I am not a teacher

A few days ago it hit me like a 100 watt lightbulb going on.  I am not a teacher.  

Since the age of about 6 this is all I have ever seen myself being.  OK, maybe there were those few months in the late 80s that I thought I could be a lawyer.  But I didn’t.  I became a teacher.  I became a damn good teacher.

I started rough like most of us, fumbling my way through the first couple of years, learning about the difference between teacher education and really teaching.  I made mistakes, I learned, I developed, I grew. I started to mentor.

I moved to a new country and felt like I was starting learning all over again.  Everything was new, but I was a good teacher so I kept on growing, and learning, and trying new things and stopping old things and getting better. I blended what I knew and did before with this new knowledge and experience. I still made mistakes and worked from there.  I mentored some more.  I took a Master’s degree in administration.

I moved back to Canada and became a VP.  I still had a classroom, still made mistakes in both jobs, but I kept on learning about a new province, new students and their needs, new communities, new curriculum, new strategies, new best practices.  I felt like the strongest teacher I’d ever been.  I felt inspired by the leadership role that I’d added to being a teacher.

I became a principal.  I still took opportunities to get in classrooms and teach “guest units”, do projects, model, demonstrate, do my thing.  Show that I was good at my thing.  At the same time I was adapting to the role of principal, figuring out (like a new teacher) the difference between administrator education and the real job.  There were great, invigorating challenges and heartbreaks.  There were uplifting successes and frustrations.  There was still a lot of growth and still a good deal of failure.  I could see where I needed to develop skills as a leader.  I could see areas where my teachers could learn, grow and develop and I continued to learn as much as I could.

But last week it hit me.  I am not a teacher anymore.  I am a principal.  One of the roles of a principal is to be an instructional leader, and I thought for a long time that meant continuing to be a master teacher.  But it doesn’t.  It means helping others to be their best, not being the best.  Light goes on.

It’s just like a great hockey player who becomes a coach.  That player could be the best on the ice, but once they move into the coaching role, it’s not their job to be the best player on the ice anymore. Any great coach is obviously still invested in the success of the team and their players’ growth. They will get to know their players, study strategy and new techniques not only in their sport but in leadership, and coaching.  They will work hard to bring out the best in others.

So am I no less committed to learning all that I can about research into how kids learn as I was when I was a teacher.  But now I get to dig more into how adults learn, how change occurs, how to bring out the best in staff and students.  But I don’t need to KNOW it all or DO it all in a classroom.  I will support, motivate, encourage, point in the right direction, connect, provide perspective, ask questions, listen, resource, advocate, facilitate and participate.  I will ask those I work with for feedback and and listen to them so that I can keep on learning and growing.

I am not the best teacher.  But I will continue learning to be the best principal I can be.

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Reflecting with purpose

20130127-102025.jpg “Being a reflective practitioner” – what does this mean? Donald Schon developed the phrase and framework in 1980s, essentially describing a process of inquiry into one’s own actions, through identifying a situation, floating hypotheses, testing them, and evaluating results. I believe I am reflective (and this blog is one of my outlets for reflection) but sometimes I feel stuck in a soup of thinking about a situation, my thoughts turning into worry or anxiety rather than assessing a way to move forward in acting to resolve a situation.

I need to reflect because I encounter problems and situations each day that are never exactly the same as previous ones. We all have a “solutions database” of answers to problems we’ve already solved (what Schon calls the “fix-it” or single-loop learning model), but I find that I can never just input a new problem and have an answer spit out at me because each situation is as unique and variable as the human beings (including myself!) that are involved. It takes time and reflection.

But wait, I sometimes say to myself, I don’t have time to think! This article by Joseph Raelin captures the high-paced trap too common in leadership and management in many sectors, including education. Our brains are capable of 50,000 – 60,000 thoughts in a day. How do we sift through and act in a way that is aligned with goals, purpose and philosophy?

Our district leadership has always been explicit that “there are very few true emergencies in education” and our site administrators are encouraged to take time to reflect. When a crying student, angry parent, or great teacher at the end of their rope with a challenging student are standing before me, however, it’s hard to slow things down.

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I’m working on learning explicitly how to focus my reflections in order to achieve my purpose – not just to solve problems as quickly as possible, but to validate and support the importance of every person with whom I work. (This purpose came out of my reading of “Start With Why” by Simon Sinek and led to one of my earlier blog posts.) Here are a few steps to help with that process and make the most of my reflective time:

1) Reflect on one thing at a time. This is difficult for me when I get in the soup of everything that happens in a day. But pick one. It may encompass several situations (ie How am I managing conflict with colleagues?) or single incident (student, parent, teacher concern).

2) Reflect externally. Enunciating thoughts helps to clarify and sort them. Journal, blog, talk to a partner, colleague, or friend. This process helps to get rid of irrelevant data and begin to focus on the relevant parts of the issue.

3) Run your “celery test” (Sinek). Even though I wrote about this earlier in the year, I sometimes have to force myself to back right up to this point to work out the knots of a situation.

4) Act, test, evaluate, repeat. The reflective process is ongoing.