School & District Management Opinion

Leaders, Are You Surviving or Flourishing?

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — March 09, 2017 5 min read
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Why, one wonders, do some choose to step forward as leaders. Why does anyone want to leave the meaningful life of a classroom teacher and the laughter and joy that brings each day? It is not because of money nor of glory. No, most leaders step up because of a desire to make a greater difference for children. They are willing to exchange the intimate space of the classroom for the broader, more open space of the leader.

The joys of leading also arrive daily but it seems leaders talk less about them. We don’t know why. Many teachers will tell you they don’t want the life of the leader as if it were a bad thing. But, as for all who choose education as a career, the joys come one child, one parent, one conversation, or one partnership at a time. They are packaged as smiles, as a performance, as a talent or an unexpected triumph recognized and rewarded, as a positive vote, as a thank you or a handshake or an email that surprises as it expresses only gratitude. It often comes years later, when those students have become adults and have their own careers and families. This is meaningful and societally important work. Yet, it demands resilience to hold the joyful moments in our minds and hearts amidst the unrelenting onslaught of the next urgent issue.

Stress is ever present in the lives of those living in this century. It is fed by uncertainty and change. The speed of communication and the rapid proliferation of facts and opinions and the global nature of almost everything make it so. Terrorism and its related fear are creating a willingness to give up freedoms and adjust to a new way of life. Fear messages on the media (and social media) permeate families, schools, theaters and communities. Children and adults exhibit unmanaged mental health and emotional issues. Increasing diversity presents cultural gaps, language barriers and unimagined identity shifts. A fragile economic recovery relegates planning to the best guess within pervasive unpredictability. Our new president and his administration were elected to shake up the status quo and they are. Change is rapid and chaos seems acceptable.

Low levels of trust and high demands for accountability pressure educators daily. Public criticism that schools are failing our children has led to reform agendas adding frustration and discouragement to the system. Educators struggle to lead a system into higher standards and greater accountability while resources are depleted and political battles about those standards rage on.

The Challenges
We return to work each day with children who carry the burdens present in their families and our society. They bring them to the shoulders and the hearts of their teachers and leaders. Our new Secretary of Education expresses frustration at the failure of children and believes that improving schools involves vouchers and charters. Regulations arrive as missives that demand change in content, approach and culture. Because we are at a moment when everything is urgent and immediate, quick turn around is an expectation dismissing our voices calling for time for good planning, good teaching and learning, and thoughtful localization.

Yet, Some Step Forward
Absent is the time to respond well to our people, to acknowledge loss, to reduce the personal fears and reluctance associated with change, and to encourage risk taking. This is the arena of education now. Yet, still some step up to lead. Some do not find this arena too challenging or too distracting. They accept the mantle because they can walk clear and strong through these buffeting winds and not lose sight of why they are there. Whatever happens, they hold the children in their eyes. Yes, the work plays out in the public eye and the demands are 24/7 but still some say “yes”.

Care for Our Leaders
The opening decades of this century have taken a toll on school systems and their leaders. No scanning of the horizon implies that this will abate anytime soon. So, if we care about our children and the schools and teachers who serve them, we must care for our leaders. They are asked to have vision, to be inspirational and motivational. If these attributes are to be authentic, rather than artificial or shallow, leaders must continually recharge themselves, recovering or rediscovering access to the reservoirs that fuel them, staying healthy, authentic, and, hopefully, reigniting passion about their work.

It is the wholeness of body, mind, and soul that leaders bring to their work. It is the interaction of these that cause trust to be built within and among the faculty and staff and students and community or to cause it to erode. The 21st century school leader aspires to bring deeper wisdom and empathy to their work. Today’s leaders may find their hearts saying something has been lost, some part of them that was clear has become cloudy, that colleagues are fatigued and discouraged and want to regain their energy and enthusiasm. Ultimately, leaders who are healthy, authentic, passionate and joyful best serve children, teachers, families and communities.

The more passionate we are about our life and work, the more vital it is that we take time to renew our own spirits. The call to lead is a lifelong journey we chose to take with others. Sometimes we call them followers but, in a true sense, they are companions, just as Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz had companions along her journey. Her companions, just as ours, were seeking something... brains, and hearts and courage. Leaders today need all three. So do their companions. In the story, the gifts for which they were searching were already in their possession. They simply needed to believe and take the journey to discover who they were.

We cannot come to our work tired, or sick, spiritually or physically. We must, like good athletes, take care of each part of us that is required to be present in our work. If we fail to acknowledge and take care of our bodies, minds and spirits, we will bring an exhausted soul to work. The best we can do is get things done and present as a balloon that is emptying quickly. We cannot hold vision, energize others, and fuel the system if all we have left is our thoughts, especially if even they have not been well fed.

Ann Myers and Jill Berkowicz are the authors of The STEM Shift (2015, Corwin) a book about leading the shift into 21st century schools. Connect with Ann and Jill on Twitter or Email.

Illustration by Hillyne courtesy of Pixabay

The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.