Last month, I was driving along an expressway in Tampa, Fla., with my husband and five children when I saw a car quickly approaching in my rearview mirror. The sedan was coming toward us so quickly and erratically that I made the choice to veer over the rumble strips and cruise partially on the shoulder of the expressway. A black Kia zipped by us at a speed that made my heart race and sink simultaneously. The car then proceeded to careen into the two lanes directly in front of us. Cars scattered this way and that, propelled out of control. It was horrible to watch, and a feeling of helplessness and urgency washed over me.
Once I was sure my car—and the children in it—was safely out of the way, I told the older kids to stay in the car and watch over the younger children. Then my husband and I jumped out of the car. What happened next is a blur, as pure adrenaline took over.
I remember trying to drag a woman out of a smoking blue jeep and into the grassy median. I couldn’t lift her on my own, so I called for a group of men standing by to help me carry her. I coordinated two separate lifts, all of us working together to get the woman to safety. I tried to calm her down by asking her name and how she was feeling. It was frustrating to realize this was all I could do for the woman, who was clearly in so much physical pain. My husband felt a similar helplessness and frustration as he performed round after round of CPR on a man he had pulled out of another car.
From the accident itself to its aftermath, this entire experience was terrifying. My husband and I did what we could, but three people died in the wreck, including an elementary school student from my home district.
Fast forward to this month, with the onslaughts of Hurricane Harvey in Texas and Louisiana and Hurricane Irma in Florida. I have shared local donation contacts with my networks, and donated money myself, but I don’t feel like I am doing enough. It is difficult not to get in my car and drive to the affected areas. Even then, I suspect I would feel helpless in the face of such formidable challenges.
Teacher leadership can provoke these feelings of helplessness, especially when it comes to students’ lives. It may seem like an ill-fitting metaphor to compare students’ experience in education to an alcohol-fueled hit and run or a natural disaster, but being held responsible for the learning and development of a class of young people evokes the same feelings of urgency. As teachers and advocates, when we don’t feel like we are moving the needle or making a difference in the lives of children, we often feel helpless.
When students are not receiving the education they are entitled to, as described in Justin Minkel’s eloquent letter in The Washington Post, we feel a sense of responsibility to help them. When students are in classrooms that are only adequately funded, without the resources they need to learn, we feel a sense of urgency. When students sit in classrooms led by teachers who are warm bodies, instead of trained professionals, there is even greater urgency. When students don’t feel comfortable or safe in their classrooms or schools because of the color of their skin, their heritage, their sexual orientation, or their gender identity, there is urgency. When we have classrooms full of students in poverty who are treated inequitably in a country that is supposed to help and serve all, there is urgency. Lives are at stake.
And as teacher-leaders, we can feel helpless when it seems like the decisionmakers around us—who control the mandates, the policies, and the purse strings—don’t feel that sense of urgency because they are either clouded by their distance from the students they are supposed to serve or don’t see clearly through their privilege.
Feeling helpless when there are lives at stake is one of the greatest challenges of leadership. As leaders, we will all experience periods when we sincerely want to do more, but just can’t seem to move the needle or amplify our voices to make decisionmakers hear, understand, and act.
This feeling of helplessness is the greatest threat to change, because it has the power to transform passionate leaders into complacent individuals. What can we do, as leaders and educators, when we are swallowed by feelings of helplessness in times of urgency?
First, we must not let helplessness shift our eyes and voices away from our end goal. Instead, we must recognize that the temporary urge to give up on ourselves and each other is part of the process—and we need to pull one another out of that rut and keep our attention focused on the beautiful students we serve.
Additionally, we must think about measuring success in new, incremental ways. We must remember that progress can be an incredibly slow process, especially if we are advocating for lasting and meaningful change. That brand of change comes slowly—and the work is tedious, challenging, and often thankless. Despite feeling frustrated with the larger picture, we must keep moving forward. One conversation at a time, one person at a time, progress is possible.
Finally, we must continue to reach out to decisionmakers in our schools, districts, and states, so we can convey the urgency of challenges in public education to them. It is critical that they understand the impact of these challenges on the lives of individual children, and understand that we, as a country, owe our children much more than we are currently giving them.
Whether in the context of a car accident, a hurricane, or a classroom—there are lives at stake. We must tackle the helplessness of leadership head-on and continue our work so others can see the urgency of what is happening in our schools. Individual efforts are not enough to create and sustain change. At the scene of the car wreck, I couldn’t have pulled a woman from her car to safety on my own. But I resisted the urge to give up when my own efforts were not enough, enlisted the help of other concerned onlookers, and kept going.
In education, we must take this same approach. It’s our collective duty to push past feelings of helplessness, frustration, and insecurity so we can serve our students’ needs. The hardest part of leadership is being brave in the face of uncertainty—but we must. Lives are at stake.