“Leadership is accepting the responsibility to create conditions that enable others to achieve shared purpose in the face of uncertainty.”
– Marshall Ganz.
There are lots of words that we use to describe public school educators in our society.
Those who malign us in order to justify taking resources from our students and the privatization of our schools call us “lazy,” “greedy,” and “incompetent.” Those who understand what we do and want to offer respect call us “superheroes,” or correctly acknowledge that we assume the roles of parents, mentors, and protectors every day, on top of our assigned duties. Very few, however, call us what we actually are – leaders.
Leaders accept responsibility, for themselves and others. This is no small feat in a culture that rewards ego, quick fixes, and finger pointing. Educators don’t have the luxury of these choices. We have to solve problems.
When our students come to us hungry, it doesn’t matter that we had a different plan for the day; we attend to their hunger first. Our job may require us to drive students back and forth from school, but when we spot a bully, we have no option but to intervene, keep some of our students safe, and help others fill the holes in their souls that bullying fills. We may be an Instructional Assistant, but we consistently step in to support academically struggling students with every bit of expertise and energy that we possess. We take up the weight of responsibility all day, and we bring it home long after the last bell.
We don’t do any of this for ourselves. Our task, as we understand it, is to create the conditions that allow our students to reach their fullest potential, individually and collectively.
We coach the young people we work with to set goals, make plans to achieve them, and follow through. When things go wrong, or they treat each other poorly, we put measures in place to help them bounce back and practice forgiveness, empathy, and accountability. We build community. We create cultures of collaboration and teamwork in our classrooms, buildings, buses, and fields. The shared purpose we are working toward – a healthy society filled with self-actualized humans who can collectively solve problems and act from a place of love with respect to one another – is a daily collective practice. We do all of this for all of us. Together.
We create these conditions in the midst of a society filled with uncertainty. The last four decades have witnessed unrelenting assaults on our students’ communities in the form of budget cuts to social welfare programs, the disappearance of affordable housing, and mass incarceration, to name a few. Racism has changed its language and form, but not its impact. Climate change threatens the future in unprecedented ways. Now, as one of the few remaining institutions on the front lines of the fight to end racism and poverty, public schools are in a struggle for our very existence, as those who wish to eliminate our schools use our “failures” to promote privatization masked as choice. We feel these uncertainties every day.
In the face of these kinds of pressures, the easiest paths offered to most people are giving up, embracing cynicism and finger pointing, or narrowing our influence to increasingly small areas that we feel we can control. Those choices all make a great deal of sense, but none of them are the choices of leaders. None of them will work for our community’s young people.
As the new school year begins, please consider this simple reality: leadership is hard. It is hard on the veterans who have borne its weight year after year and continue to step back into the fray. It is hard on the newer educators, committing to the task daily while learning most of the skills on the job. None of us has the resources that we need and our students deserve. There are times when we’ll come up short; there are times when we will shine. We will need you, our community, to show up for us and with us amidst both.
This is an important year for Durham’s public schools. District leadership transitions, a new budget process, and the election of four out of seven seats on the school board will all bring deep questions about the future of our schools and our community to the surface. Durham’s educators will continue to lead through these uncertainties, and we will continue to put our students at the center. Please join us, support us, and help us lead our community’s young people every day.
Bryan Proffitt is an 11-year veteran high school history teacher and the current president of the Durham Association of Educators. He can be reached at www.daenc.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.