Teaching Opinion

Great Leadership Is Like Gardening

By Starr Sackstein — May 15, 2018 4 min read
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Spring is finally here in NY. What seems like suddenly, has been coming for some time, but it hasn’t been visible. As winter transitions into spring, the barren trees, and brown landscape, slowly, but then quickly shifts into a lush green and flowerful landscape and so too are the seeds of leadership.

As my first year of being a leader is beginning to draw to a close, I’ve been fortunate to see some of me flourishing in unexpected ways. It’s not that I wasn’t expecting a lot, in fact, I expected to see more, quicker, but I’ve learned it’s not up to me when things start to take form.

The best thing a leader can do is plant seeds and create the right environment for them to grow in. As cheesy as this metaphor may seem, it has been my experience.

At the beginning of the school year, I was full of ideas and hopes about what I would be able to help my team accomplish. Working feverishly to build relationships, learn the culture and learn the multiple facets of my new job, I was tilling the land. First getting a working knowledge of what it is comprised of and then learning what to plant, how much to plant and how much water, sunlight and fertilizing it would take to grow.

The land is the school district. The culture that pre-existed me and will post-date me as well. It is the landscape of our team and our students and it is the lifeline of what makes us successful. Generously, different members of our team have contributed to my learning the landscape quicker. Whether it was in mentoring conversations or early morning coffee discussions, I listened eagerly after asking many questions to better understand expectations and personalities.

Perhaps selfishly I wanted to find a way to leave my mark, but it became evident early as a novice leader that wasn’t my job. My real work was supporting our team so they could better support our students.

After learning the lay of the land, it was time to understand the conditions in which positive growth would grow. This was and continues to be the process of growing relationships with stakeholders in the community. Participating in school events, showing up to board meetings, doing walkthroughs, getting to know students on field trips and also during co-teaching opportunities with my team. I was an unknown entity upon my arrival, so I had a lot to show them to earn their trust. I couldn’t just tell them what I could do or worse, what I wanted to do, I needed to show them my investment. So I shined my light, took out my watering can and began to till the land.

As months went on, seeds were planted with individual teachers and small teams throughout the district. Vulnerability made it easier for me to show our team that I was invested. As hard as it is to admit mistakes, it was necessary for me to do so because I made them and I needed and wanted to fix them for the betterment of the whole. I could only be better for our team if I transparently asked for help and made myself available to support them in the ways they needed most.

Asking a lot of questions, observing and trying to stay as non-judgmental as possible, I was able to see how I could fit in this team. Sharing new ideas in our meetings and then gathering feedback to hone in on the temperature and climate of our team. Actively listening to and responding in different ways to feedback, both positive and critical, my main objective was understanding. The more I knew, the better I could approach different challenges.

Continuing throughout the year, I knew who I could go to for help when I needed it most for different areas. Different teachers took me up on my offers to help them plan projects, to co-teach or to provide feedback in a variety of different ways. But there were still dark days. I sadly focused on what wasn’t working. The storms of winter were upon us and it was hard to see that flowers were starting to bloom.

Then all of a sudden, seemingly overnight, the strangest things started to happen. People on the team were coming to me to try things out because they had heard about the work I was doing with other teachers. They were curious and ready to try something on their own. And then I heard about a situation where teachers were visiting each other and engaging in collegial conversations to plan for student-to-student engagement and learning.

And it was only through conversation that I started to notice the subtle impacts I have started to make. Most of all the credit goes to our team for their willingness to try new things and support each other. But I smiled widely when I heard that this news and that word is spreading. The only way I will grow as a leader is when our team trusts me and sees that I am truly here to help them and to be a team member myself. We all have to work together to do what is best for kids.

So as my new landscape continues to bloom, I recognize that there will be seasons and change and that patience and persistence is what will get me through all of the times to come.

What seeds have you planted this year that are finally starting to grow? Please share

*Photo taken by Starr Sackstein

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