In the Shoes of a Teacher: A Real-Time DEEP dive into Empathy for a School Leader

Confession (#2 on my blog): I haven’t blogged in almost a year. Why, you might ask? When you have the blessing to have a year of reflection and decompression, you are afforded a vast opportunity–if you so choose to take it!–of digging into professional learning through reading, writing, networking, and building your PLN. This is exactly what I did during the 2013-14 school year. But one thing I have internalized in my learning and leading journey is that you consider each and every door and window opening and closing.  So when my now friend and colleague, Chip Houston, called me last August and expressed that he needed my help at my sons’ new school (Mount Vernon Presbyterian School), it didn’t take me long to jump at the chance. My experience in independent schools spans three states and four administrative roles (Director of Admission, Director of Studies, Division Head, and Head of School). Chip’s offer, and my acceptance of it, may seem odd to some, particularly those who assume that educators aspire to move “up the ladder,” never to climb “down” again. Chip’s offer: to fill in and teach 6th/5th grade math. And so the 2014-15 school year commenced, and I never looked back. I offer here some lessons that I learned (translate re-learned) throughout the year that will continue to impact my partnering with teachers and learners. Spoiler alert: I LOVED IT.

Lesson #1 Teaching is a calling, an art that is all-consuming.

When I take on a new adventure, I jump all in. Some might say I can be consumed by my work. I prefer to view it as being immersed in my play. My husband commented that I was working the same number of hours as when I was a head of school. Why yes, I did. I thought about teaching all of the time. I thought about my students all of the time. I thought about my colleagues all of the time. I thought about the impact I was having/could have all of the time. Hence, some other things took a back seat, such as blogging and tweeting. I struggled with this lack of connection when just the previous year I had worked so diligently and purposefully to establish and deepen such connections.

Oh…I loved it.

Lesson #2  Teachers are asked to do a lot of things of which they don’t necessarily see the value and purpose.

Teachers mostly wish and desire to spend time with their students. To connect. To inspire. To love. To grow. But there are so many pulls on their time– from faculty meetings to lesson and unit plans to professional portfolios to carpool to you name it.  I am not suggesting in any way that any of these things are unnecessary or trivial. Indeed, my years as an administrator allowed me the opportunity to share with colleagues why we were asked to do such things. Still, I wonder what would happen if teachers had a better understanding of the whys behind the administrative asks. Do the administrators have a good understanding of them?

By the way, I loved it.

Lesson #3  Teachers can knowingly and unknowingly isolate themselves from their colleagues and community.

I spent too much time in my classroom by myself, and I am a people-person who thrives on connection and relationships. Still, the pressure I placed on myself to give my students what they needed and deserved drove me to hunker down and “get ‘er done” in my classroom. I had hoped to partner a bit more with colleagues in interdisciplinary work, and although we are able to accomplish some of this, I should have done more. Yet, I felt a constant responsibility to get my students where they needed to be in my own area. I should have committed more to finding the connections throughout the students’ experience and beyond my content area.

Once more, I loved it.

Lesson #4  The feeling of trying something new is simultaneously exhilarating and worrisome.

I truly saw this foray back into the classroom as an opportunity to try some new things– some of which I have encouraged my teachers in years past to attempt. Every teacher should be trying new things, conducting action research in their craft and particularly in those areas of passion and high interest. I feel very successful in the trying of it and failing up. I believe the actual experience for my students was enhanced. At the same time, I also fumbled with worry pulling me away from my walks out of my comfort zone. Will my students get what they deserve? Am I giving them my best?

Which brings me in a roundabout way back to… I loved it.

Lesson #5  Every school leader needs to systemically return to the classroom in some fashion.

What better way to truly understand what our teachers experience and gain empathy for their journey? What lessons would we learn that should inform our work and play with our greatest asset, truly the life blood of any learning environment? What better way for us to remind ourselves why we do what we do? What a blessing to remember– I loved it!

There are undoubtedly many other lessons that I will be reminded of in my continued collaboration with teachers, especially as I shift back into an administrative leadership role this year. I conclude with some questions that deserve ongoing reflection and dialogue, and I encourage you to add your questions and thoughts as well.

  • How Might We foster the artist in a teacher who needs to be immersed in her craft, while at the same time, fill her bucket so that her energy and passion are not depleted?
  • How Might We build and reinforce a culture that values a growth mindset and collective experience yet understands the individual pull of responsibility and service to students?
  • How Might We better communicate and share the purpose and why behind all of the other components of a teacher’s life beyond what she loves the most?
  • How Might We not be fooled by the idea of “there is not enough time in the day” yet understand the underlying assumptions behind this sentiment?

3 thoughts on “In the Shoes of a Teacher: A Real-Time DEEP dive into Empathy for a School Leader

  1. Pingback: #MustRead Shares (weekly) | it's about learning

  2. Angel, I cannot tell you how much I enjoyed coming across this blog of yours from last summer! You are an eloquent writer, and I appreciate your honesty with the challenges of teaching. Every point spoke to me! I love that you were able to revisit a classroom after having previously spent so many years in a variety of administrative roles. Thank you for sharing your experiences! Has this past year allowed you to reflect on some of the “How Might We” questions that you proposed a year ago? I would be anxious to hear your thoughts!

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