The Heart of Teacher Leadership

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As part of a new partnership, is publishing this regular column by members of the Teacher Leaders Network, a professional community of accomplished educators dedicated to sharing ideas and expanding the influence of teachers.

"Reason and calm judgment, the qualities especially belonging to a leader." – Publius Cornelius Tacitus

One of the things most difficult about leadership is that we often must make decisions on the spot. Given enough time to weigh options and seek input, we might arrive at very different solutions than we do when circumstances demand immediate attention. Each decision we make informs the next situation in which we must take timely action. A clear vision coupled with a strong conviction for what we want to accomplish informs the leadership instinct we sometimes must rely upon.

I was reminded of one of those snap decisions I once made when I received an e-mail from a student I taught in Latin class years ago. While I had forgotten the situation she recalled, the letter reminded me how the decisions we make carry the potential for valuable lessons or costly harm.

Sometimes a teacher gets immediate validation that something was meaningful for his students. Other times these validations come in the rare thank you note, a passing kind remark, or an e-mail 15 years later:

Dear Mr. Brooks,

It's been quite some time since I've written. Every school year when the yearbooks come out, or when particular student issues come up, I think about you and how thankful I am to have had you for a teacher. At the school where I teach, we had a cheating incident come up where some students programmed "illegal" formulas into their calculators before a chemistry test. The teacher caught them, they all received zeros, their parents were called, etc. Irate students who thought the punishment too lenient (they should be suspended, expelled, etc) came to talk to me about it. When they did, I told them a story about my own dishonesty, how you dealt with it, and how it changed me.

I don't know if you remember this or not, but my junior year Sam and I were involved in a photocopying scandal with your teacher's edition of the Latin textbook. Sam was making copies of translations during yearbook. You caught him with the translations. He said "I'm not the only one!" and then you proceeded to talk to every Latin II and III student and asked us if we were involved. I will never forget the look on your face when I told you I was the one with the translations. You were so disappointed. You gave us zeros and didn't let us forget what we had to do earn your trust back. The cool thing was, though, that you really did give us a chance to re-earn your trust. You didn't write me off. You kept me on the yearbook staff that year, and even let me keep my editorship for senior year.

The lesson you taught me about trust—what happens when students break it, what happens when teachers let students earn it back—is so valuable. Had you reacted differently and written me off entirely, I would probably be a very different person than I am today. Seriously, though, this is just ONE of the many ways your teaching impacted me then as a student and now as a teacher. I also realize that it's the little things that we teach about who we are that students are most likely to remember, even more so than the actual content of what we teach.

It was humbling to read Shelly's e-mail because it reminds me of the great power and responsibility we carry into the classroom each day. We must not wield this power capriciously. I feel lucky that my instincts were right that day. I could just have easily blundered the situation and unknowingly left an equally enduring negative lesson. I was, after all, a novice teacher.

Shelly said "it's the little things" that students remember instead of "the actual content" of the courses we teach. Anne Michaels writes of that same kind of lesson in her book Fugitive Pieces, a moving novel about a young Holocaust survivor and the special relationship he forges with his teacher. "The best teacher lodges an intent not in the mind but in his heart."

While I continue to hold my students responsible for mastering the content of the courses I teach, my larger intention will continue to be to make decisions that touch the heart. In this way I might even have a positive influence on the students of those teachers who were once students in my classroom.

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