As a leader, what are my non-negotiables? The foremost non-negotiable for me is putting students first. Every single decision needs to begin with what is best for students. After all, that is why schools exist- to educate students. So before we make a decision based on convenience, time-savings, or cost-effectiveness, let's just make sure that students are at the center of that decision, regardless of how convenient, time-saving, or cost-effective that decision is. As an organization we must remember why we exist and who we serve. I'm not completely naive, and I know that many times it will be the budget or the politics that will define my decision-making parameters. But what I can commit to is that within the parameters I am given, I will have students at the heart of decisions. Honesty is another non-negotiable for me. The truth is the only thing that matters. Tell it to me (and everyone else) straight, so that no matter how big the problem, we know what we are truly dealing with from the get-go. Problems are navigated much more easily when all of the truths are on the table from the beginning. Plus, I need to know that I can trust people. Trust is like a first impression- it's hard to get a second chance- it's just human nature. Another non-negotiable is Respect. I will give it and I expect it for all people. People may differ in opinion, and that is ok. In fact, a difference of opinion can lead to some interesting, healthy, and productive discussions. No matter the difference of opinion, respect must still be present. Respect allows people to exchange ideas with trust and reverence. Respect isn't always easy to give freely, and I, myself, have struggled with feeling like I "have to" respect a person of authority (in title) over me when I didn't really feel it for various reasons. As I examine that, I see that my resistance had nothing to do with respect, for respect does require that holistic deference, but it had to do with my having a major difference of opinion. In the examples I am thinking of, I can see now that I saw that experience as me having a lack of respect for a person, mostly because of my own laziness and quickness to judge. I think everyone deserves respect, and I know respect is tricky. Sometimes I find that there is something about a person that I really dislike. Maybe it's a habit. Maybe it's an attitude. Regardless, if I consciously sit with it and examine it, I don't really have a full disrespect for the person. The person has a quality that annoys me. But that person still deserves to be treated well by me, and still deserves to be heard. Leadership is not easy. There is a lot to maneuver. A lot to handle. I think, though, that articulating one's non-negotiables is a fantastic way to begin to see one's path.
I am rarely stumped when it comes to writing, but this post is a tough one for me, and it is difficult to articulate why. I have been asked to describe my leadership style, and I'm not sure where to begin. Of the four initial types offered, I am definitely Democratic, and occasionally Maternalistic (what can I say? I'm a Mom!). On the next level I can definitely identify myself as a servant leader. As I sat here staring at my blank page for a rather long time, I started thinking of how I came to have the type of leadership style that I have. Was it as a child, trying to find my place within my family structure? Was it on the playground? Was it in my AP classes in high school? Was it when I became a teacher? Was it upon becoming a mother and establishing my own family environment? The answer is... YES... to all of these scenarios. My life experiences thus far- all of them- have led me to be who I am as a leader.
So if I don't overthink it too much, my leadership style looks something like this: The bottom line is that everything I believe about students (as a teacher) is everything I believe about teachers (as an educational leader). I believe every individual brings something to the table. The important thing is to find out where every person's strengths lie, and play to each person's strengths Meet them where they are. It is rare to find someone who is good at EVERYTHING- so I want to celebrate every good thing evident within the people in my sphere. I am empathetic and feel that everyone deserves and needs to feel heard. I might not be able to make everyone completely happy or attend to all of their wishes, but they deserve to be able to speak what is important to them, and know that I hear and value them and their opinion. I feel that it is important to see people as whole people- not as "someone who can do this service for me" or "someone who can make this connection for me." Remaining genuinely curious about the lives of people within my sphere is important to me. I want a sense of family in any organization that I lead. I believe it is also important to place value on the whole humanness of a person. Teachers are not just teachers- but are also sons, daughters, parents, friends, spouses, lovers, poets, musicians, athletes, knitters, gamers, gardeners... my point is that it is the whole person who engages with students in the classroom everyday, and we never know which aspect of a teacher (person) a student is going to connect with and relate to. Those connections between teacher and student are important, as that is what allows learning in. The more I know about my teachers, the more my life is going to be enriched, and the more our school will be enriched. Although I most value the present moment, I believe it is important to understand where we have come from, where we are now, and where we are going as an organization. As a person, I am always interested in pursuing personal growth, and I would expect nothing less from our organization. As a leader I always want to see what we can grow in, what we can do better, how we can modernize. After all, our "customers" (students) will always be changing and adapting to our ever-changing world, so to remain relevant, we must also adapt, change, and grow.
This has been a tough assignment- to examine myself as a potential leader- but my principal, Erin English, shared something with me today that helped me, and I think is important. She basically said that as tough as it is to examine ourselves and identify those things, it is important so that we know ourselves, and we can know ourselves well enough to trust ourselves when we have to make tough decisions as leaders. That feels like wisdom to me - authentic wisdom. Thanks Dr. English.
I have been in education for 17 years. I enjoyed a full school year of student teaching at A.B. Miller High School in Fontana, Ca., where I was placed with 10 other student teachers, and our advisor from UC Riverside would meet with us on the high school campus twice per week. That was a powerful year for me, which helped me to establish my teaching style. Upon graduation I was offered a position at A.B. Miller, but opted to accept a position closer to home in Corona, CA at Santiago High School. There I taught English and Honors English, as well as Journalism, which led to me stepping in as advisor for the school newspaper. At Santiago I was also an assistant track and cross country coach, which was something I was passionate about. I taught there for three years, and still remain in touch with several of my former students and athletes from those first years of teaching. In fact, five of them attended my wedding :)
My husband and I moved to Yucaipa, and I was hired at Moore Middle School in Redlands Unified School District to teach seventh and eighth grade English and Honors English. I was advisor to the running club and a club for girls called Dream Weavers. I taught there for three years.
We moved again after our first son was born, to San Diego County, which is where we always aspired to settle down. I was hired at Vista High School and taught ELD 2 and ELD 4 there for six years. I had never taught ELD before, but quickly found that it was my niche. Many of my students were at risk students, and I worked really well with them. That position challenged me in many ways, but I loved my work and my students. While at Vista High I established the Creative Writing Club and collaborated with another teacher to create and publish a literary arts magazine, titled Collected, of student writing and artwork. While at Vista High I was the social committee chair and a member of the Marzano committee, which looked at current educational research and worked to implement change on the Vista High Campus. I was also an advisor for Safe School Ambassadors and participated in Breaking Down The Walls.
From there I accepted a position at Palomar High School in Vista Unified, and stayed there for four or five years until the district closed down that school and I became founding faculty at Vista Visions Academy, where I am currently teaching English 9, English 10, English 11, Creative Writing, and am a student advisor. I am our school's WASC coordinator as well. The past few years I have begun to present sessions on educational technology at our district professional development days. Just last month I accepted a position with Vista Unified to work as a Blended and Online Learning Resource Teacher (first time this position has ever existed in our school district), and since I expressed an interest in still remaining working with students part of the time, they offered me the resource teacher position 50% and allowed me to remain as a teacher at Vista Visions 50%. They hired my partner Vicki to do the same thing, so we share those contracts.
All of this has made up my 17 year journey in education so far. I wonder where the path will take me next?
I recently came across this photo of little me in a box of photos that had belonged to my grandmother. I had never seen this picture before, and as I looked at it, first, I smiled, and then I had the thought that all people, particularly young people, should have a photo of themselves at this age, wearing exactly this t-shirt. I thought of so many students I am working with now or I have worked with in the past, and what a powerful reminder a photo like this would be for those students struggling with any aspect of Life. "I'm Lovable." I know some young people as well as some adults who would be stopped in their tracks and turned toward the light if they could thoroughly internalize that realization that they are lovable.
I believe every child, every person is lovable and needs love, compassion, guidance and opportunity to fully realize and grow into their potential to live a rich life and contribute positively to our world. As an educator, what never fails me in learning to understand each of my students in order to know how to best work with them, is to know their story. The reason I go to the story behind each of my students is because I know I have my own story, and I know that my story- the events that have made up my life and the personal growth and learning that occurred as a result of those events, is the lifeblood and passion that runs through me today. My story is what shaped me to be the mother and educator I am today, and it starts like this:
I was born in 1974 to young parents in Manassas, Virginia. My parents were both raised on the east coast, and all of our family lived there. After several moves that included Rhode Island, Massachusetts and upstate New York, where my younger brother was born, my parents decided to drive us across country to live in California. I was four years old. In California, away from family, we created a new family network in many friends. I remember living in Long Beach, California, on Market Street, a long, busy street lined with duplexes, and it is there that I remember the happiest years of my young life. The families that made up our new family network were warm, amazing people, and being that it was the 1970's, these young parents did a lot of partying. As a child, I remember always an air of happiness: always music and happy people around. Block parties, barbecues, pool parties, kids, adults... good times. Of course I know now that I saw those years through the eyes of a child, and my parents would probably tell me today that even during those happy times that I perceived, there were challenges for them.
Age 7 we moved away from that scene as my parents purchased their first home in Rowland Heights, California. Things took quite a turn at age 9 when my parents divorced, my mother moved out, and I lived with my very distraught father. I soon learned that my mother had a chemical dependency that would prevent her, for several years, from being the mother I now know her to be. Ages 9 through 12 were tough years for me as I tried to endure what unfolded in my parents' lives. My father's grief over his divorce and changes in his life became too overwhelming for me as a 9 year-old, and I asked to move in with my mother. Looking back, I marvel at my ability to know when I couldn't handle any more, emotionally, and was able to articulate that to my father at that age. I really went from bad to worse as I moved into a situation with my mother, where substances were in control of her life, and I was witness to many things and experienced many emotions that are not comforting or stabilizing to a child. There were many times when I felt alone and scared. I do believe that there is a natural resiliency in most children, and somehow there rose up in me a protective instinct concerning my mother, my own well-being, and that of my brother. It is difficult to remember and express the emotions and unsafe feelings that surround those years of my life, but because I endured them and came through them, I know other people can. Those experiences in my life have truly shaped me, and I now know that many times good things can come out of tough experiences in our lives.
My mother sought out and received the help she needed (incidentally, with the help of my father, and I am so happy to be able to write that today my parents are friends), and from the time I was 13, she turned her life around and worked hard, inside and out, to create the authentic life she was really meant to have. She put herself through college in her 30's, earning her bachelor's degree, then law school where she earned her JD, then two master's degrees, and now her Ph.D. She is a professor at a university, a writer, my favorite poet, and a grandmother of six grandchildren. She now lives Life so big, so deeply, and so passionately... she is completely contagious in her pursuance of fun and meaningful life experiences. As her daughter, watching her change her life so dramatically was something fantastically inspirational that I internalized. I felt her growth change me as well. So not only does my story shape me, but so does the story of my mother. I have watched her, since the time I was 13, model that it is never too late to create the life you want, and you never have to resign yourself to your circumstances, even if the circumstances are of your own creating. Her lessons became my lessons. Following her lead, I put myself through college... and my story goes on from there.
But the most important lesson for me is that every person's story is personally powerful, and as an educator, the most surefire way to reach and educate students is to know what makes them tick, to know where they come from, and to help them remember that they are lovable and that they matter.
NOTE: No parents were harmed in the writing of this blog post ;-) Due to the intensely personal nature of this writing I sent it to my mother and asked how she felt about me posting this on my blog. I told her that I could write about something else if it made her uncomfortable. Not only did she give me her blessing, but she wrote a really sweet reply posted below.