the fault lines of leadership

For all of my career, I have sworn til I was blue in the face that I would not, could not, should not become an administrator. No sir-re-bob, that is not for me. After taking on more of a leadership role this year at school, that stance has only been confirmed.

Though I was coaching last year and assisting another coach with our department, my leadership was, in essence, lateral. I’d like to believe that those I helped because of an official “title” were few, but those I helped because of a desire to be a great teacher were more–hopefully the majority.

This year, though, with more of a presence on and duty to our larger, systematic leadership configurations, I cannot seem to find the good in what I’m doing… whether it’s the good in my teaching, the good in my coaching, the good in my facilitation, the good in my thinking, or the good in my outcomes. I am discouraged by my inability to affect change where I think I should have that capacity. I am overwhelmed with hearing over and over the frustrations from those I care about deeply–the very frustrations that mirror my own–while not being able to do anything to influence the context which perpetuates those frustrations. I am disheartened by the systematic revolving door of external pressures that weigh our administration down, thus weighing down our internal building processes.

All of this sharply reminds me that the problem with education today is not people. Those teachers I am honored to coach; the colleagues I work side by side with in the trenches, who keep me sane; as well as the leadership I follow; these people all weave threads of joy and inspiration and light throughout my days. Rather to blame are the systems that shackle those people. Systems of evaluation. Systems of accountability. Systems of turnarounds and move overs and reach arounds. And we wonder why national teacher attrition is so high and moral so low!

And the straw that breaks the camel’s back is my missing students. Daily I split classes with two remarkable co-teachers, and after 50 minutes of the block, I just walk right out of the door–an exit that feels more emotional than physical. For those of you who have followed my writing here on lifeinthedport, you know that my students are my lifeblood, my purpose, my ministry, my joy. And so to struggle with systematic constraints while simultaneously missing quality time with my own students in my own classroom is literally. killing. me.

And because my career teaching is my identity, the tremors echo throughout all other areas of my life. I have noticed a rise in my anxiety, in my depression. My appetite is ferocious and my clothes tight. I am negative and critical and cynical and complain way too much. I have stopped writing.

Which explains this post, the one that breaks the two-month silence. Not happy, not pretty, but real. And hopefully the beginning of my mapping a way through this new land.

growth vs. fixed mindset: it’s not just for the students

Allow me to step into the confessional.

One thing I struggle with is loving people unconditionally, accepting them in their weakness. I expect the best from people, immediately, consistently. This is a universal application that haunts my students, my friendships, my colleagues, and my marriage.

Of course, I am not off the hook. I am my own worst critic, my most insistent demander, my harshest judge. I live in an internal world where it is hard to accept grace for myself…and thus–either as a cause or an effect–hard to offer it authentically and organically to others.

I am no blind fool: this leads to a lack of peace within myself…and with others.

At school, we’ve excitedly moved into a focus on rigor. Many voices expressed the idea that there can be no rigor without risk, and no risk without struggle. I wholeheartedly agree. At the most foundational level of this struggle comes the idea that it is worth it, that struggle can lead to something better. This conviction grows and blooms only in the soil of a growth mindset (rather than a fixed mindset; for more information). Educators today are very familiar with these concepts and understand the critical value of fostering not just information in students, but a kind of mindset, a mindset that is pliable rather than set, questioning rather than settling, seeking rather than content, hopeful rather than definite. Only when we encourage this in students can they grow beyond their potential–which is really just a euphemism for fixed mindset.

mindsetBut, as always, what happens in the student cafeteria is mimicked (perhaps pioneered) in the adult lounge. I have come to realize lately that though I approach students in a growth mindset paradigm, I do not extend the same courtesy to my colleagues. For whatever reason, something in me operates under the idea that adults in schools have arrived, are set in their ways, are settled into their potential, are who they are, well, because that’s who they are. The end. This ugly monster rears its head most frequently in the realm of assumptions. I make assumptions about people… and by doing so, I limit them to a quaint box that is formed nicely and neatly in my own finite head. How arrogant! How presumptuous! How fallacious!

A few times lately, I’ve been surprised by colleagues–a delicious and humbling and didactic surprise. And in reflection, I wondered why I was so surprised? And of course, it was rooted in my faulty assumptions.

Ultimately, both my perspective of others and myself as well as Carol Dweck’s research on fixed vs. growth mindsets distill down to the idea of absolutes. For all my life, I have felt more comfortable existing in a worldview of absolutes: good or bad; black or white; holy or profane; worthy or detestable. Just like it’s easier to shop in a supermarket where everything is labeled, it is more convenient to live in a world where everyone is categorized. But…though easier…it is more limiting. And more destructive.

But thankfully, I don’t have to stay here. I can change, grow, evolve. And so can anyone and everyone around me.

I just have to perpetually cultivate the gracious space for that personal and communal shifting.

My Coaching Creed: draft one

This year at school, I am excited to take on a new leadership role of part-time coach. I will be working mostly with the upperclassman Language Arts teachers, as well as supporting my co-coach in other ways our department needs. The best part–I still get to teach. I am just not that person who ever wants to leave the classroom–or the students–to lead; I’d rather have the best of both worlds.

As I’ve been ruminating and preparing for this new role, I’ve been pursuing some learning opportunities. I have been reading Elena Aguilar‘s book The Art of Coaching. I also have been seeking out the wisdom of other leaders I respect in my life. And I am taking devouring Cognitive Coaching training. All these are inspiring me to create a coaching creed: a list of principles and values that will guide and anchor me and my work as I step into this leadership role.

  • I am first and foremost a teacher. What I do in my classroom with my students is the greatest gift I can give all involved. With this in mind, I will always strive to be a model of best practices. Because I want to led by example, my classroom will always be open.
  • In everything, I will act with integrity. I will be woman of my word. I will apologize and admit mistakes. I will take responsibility instead of making excuses. I will establish boundaries so that I can be true to my word.
  • I will sympathize with what it is like to be an adult learner. To the best of my ability, I will make meetings or conversations meaningful. Agendas will be created and followed. The highest good will be sought.  I will seek feedback to ensure this is the case.
  • I will teach, learn, and coach in a perpetual state of reflection, asking questions of myself, and seeking out opportunities for growth.
  • Assuming positive intentions, I will honor that teachers are doing the best they can with what they have. It is my hope to validate that effort while offering teachers resources–internal and external–which allow them to “better their best”. Often these resources are within the teacher and just need to be unlocked; therefore I will elevate questions above advice.
  • We all operate in a system. To improve, one part cannot be ignored. To improve, many areas must be addressed. It is my hope to be an advocate for positive systematic change. In this, I will expose problems while focusing on solutions.
  • Students come first–in all, through all, above all. This may mean uncomfortable conversations and/or conflict. I must shift away from peace-keeping to peace-making, which invites and expects tension. Through discomfort, conflict, and tension, growth emerges.

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This is draft one. I realize I am a new, young, and perhaps naive leader; thus this is moldable. Nonetheless, I will be a person driven by values and not circumstances, by heart and not agenda. Here goes nothing!  And here goes everything!

 

LINDSAY JILL

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