Over the last three years, I have continued my learning through professional level classes based on educational leadership. As I have worked and become closer and closer to my dissertation and my doctorate, I felt like I knew everything I could about what it meant to be a leader. In September, I stepped out of my classroom teacher role and into a position that doesn’t have a set description and relies on the ability to nurture relationships, pinpoint areas of weakness or stress and create avenues for both students and staff to grow.
I felt like this would be a breeze! I knew all the terms, the research and the leaders in the field. I read Sinek’s Leaders Eat Last, memorized the Six Secrets to Change and spent numerous hours studying Mindfullness. I was set, nothing was going to stop me, I was going to take this place like a storm, it was going to be a breeze!
I remember my first day getting to meet the staff, their eyes looking at me, trying to find out who I was, what I was doing and how I was going to fit into the moving pieces that were the school. You see, my job lies on a thin line. On one side, I am a teacher, part of the union, the same union that supports classroom teachers, that deals with observations, pay cuts and the tension that can arise when between teaching staff and administration. On the other, I have many administrative responsibilities. I regularly meet with building and district administration about new initiatives, progress on curriculum development and planning for professional development. Add this to a myriad of other administrative tasks and you find some resemblance of my job, not quite an administrator, but not really a teacher. I live in that demilitarized zone between the two boarders. When there are diplomatic relations between the two groups all is fine, when trouble arises, it puts me right in the middle.
Needless to say, things didn’t get off to the best start. I fell off the tightrope from time to time, moving too far to the administrative perspective and then to far back to the teacher perspective. I found myself getting pulled all over not knowing where to go or what to do. I enjoyed my car rides home much more than the day at the school, not because I was going to my family, but because I could think for a bit, not having a teacher wanting something here or an administrator needing something there. It was my time, a time for reflection, a time to wrap my head around the day’s craziness. As one day piled on the next, my mind was full of thoughts most of which had me leaning on asking to get back in the classroom.
It wasn’t until I realized what was missing from the situation. All my training and book smarts didn’t prepare me for what was really necessary for leadership. I thought I wanted to be a situational leader, one who was able to seamlessly move in and out of issues, supporting staff when needed and also pushing them to achieve more. What this missed is the one piece that has to be there for any leadership model to work in the real world. Empathy.
Webster’s’ says empathy is the ability to share ones emotions. It goes beyond that. The ability to assess a situation, understand where a staff member is coming from, to know what they are bringing to the table is not just school related things, is what is needed as a leader. I needed to be able to look at my colleagues, for them to know that all of my actions were with students best interest at heart. But I also needed to be able to balance those needs with the needs of the teacher. It wasn’t fair for me to always push. I needed to ask questions, to see what they needed and help them align their needs with the needs of the students. Only then would I be a leader that could make change happen.
Of course there have been mistakes made in this journey. I talk when should listen and listen when I need to talk. The learning process expects people to make them and we need to be accountable for them, but we also need to learn from them. As a new leader, I look to others to help me better understand where I need to push and where I need to listen. I still enjoy my rides home, the quiet time is great for reflection. But instead of reflecting on what I don’t like, I review each situation as if I was the other person. What would my needs be? What misconceptions am I coming to this with? What do I really need to become better? Finding empathy has helped me grow as a learner and a leader. I am sure my perspective will change as I move forward, but that piece has helped me find my niche.
“When you start to develop your powers of empathy and imagination, the whole world opens up to you”