This isn’t the blog I began this morning. My schedule has been a bit off the past week or so and, while I haven’t been writing, my mind has been filled with topics. As you might surmise, I read a lot. I have a place on my Flipboard account where I save articles, posts, etc. that strike me as something I might like to explore in writing. I began the morning with the intent of beginning with those articles and then life happened.
As regular readers know, I’ve been spending a lot of time trying to make connections between leadership and learning. I tend to see the issue of improving opportunities for learning as a leadership issue. This is probably not surprising as I spent the last 20 years or so of my career in such positions.
One of the things that happened this week was that I had a birthday. In the Facebook world, this means that “friends” can choose to share their best wishes with you. I should point out that I’m a terrible Facebook user. I love to read about how people I know and care about are doing. I’m not too fond of political polemics and I sometimes wonder who actually has the time to film all of the cat videos. I’m pretty clueless about posting stuff. But this time I got ambushed.
The whole thing started pretty much as expected. I got birthday well wishes. I sent (hoping I had figured out the process of replying to all who had contacted me) a thank you and then it happened. I got more responses… responses from some of my former students telling me how important I had been in their lives and in the lives of some of their friends. Wow! And then it hit me. In my core I don’t think of myself as a leader. I am a teacher. One of hundreds of thousands, millions who have made a difference in the life of a student.
I was blessed. I was blessed because I lived in classrooms before NCLB. I lived in classrooms where I could look at the kids sitting there in front of me (yup, it was pretty traditional in the 1970’s and 80’s) and gauge both their readiness and their neediness. I lived in a school where the school leaders understood empowerment and trust. I lived in a school with school leaders who tolerated my quirkiness and encouraged me to explore… leaders who allowed and encouraged me to be the teacher my Facebook friends remembered.
But I also lived at a time when it was still considered both acceptable and expected that a certain percentage of the students would not learn well. I lived at a time when I inadvertently contributed to the need for changing the way our kids experience learning. I lived at a time when I believed that better standards and assessments could and would make a difference… that it was the absence of these in classrooms (and not the very system of schooling) that caused ‘achievement concerns’.
I believed that until I realized four things: (1) teaching is not the same as causing learning, (2) standards and assessments as we have developed and implemented them lead to standardization not to increased learning, (3) school as an educational structure and institution still fails far too many students, and (4) we have expected schools and schooling to bear the brunt of our collective unwillingness to deal with the larger issues of poverty and opportunity
And now it seems clear to me that we have defined leadership and teaching both separately and much too narrowly.
As I began to craft this, I recalled a story I read about Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln was not a fan of the press. He had not been treated well. When asked if he would give an interview for a major newspaper, he replied that he would not but he would grant the interviewer access to him for a day as he went about the business of being president. At one point the pair entered a room in the White House which was entirely devoted to models of Civil War battlefields. The reported later shared that he asked Lincoln if this was so that he could plan how to win the war. Lincoln’s response was, “No, sir, I’m trying to figure out how to save lives. If too many people die on either side we will never be reunited as a country.”
The reporter wrote a short article asking readers to decide who they would like as a leader… the person involved in trying to save lives or the person who placed winning above all else. When Lincoln was assassinated, police found the following in his pockets, a pocket watch, a few dollars, and a dog-eared copy of that article. Friends recalled (never before knowing what it was) that at times a great stress, Lincoln would remove a small piece of paper from his wallet and read it.
My Facebook birthday experience reminded me… our job is to save lives. We, as educators, must all be leaders in that quest. It is the highest form of both teaching and leadership.