Warning: honesty ahead.
This is a tough topic to write about. Identifying factors that lead me to a position of educational leadership, factors that make me a person people follow, my own motivation to be a leader, and the knowing the difference is complicated. At the middle of my onion though is a pretty simple core.
I care deeply about capitalizing on the opportunity to change the trajectory of lives. As a teacher, I articulated to my students the belief that I was morally obligated to come to work every day because I have no way of knowing if any particular day will be the one when a small thing I do or say changes the course of a student’s life. I can look back on many single seemingly routine events that had a major impact on my own life. How then can I possibly forfeit the opportunity to play the role of change-agent in the life of a student? As a teacher leader and now administrator, that role has expanded, but has not changed. I am aware that my words or actions – or decision not to speak or act – can resonate through my peers and teachers to the lives of hundreds of students and parents. This can feel like a heavy responsibility at times. On the other hand, I honestly wonder what other profession offers its practitioners such a profound opportunity to matter every day. I am an educational leader because I can’t picture myself not working to change lives.
A second deeply personal motivation is my belief that I have been given talents and abilities for the express purpose of being equipped to use them. It is selfish – and probably immoral – to chose not to use the abilities I have. This conviction was sharpened for me during my last year in the classroom. I had earned my administrative certification three years earlier but (following a move to Alabama from San Diego) had chosen to remain in a teaching role. I had the opportunity to engage in a wide range of leadership roles and responsibilities from that position. Eventually, though I began to become convicted that I was simply hiding in the classroom. All the opportunities I had been given to learn about effective leadership had equipped me for a different role. The path lead out the door but my pride held me back. Eventually, something my wife said (“If you aren’t sure you are not supposed to apply, do it and have faith”) broke through the fog and got me moving. I applied for several assistant principal positions. That summer I resolved never again to act in such a self-serving way. Now I try to pass that hard lesson on to others: even when a position or career change is not involved, keeping what you know and have learned to yourself is just selfish. You can not grow personally and professional and the people around you will not reach their potential if you refuse to pass on what you have learned.
The first year I was an assistant principal, someone recommended that I start a list titled “When I am Principal”. I took the advice literally and started writing down everything I intended to do when I got the captain’s chair. Incidentally, this is a practice I strongly recommend to all new and aspiring administrators. When I started out as a principal, I chose not to be enslaved by the mandates of tradition. I (again) took my professors at their word and started basing all my decisions on what is good for kids, not what is traditionally done or easiest or least likely to be frowned on by someone or other. I was (and am still) not sure what I was trying would work. But I was willing to fail in order to give students the best possible chance to succeed. I never included “be brave” on my list, but I do live that mantra. Also not on my list was an idea that has crystallized just this summer for me. One of the most important jobs as a principal is to shield teachers from bureaucracy. I may not be able to scrub all of it out of the system, but I can do enough of those tasks myself that teachers remain free to learn from each other and take risks and lift their students to levels of learning no one would have thought possible.
Why do I lead? I have to lead because I have to ability to do so well and I can not live with the responsibility of abdicating my moral responsibility. Oh … and because middle schoolers are awesome! But I’ll talk about that another day.