School Climate & Safety Opinion

One Thing Leaders Must Do

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — October 18, 2016 5 min read
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Upstate New York is glorious this time of year. Nights are cool; days are warm and the colors in our mountains are just magnificent. Those who think of New York as metropolitan may not know the huge part of the state that is rural. Small towns dot the places where we live. They are clusters of homes, a post office, many churches and yes, usually, a school. Driving in the mountains this weekend, we saw a church sign that read “Never look down on others unless you are trying to lift them up”. We had never thought about this connection between down and up but we do know that our business is lifting others up. We often write about frontiers and vision and systems but this sign took us to a more personal place. Unless we look directly into the eyes of those we serve, unless we hear their dreams and know their struggle, how will they trust us to lift them up? More importantly, why should they?

Why might an organization, like a school, need to make room for open hearts, kindness, deep listening, and space giving silence? Sounds foreign doesn’t it? Well, maybe it is but maybe it is the untaught secret that makes excellence in teaching stand out from just the transference of knowledge. Maybe it is the key ingredient to leadership that sustains and enlivens followership...and what good is a leader’s vision, a plan, the greatest knowledge without followership?

Now more than ever it is clear that we have a responsibility beyond transferring knowledge. We watch the momentum for mindfulness and restorative justice as two of the routes schools are taking to become better at creating environments that are safe and empowering and fair, all to help children become better learners. What happens when the adults in the environment are engaged in the same processes?

Looking For Models
The leaders in our lives who have captured us are the ones who are the ones who brought out the best in us and made us “want to shine not only for them but for something we seem(ed) to be discovering simultaneously in ourselves” (Whyte. p. 48). And when working with leaders who do not bring that out in us, the world becomes darker, the environment less vibrant, and we gradually lose “a little faith in our own calling” (p. 48). How can students be promised safe places to grow and learn without open-hearted adults welcoming them into school spaces? Every adult who enters the school door has a part in creating that environment.

All are leaders in classrooms, hallways, offices, meetings, clubs, sports, and on school buses and at crossings? Ask yourself if you are affecting others like those leaders who “captured you”. Not an easy question to answer. Although you can respond with a yes or a no, it is the question that follows that requires deep listening...to yourself. What is it about how I am bringing myself to my work that is preventing me from helping others to shine? That is a question that demands of us an open heart, kindness, deep listening, and space giving silence for the answer to unfold. This is the value of reflection.

Another quality of those leaders who have captured us, is their capacity to be authentically themselves. They do not strive to be like others. Herein lies another challenge. Being one’s self as a leader requires the ability to be who you are while holding the intention of the organization, respecting the strengths and limits of those working with the organization, and facilitating the move forward. Whether it is in resolving conflict or resistance, knowing what to do, and bringing your authentic self, while listening deeply and allowing others to express themselves freely takes courage. Where does one find the courage to step out and forward in action and with invitation?

The source of that courage depends upon each of us in our life journey. For some, it can be found in churches and temples, a call into action by a faith and a community. For others, it can be found in books, or in the practice of mediation or journaling. For others, it may be found in groups that meet with the explicit purpose of finding the courage to bring authenticity into one’s life and the workplace. And for others, it may be a specific therapy route that heals and removes the barriers of thought that hold us back. No matter what fits best for each of us, taking on the role of leader and being the leader an organization needs, especially if own wants to serve and not just pass through, requires one that is open and whole hearted, present, and knowing. Reaching for that goal, it then becomes clear that communication reveals.

The core act of leadership must be the act of making conversations real. The conversations of captaincy and leadership are the conversations that forge real relationships between the inside of a human being and their outer world, or between an organization and the world it serves (Whyte. p. 61).

It is not the email, Tweets, or Instagrams, the automatic phone calls, the report cards or the letters home that forge relationships. First comes the intention for the “act of making conversations real.” And in order to do that, leaders must be real themselves. Perhaps that is why some become frustrated. They do what they think is the right, they communicate, but it isn’t working. Why? The dual purpose of communication is both to inform and build relationships. One cannot accomplish that truly, unless one can fully engage in the process of being open hearted and risk being themselves.

Terrain That Troubles Us
This may seem like strange talk in a leadership blog. It may not part of everyday reading or focus. But it seems to be an understated competency for school leaders. The courage to learn about who each of us are and what we bring to our work is natural of some and terrifying for others. It is terrain that troubles us and that we think has to be keep private. But, it is in sharing our journeys that we can become human and that we can lead other human beings.

It takes courage to learn how to develop, nurture, and maintain relationships with all kinds of people within and outside of the organization. It takes courage to face the mirror and ask whether we are being open hearted, welcoming, kind and our authentic selves. It takes a willingness to be a bit vulnerable and it softens us to those around us who are also vulnerable. If we lead for children, we must be one with consummate understanding of vulnerability. Schools are curious beasts where children and adults open heads and hearts. In places like that leaders have a particular responsibility for being careful. Actions, words, and unspoken messages can nurture or damage. We want ours to nurture, to be fair and to be just and to be uplifting for all.

Whyte, D. (2001) Crossing the Unknown Sea. New York. Penguin Group

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.

Photo courtesy of Pixabay

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