Lately, I have been doing a lot of thinking about leadership, and though I hold a master’s degree in Instructional Leadership, I am not convinced it’s something you can learn simply by studying leadership theory. Leadership is a practice and a way of being. Leaders are not defined by their titles, but often by their capacity to lead us bravely when we desperately need to find restored hope in our mission. Brene Brown defines a leader as “anyone who takes responsibility for finding the potential in people and processes, and who has the courage to develop that potential.” Our systems tend to value titles over capabilities, but we passionate educators are individuals, not the system.
We determine who and what we value, and we have the opportunity to contribute what we wish to our communities, regardless of our job titles. Our young learners deserve brave leaders who continuously remain vulnerable and optimistic while challenging ourselves and the status quo.
Educators in our country have long worked in a culture of scarcity, fear, exploitation, and micromanagement, but now is the time to move beyond those cultural norms to create new ones. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that educators are more valuable than ever believed before. We should all feel more empowered than we have in the past, even if we sometimes get the sense that our value is being diminished in the media or elsewhere. In the year of the Great Resignation with an estimated 4.3 million Americans resigning from their jobs (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics), districts are facing critical shortages of teachers, substitutes, bus drivers, and other critical staff. This trend is alarming in a field where diversity is already lacking, as many of those leaving the classroom identify as BIPOC. Our country and its localities have a responsibility to continuously recruit and retain quality educators with whom all students can identify.
Educators who remain steadfast in our profession have found themselves in quite the paradox: they are committed to the well-being of their students and to high-quality teaching and learning, but they have experienced the worst years of their careers and are burning at the end of their fuses. It’s an understatement to say that the major challenge for educational leaders in the short term will be finding ways to retain educators.
But what can educators do to overcome these challenges themselves?
My suggestion is to stop waiting for traditional leadership to initiate change and shift the status quo yourself as a leader in your particular sphere of influence, regardless of your official role. I know this mindset can be scary for many, but we educators are more liberated now to take honest, altruistic, and prudent risks which serve our youth in their time of deepest need. When you model empathy, bravery, and the willingness to stretch beyond your comfort zone during the most challenging time in your career, everyone in your sphere of influence will see you lean into the discomfort rather than running from it. They will find inspiration in you when they feel you leaning in, and you may quickly find that your sphere of influence is broader than you originally thought; you may find that your bravery and optimistic energy positively impact your supervisors and beyond.
So how do you tap into your inner leader and shift the culture in your building or in your district? Here are four ways to get started:
- Ask More Questions
- Overcome Fear of Failure
- Leverage Technology
- Level Up Your Professional Learning
Ask More Questions
Questioning ourselves and our systems is the first step in leaning into authentic and timely leadership that’s needed to cultivate systemic change. Questioning prevents the status quo from becoming a permanent reality. First, start with yourself. Inventory who you are, your beliefs, and your purpose.
What do I most believe in? Why? Are those values seen and heard in the system I currently work?
What role do I play in shifting the culture of my building or system? How can I positively contribute to and realign our values?
When something in my system does not align with my values or beliefs, how do I react? How do I want to react?
Next, question the system. Speak up at faculty meetings, board meetings, department meetings, and anywhere you feel led to question something. Add value to the conversations that are happening; prompt for further information or reasoning, and push the people in the room to think beyond what they originally intended. Remember that we are all servants, but ask the right questions:
How does this impact students?
Does it better prepare them for the future of our world?”
Overcome Fear of Failure
For those of you who are reading this and thinking to yourself that you don’t have what it takes to be a leader, I beg you to reconsider. Leaders come in all shapes and sizes–extrovert or introvert, novice or veteran, elementary or secondary, teacher or coach. Your willingness to advocate for your learners makes you a leader. Your willingness to face the discomfort and question the status quo makes you a leader. Your willingness to be intentional with your actions and to selectively execute them through a mental matrix of learner-centric priorities makes you a leader.
Rewrite the narratives in your mind. Eradicate the stories you’ve told yourself about how and when change takes place. Above all that, trash your former beliefs about who makes the change. And most importantly, be kind to everyone. None of us asked for this challenging context, and if they’re right there with you doing the work, then they are valuable. Do not let the fear of failure or shame stop you from being the leader our young people need and deserve. If not you, then who? You are the torch for our future.
The pandemic has created extraordinary stress and frustration for educators, but it has also provided opportunities for unprecedented levels of flexibility in how and where our learners learn. The pandemic has also forced the most efficient technology integration professional development we could ever imagine. Educators who have embraced the challenges as opportunities and learned to leverage technology to make their workload more manageable are finally finding their groove. They are also capitalizing on the collective minds of educators across the country. A quick hashtag search (#edtechchat, #edchat, #AppleEdu, #EdFarm) on Twitter can yield hundreds of solutions to your most pressing educational challenges. A 10-second Google search can produce curated lists of the latest and greatest technology for educators and learners to utilize, such as this list from Learners Edge Evaluation and Curriculum Specialist, Marcee Harris. Tap into tools for time management, and streamline or automate processes that are time-consuming and repetitive for you. We no longer live in a world where technology integration is optional, and the inequities highlighted throughout the pandemic are finally starting to be addressed. Even the most resistant districts are finally making the jump to one-to-one devices. Learn beside your students, and learn from them. Let the humility of partnering with your students be a beacon to lead the way for your school and your district. If you wait for someone above you to take the initiative, you will likely miss this pivotal moment for shifting the paradigm in the way you’ve always dreamed.
Level Up Your Professional Learning
Tapping into technology lends itself to leveling up your own professional learning. In the last several years, social media, video conferencing, podcasts, blogs, and microcredential courses have blown up the professional learning world. There is literally a way to connect however and whenever you want to learn something new. Create your own professional learning community by utilizing social media groups. Meet via video with like-minded educators across the country. Peruse NEA and Digital Promise microcredential courses to level up your knowledge on a variety of topics. The more you learn, the more you share with the people around you. Try establishing a newsletter you share with your coworkers. Push yourself into new territory to create videos or publish your own podcast. Host a 30-minute pop-up session for anyone who wants to learn with you. Pick something you love, and feature it. I personally learn a ton while on the run from some of my favorite podcasts, and Audible is my jam. What’s yours?
Lastly, humans do not thrive in silos. We crave connection. And leaders are just humans. Find your people by putting out a signal. Everyone’s antennas are up, and everyone is listening. All educators are lost right now in their own ways, but true and passionate educators who have come to terms with their own leadership capabilities and responsibilities are serving as the compass. We must continue to forge a path forward as we continue to construct a better version of the world around us.
*The Creative Classroom w/Jon Spencer
Want more? Come level up with our “Dare to Lead” by Brene Brown book study! Register HERE by end of April.
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Bio & headshot
Brittany Wade is a Learning Innovation Coach at Ed Farm. She resides in Montgomery, Alabama where she drinks copious amounts of coffee and reads in between raising a toddler and working on her doctorate. She believes that technology is a game-changer when it comes to connecting learners with not only resources to support learning, but opportunities to cultivate change, connect with others to learn about the world around them, and empower them to innovate and create.