This entry is inspired by the way I found my classroom on Friday afternoon. I’d been out all day at a teacher leadership meeting, and returned to my building after hours to meet with my team. But before that, I stopped by my room — my home away from home — to reset a few things for Monday, and came upon a giant mess: my desk overflowing with disorganized papers, pencils and facial tissues littering the floor, chairs strewn about the room, the morning message still left up on the board (eight hours later!!), a full newspaper stuffed into the teacher trash can, and a nearly untouched stack of assignments and activities that I had prepared the night before and left for the substitute teacher to lead the kids in doing. I can only imagine what they got up to all day. If only I could’ve been a fly on the wall.
We’ve had many examples — interesting examples — of leadership in the news in the recent past. And many people have delved into those newsworthy examples, people who are better informed than I am, so I will leave that to them. But the classroom and the school setting are very often parallel worlds to what’s going on in the larger community — the citywide community, the statewide or national community, the global community — and that made me think about what I’m going to tell my students, my kids, on Monday. So humor me as I work through a draft of it here:
Based on the conditions I found in the room on Friday, I can make a few assumptions about what happened, how you behaved, and how your substitute teacher behaved. Some will blame the teacher for being a bad leader — in some ways I do — but I also put responsibility on you — all of you — for letting this happen. I know you are just children, only eight or nine years old, but your experience on Friday was an important lesson. And unfortunately you’re going to see as you grow up that the leaders who are meant to be in charge, to direct you and your daily activities, who are supposed to make decisions that are on your behalf, designed to benefit you — they will fail. And when you find yourself in that situation, you have choices.
One, let go and have fun. Don’t resist and follow along. And why not? It’s not your fault that the leader’s doing a bad job, making decisions that aren’t best for you or your community. It’s not your job, it’s someone else’s. And I understand. However, in those times you have other options, ones that are more powerful than that.
Once you realize that the leader, the person who’s supposed to be at the helm, driving the bus and choosing the path, isn’t making good decisions, then it’s up to you. Because you see what’s lacking, it is up to you — it is up to you — to take the lead. I’m not asking you to be defiant or disrespectful of the adult in the room, the leader of the classroom, but I am asking you to look around and think. Consider what would be best for you in this moment, and think about how you can bring others along with you into positive, respectful, and responsible choices. That’s a leader and that’s leadership. Start with the people nearest to you, and suggest that you all do something together — read, study, work on something as a group. If you can, spread out and visit other parts of the room, urge and encourage those friends to do the same. Stay optimistic, be persistent and positive, be flexible in your approach to the teacher and your classmates, show resilience and bounce back when you are ignored, and strive to do your best — even if the final, positive results are only with you. That’s being a leader.
And being a leader, a true leader, a sustainable and honorable leader, does not often lead from the helm, lifted up on a platform, dictating or bossing or threatening. Leaders are living and learning and moving among their friends, striving to be their best selves in all circumstances, welcoming their friends into better choices, searching for and magnifying their peers’ strengths, supporting and encouraging them through challenges, believing in them persistently — all the while with their eyes, their minds and their hearts set on creating a bond and a community among everyone, with mutual respect and responsibility as their goal.
So, we are going to take a step to the side today, to reinvest in one another and to plant the seed of leadership in our hearts — in each and every heart here in this classroom. We are going to build our community stronger by getting to know one another more deeply, by creating personal goals, sharing those goals, and pushing ourselves everyday this week to be on each other’s team, to encourage everyone to reach their goals and to be their best selves. Because if we can find that leader in ourselves, then we will always have a choice — no matter what may come — and we will know how to stay strong as individuals and as a community, and we will reach our goals no matter what.