While I truly value my professional learning network that I’ve worked so diligently to build, there a few people in my life that I have carefully chosen to study the way they operate because I have such a massive amount of personal and professional respect for them. I have learned an immense amount of life and professional lessons from them. These people have been my mentors, my friends, and my biggest supporters. They have listened to me complain, celebrated my successes, and have laughed with me when I inevitably say or do something ridiculous. They have become like family to me, like a weird concoction of uncles and step-brothers and mothers that have made me who I am by being absolutely amazing leaders and mentors. And through them, I have learned the following lessons.
Ask for what you want
I have a terrible habit of hedging or asking questions in a passive voice. I’ve learned, however, that this tends to give the impression that I’m not confident in what I’m saying or asking. The secret is that I’m usually not confident, but I certainly don’t want people to know that. One of my mentors taught me that how you speak is as important as what you’re saying, and that the confidence you exhibit can dictate the way that people react to you. I always need to be especially cognizant of this when I’m speaking with people that intimidate me.
So, what happens if you don’t have the confidence that’s necessary? Another one of my mentors taught me this: fake it ’til you make it. I’ve learned myself that when you fake it long enough, you start to believe in yourself and build your own confidence until you’re not faking it anymore. Whenever I fall upon a situation that makes me feel like I don’t have the confidence I need, I fall back upon this rule to get me through.
Leaving a legacy is not about getting the credit
Especially not in education. Recently, I was at a volleyball tournament and a few of my former students came over to tell me that one of their former classmates still talks about me all the time and wants to get in touch with me to say hi. I would be willing to bet that she couldn’t pick out anything specific I taught her, and years down the line, she might not even remember my name, but she will remember the way she felt in my classroom and the connections that she made. Leaving a legacy in education isn’t about massive changes or a total disruption, although a few people are able to create those types of movements. For most of us, the legacy is in the way that we instill certain values in our students, whether it’s a love of learning, knowing that there are consequences for our decisions, or that everyone deserves someone who sticks by them no matter what choices they make. It’s about the small changes that we create in the educators around us, the programs we start to do things like help provide canned goods to the food pantry, or even leading a school-wide or district-wide mindset change. Our legacies are not in things, and years down the road people might not remember our names, but they will remember the connections, the programs that supported them or made them feel worthwhile, and the feeling they got from changes and relationships we made.
People make time for what they think is important
If people don’t jump on a new idea or initiative, it is most likely not because they are completely unwilling to learn something new. It is usually because they have not been given the why behind the change and how it is going to enhance learning. I have learned that when people think something is important, they will make time. When they think that their students will truly benefit and it could transform learning, they will be all in. People will move mountains for the things they believe are important.
The same is true with students and their learning. If they have not been shown the importance or connection of what they’re learning, or if they are not encouraged to find what inspires them, they will not spend the time to truly engage in what they are doing. They might do it out of compliance or just to get through their days, but they won’t show the qualities of an empowered learner that we want to see when a child truly loves what they’re doing.
Never forget your teacher’s heart
It doesn’t matter what position you’re currently in. It’s that feeling you get when a kid has a lightbulb moment, or when a child with difficult behaviors seems happy instead of angry, or when a student comes back to your classroom years later and says, “Remember when we did __________ in class? That was awesome.” It is the combination of moments and feelings that you can only get from working with students, hearing them laugh, and watching them triumph over struggles. Because those are the moments that keep us pushing in education when we’re also dealing with new initiatives, rules made by government officials that have never been in a classroom as an educator, and active shooter drills. The second we forget our teacher’s heart, it will become significantly more difficult to remember why we teach to begin with, and kids deserve better than that.
Being a leader was never about you
If you are truly serving people as a leader, your personal professional agenda will never be considered, because being a real leader is never about you. Instead, it’s about what the people around you need and the best way they can be supported. All the time. Period. I’ve seen agendas that include things like being seen as the first district to “pave the way” for other districts all the time, or implementing copious numbers of devices to prove they have more than their neighbors, or building a massive football field. Many times these agendas might start out with student learning as the reason (sometimes they don’t) but the focus gets lost along the way because the focus becomes the agenda instead. Sometimes, these agendas are followed up with or connected to the desire to build a legacy. But, like legacies are not about things, a true leader is not concerned with leaving a legacy, and certainly not worried about agendas because they realize that leading is not about them but rather the ones they serve.
I continue to learn from the people around me every day, but the people who believe in me and mentor me on a daily basis have made a profound impact on my personal and professional life. It’s the reason that I believe choosing mentors that support the different areas of your different facets of your career is one of the most important professional decisions you can make. Recently, a new connection without any prior knowledge, actually asked me if I somehow knew one of my mentors because my work had pieces of him in it. At first, honestly, I was embarrassed that my work was seen as that close to his. After reflecting on it though, I thought that I couldn’t imagine connecting myself to many other people that I respected more. Eventually, I hope that there is a little of all my mentors inside my work, because I chose to model myself after these amazing people for a reason.
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