when I’m nice is unproductive. Aaarghhhhhhhhhhhh!”
And so I acknowledged the need for balance and for flexibility, and the need to acknowledge context. And I remembered Mr Ginott’s quote, which sits on my desk as a constant reminder. And I softened, just a little, and remembered that I became a high school teacher to help the broken heal, to inspire change in their lives, and to install hope. And by so doing, I remembered my love and passion for teaching, and my desire to change the world. And so, I think this became a catalyst for me recalling a higher purpose.
And maybe that’s why I’m not pregnant.
Maybe that’s why I didn’t take the fertility path earlier.
Maybe this is my answer.
As a leader, it is really hard to meet the demands that come from everywhere: kids, parents, staff, deputy principals, principal, outside agencies, employer, community. Really hard. And it is easy to forget our core principles.
But it is hard to forget that in our roles we are regarded as non-people. Yet expected to steer the ship whilst providing calm seas and support when the tide is high, and the ocean turbulent. It is a lonely place, leadership. Be it in the classroom, in the staffroom, in the school, in the community, in the world.
But it is a vital role. And one that I am happily learning.
Success is gradual; every day a work in progress. But last week, some Year 7 girls came up to the staffroom to chat. And Year 9 have been perfect in the last week and have spent, every period, writing quality responses.
Small steps, but indicators that Haim was right. We all need to listen and remember and respond.
And together the children will heal, and society will grow, and humanity will flourish.