#DBCBookBlogs: From Teacher to Leader

During the summer of 2016, I received a call from my Superintendent’s office asking me to meet with him the next day. I wasn’t entirely sure what this meeting was about and to say I was nervous was an understatement. I joked with him as we walked to his office that I now knew how it felt to be called to the principal’s office.

After exchanging pleasantries, he shared a job description with me that was pretty much something out of a dream. Not only would I formally combine my love of instructional technology and reading, I would be piloting a position unlike anything in our district. I would be working with students and teachers in an effort to support our first magnet program that had opened just a couple years before, in a school that had been open for 16 years.

There were tears as I realized this would mean I would have to leave an elementary school full of students (including my own daughter), teachers, and administration that I loved like family and venture into a completely new world of middle school.

The 64th book in the Dave Burgess Consulting, Inc line of incredible books is one that I would have loved to have during this transition in my career. In the book From Teacher to Leader, author and educator Starr Sackstein takes us on a raw, unfiltered journey through her first year as a leader.

teacher2leader

From the very first chapter, I knew this book would be something special. Two quotes from page one had me fully invested in whatever Starr was ready to share from that moment on.

“Regardless of whether they stay in the classroom or go to another position, they must reimagine themselves in order to stay relevant and excited about the work they are doing.”

“From the second I decided education was my path, I never allowed good enough to be part of my story.”

Status quo, complacency, and mediocrity are some of my biggest pet peeves. I appreciate that Starr shares this same philosophy and lives it out loud immediately in her book.

Making the decision to leave the classroom was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done professionally. It was November 2013 when a media coordinator position opened in my district. Anytime a singleton position opens in a school, especially in a small district that you love, you know you have to go for it – even if it is 45 minutes from your home. So I did. Telling my students that I was leaving mid-year was devastating. I will never forget that last day of school with them. They were so proud of me for following my dreams and yet, we cried through the entire day. One student didn’t even come to school that day because he was so upset. When we returned from Christmas break, they had a new teacher and I had nearly 300 new students.

Even as I left my classroom that afternoon (nearly five hours after the students left from their early dismissal), I stood in the doorway and cried as I thought about the laughter, learning, and love shared in that room. It’s one thing to leave the classroom… I was leaving my students. I felt so selfish leaving them; I knew that if I didn’t go for it, it might be several years before another position came open. I had to do what was right for my family and me. It didn’t make it any easier to leave.

As a media coordinator, I felt the first of the feelings of isolation that Starr authentically shares with us in her book. I was a “singleton” – the only person in that position in my school. However, when I began the pilot position I mentioned above at the middle school… well, that was a whole new level of isolation. By definition, a pilot is the first. In this case, it was the first and only in a middle school. There was only one other educator in the entire state of North Carolina with the same job description (who interestingly enough was also named Alicia) and she was nearly two hours away and serving in a high school. I couldn’t share any of my frustrations with anyone at school for many reasons. I didn’t know them, there was no trust built yet, and to be honest, some of my frustrations were about one staff member or the other, or the way things had historically been done, and I certainly couldn’t air those as an instructional coach. Talk about destroying relationships before they even started! Isolated, alone, and desperately craving camaraderie and fellowship with others, I turned to Twitter.

Oh how I wish I’d had this book then! Knowing that others have felt those same feelings would have talked me off a ledge so many times. Thankfully my directors were just a phone call away. I tried building relationships that first year and planting seeds as Starr suggests. I felt like an epic failure. I couldn’t see that I was making any difference, like I was a hamster spinning in my wheel inside my big brick cage. Anytime I felt like throwing in the towel (which was about weekly), my directors would come to my rescue. I can’t tell you how many times my mentor and friend Lucas Gillispie shared the same line with me.

Play the long game. -Lucas Gillispie

Looking back on the past three years, he was right. I see the shifts that have happened at my school. While I’m not naive or prideful enough to believe it was all because of me, I am grateful to have a small part to play in those changes. I am so proud to work for the students, teachers, and community I serve and I love that I get to see many of the seeds that I sporadically threw on the ground that first year grow into some amazing experiences and terrific relationships!

Starr shares excellent advice on how to handle that first year (let’s face it… years, plural) as a leader. She shares about cultivating relationships, co-planning and co-teaching, remaining relevant, supporting teachers by meeting them where they are. The reflections from her Education Week Teacher blog “Work in Progress” are so powerful because they are truly the unfiltered version of her first year. These were her thoughts as she went through those trials and successes – reflecting and celebrating, sharing her intentions publicly.

I did quite a bit of highlighting in this book because I kept reading things that stood out to me as truth! So much of what Starr shares I can personally vouch for its effectiveness in new leadership roles. Things like showing up, modeling learning, gathering feedback, knowing adult learners, and knowing your change-makers are all vitally important in establishing yourself as a successful leader.

Starr encourages us to frequently ask ourselves if we are the type of leader we would want to work for. I love that she never asks the teachers she serves to do something she wouldn’t do herself. I fully support that and I believe teachers appreciate when leaders are willing to “do the dirty work” – I know I did as a classroom teacher. It spoke volumes to me when one of the leaders would work one-on-one with a student, or teach my class while I observed another, etc. I try to do the same for the teachers I serve.

So finally… that brings me to my implementation of From Teacher to Leader which stems from Starr’s wisdom about listening. I’ve got to be honest with you; I’m a horrible listener. My brain is always going a mile per minute and I’m so guilty of thinking about how I will respond (or even something totally off topic) while someone else is talking to me. During one of the coaching PD sessions I attended, we participated in some excellent protocols for listening.

In one, Partner A did the talking for 2 minutes while Partner B drew sketchnotes about what Partner A said. Then, for one minute, Partner B shared the sketchnote with Partner A sharing what they heard them say. Partner A then had 30 seconds to correct or extend on anything Partner B said in their restatement.

Another protocol was based solely on feelings. For three minutes, Partner A talked about something they felt strongly about while Partner B made eye contact and listening without speaking. Partner B then has 90 seconds to restate what Partner A said relaying the emotions they saw exhibited from Partner A. Finally, Partner A gives feedback about how it felt to truly be heard by Partner B. Then the roles switch.

I have to tell you that both of these were incredibly awkward. I didn’t realize how strange three minutes of eye contact with a friend would feel and how many times my mind would start to drift and I’d have to purposefully bring myself back to the conversation. It did prove to me how important active listening is and how poor I am at doing it on my own!

So my implementation is to purposefully engage in active listening with both the teachers and the students I serve. I’m not saying I’ll employ either of the protocols I just shared, but I will be more attentive and intentional about pausing the thoughts in my head and allowing what others are saying to process completely before responding. (This is going to be so tough for me… anyone else struggle as much as I do with this?)

No matter what, it’s important to remember what Starr says here! The learning happens through mistakes. Take all the learning you can from every mistake throwing perfection out the window. Leaders make mistakes, too. Being transparent in those mistakes will build more authentic relationships which leads to more successful leadership.

Man, what a book! I am loving Starr Sackstein and her vulnerabilities in sharing her story. If you’re considering making the move from the classroom, have recently made the shift, or are already in a position of leadership and are looking to grow professionally, I would definitely get From Teacher to Leader and start reading! Bet you can’t put it down!

As always, the flipgrid is available for your reflections if you choose to use it (thank you Andrea Paulakovich for allowing me to join in this brilliant idea for global collaboration on every DBC, Inc book) and I would love to connect with you on Twitter or Instagram. I definitely recommend that you connect with Starr (contact info will be updated here soon) and check out a free preview of the book here. Warning: you’ll want to purchase it! If you want more awesomeness from Starr, you can google her to find tons of podcasts, YouTube videos (including this TEDxTalk about giving up grades), and check out her other books!

2 thoughts on “#DBCBookBlogs: From Teacher to Leader

    • I totally was able to identify with your situation & can’t begin to tell you how much I appreciate your willingness to be so open and honest about the transition! There are many days that I envy the classroom teachers; I miss those strong relationships with students that a school year can build. Then I remind myself that I get not just one year, but three years with these kids and I still get to be in classrooms seeing the amazing things the teachers I serve do on a daily basis. We are truly the blessed ones to see the school from the street view and from the bird’s eye!

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